The physical separation became an opportunity rather than an obstacle for the Seabrook Island artist Deane Bowers.
Amid the COVID-19 quarantine, while it was teeming with emotion, Bowers began looking for ways to explore and express it creatively.
As her own artwork blossomed from the bombardment of unexpected inspirations, she had a growing desire to collaborate in some way with other artists, even though she could not do so personally.
She longed for community and began to come up with an idea.
Bowers, who uses recycled and recycled materials for much of her multi-dimensional artwork, began searching her home for art supplies that she could reuse on a group project.
When she tried to open her basement door, she was faced with a pile of shipping boxes from online purchases. Then the sparks flew.
“It was like the universe literally threw a box in my way and I thought, okay, there is your answer,” said Bowers.
She began cutting boxes into 6 by 6 inch squares in hopes of finding willing participants to send them to use as canvases.
The goal was to assemble the resulting works of art into a kind of patchwork quilt made of cardboard.
She called the idea the Together While Apart Art Project, and the finished piece is currently being considered by the for permanent exhibition Medical University of South Carolina and University of South Carolina McKissick Museum.
“I knew from my own journey as an artist that by processing these events in our world, my creativity would help me channel them and I would begin to heal myself and find hope,” said Bowers. “I had a feeling that that would be the case with other people.”
Bowers reached out to every platform she had access to, including her social media pages and during a podcast interview with a Los Angeles-based artist she knew. She wanted to find participants in and out of the Lowcountry.
“I really wanted to find a community of people who wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves,” said Bowers.
From late July to early October, it attracted the interest of more than 30 artists across the country, then reduced to 19 from eight different states as some dropped out while others made engagements.
Bowers sent two or three pieces of a box to each, telling them to think outside the box.
“I wanted them to process whatever they were feeling, positive or negative, and I told them to translate that into art,” Bowers said.
In the meantime, she got to know the artists who were interested in the project.
She learned that while in Cleveland, Amy Lauria shared a love for coastal art made from her collection of stones, driftwood, and beach glass from the shores of Lake Erie.
Discovering Statesville, NC, participant Cynthia Webb was primarily a jeweler, not a painter, but nonetheless ready to give the project a whirl.
She checked out Californian contestants Nikki Contini and Rebecca Potts during the forest fires.
Everyone started chatting on social media, expressing their needs during the pandemic, and also offering support and words of encouragement.
Then Bowers connected snail mail friends and sent everyone in the group a prepaid envelope every two weeks that they could fill out with anything they wanted to send to their chosen partner.
Amid widespread loss of life, Bowers saw before her eyes a story of new friendships born in spite of everything.
“We have really become a socially distant community connected through this project,” said Bowers. “We all took refuge at home and in the same pandemic boat, but we comforted each other because we knew we were not alone in it.”
The last completed squares arrived at Seabrook Island in January.
“As I spread out all of the squares on my studio table, I saw that everyone had channeled their grief, loneliness, sadness, fear into something positive,” Bowers said. “The synergy was wild.”
Frankie Slaughter’s abstract acrylic and Celie Gehrig’s colorful flowers were glowing and childlike splashes of wonder amidst the chaos.
Rachel McLaughlin’s piece “No Mud, No Lotus” (Thich Nhat Hanh) summarized perhaps most succinctly the juxtaposition of positive and negative emotions caused by COVID-19.
“It’s a reminder that happiness always comes with struggle and suffering,” she wrote. “One cannot exist without the other.”
Charleston contestant Cathy Kleiman painted angels in the hope that everyone would have a COVID-19 protector to watch over them. But these angels also represented guards who watched over the Black Lives Matter protesters as they marched for justice.
“I wanted to express that every black, brown, white person – regardless of race, belief, skin color or sexual orientation – needs guardian angels who watch over them for unity, peace, love, justice, mercy and understanding at this time” said Kleiman.
After Bowers assembled the individual squares into a finished piece, she began selling it as a traveling exhibition to various galleries, museums, and hospitals across the country.
The first to present it will be the University of Alabama at the Birmingham Institute for Arts in Medicine.
“Part of our mission is to improve the healing environment, and we believe this piece will do just that,” said program coordinator Lauren Edwards.
The Together While Apart Art Project will be in Alabama through December and then travel to the Hickory Museum of Art in North Carolina for six months before arriving at the Medical College of Virginia.
It could end in Charleston, an idea supported by the South Carolina Arts Commission. Community Arts Development Director Susan DuPlessis emphasized the importance of such considerations in times of need.
“What strikes me most is the idea that community could be created in 6 by 6 inch squares,” said DuPlessis. “It took an artist with a vision to say why not? And she got involved. Now their idea and the creative work of a number of artists who don’t know each other are put together – literally and figuratively. “
Bowers said she wouldn’t mind the project traveling a little longer and heading to the west coast before settling down.
She hopes it will convey a message of hope along with a powerful revelation that she did not expect during the pandemic: you can find and plant your own community even if you cannot see them face to face.
“Together, even when we’re apart, we’re better,” she said.