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Panthers bare their souls: Giving the gift of art during coronavirus times

Artists and poets, singers and musicians. These are the searching souls, always seeking to capture an emotion, a moment – the heart of humanity itself.

These folks know a secret: Art heals. It’s that simple. In this era of self-isolation, fear and anxiety, many people around the globe are tapping into that power.

Music has become a connecting force among communities singing from their balconies at nights or serenading first responders out of gratitude. Painting and drawing have become for many a form of releasing stress and channeling creativity, creating something right from their homes. And poetry has become a soothing song to pour on a page in the quiet of a room.

With the mission to spread a little hope – and the allure of building a virtual community of creative minds – the Panther family has been digging deep into its artistic soul and sharing art to keep the FIU and the South Florida community entertained and uplifted throughout these coronavirus times.

Living life to the fullest

Exhilarating. That’s how Jordana Pomeroy, director of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum FIU, describes the experience of art.

“Art is an opportunity to lose yourself and engage viscerally in a way that takes your breath away,” she explains. “For me, going to a wonderful exhibition is kind of like extreme sports. It’s the same sort of thrill. It’s the same kind of adrenaline rush. It’s not just cerebral where you’re learning about the artist and memorizing the dates. It’s about connecting with someone, making them feel that rush.”

To keep art alive – and help people feel that rush of connection with humanity during social distancing – the Frost Art FIU is featuring virtual exhibitions online and showcasing its digital art collection on its website. The museum is also sharing social media content every week, discussing tips for parents to engage children in arts projects as well as providing meditative moments on pieces of art in the museum’s collection.

 

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Check out the virtual exhibition of “Cut: Abstraction in the United States from 1970s to the Present”

 

The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU (JMOF) is also featuring virtual exhibits (including one for its sparkling display of Judith Leiber’s purse designs), curated tours via Zoom and a steady stream of social media content sharing art and inspiration. Likewise, the Wolfsonian-FIU is helping the Panther community stay connected to art through digital experiences and videos of various previous exhibits and projects, including “The Art of Illumination” and “Promising Paradise.”

“We have always been a cultural hub for the community, where people could find refuge, education and inspiration,” says Susan Gladstone, director of the JMOF. “During this very difficult time in the world, keeping that sense of community is more important than ever.”

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Check out the virtual exhibition of the “Judith Leiber: Master Craftsman,” featuring the artist’s finely crafted purses. 

 

We know that art is a soothing force, says David Chang, renowned artist and chair of the Art + Art History Department. “Throughout history, art has always functioned as a healing element. So has music. Any art. Literature, storytelling.”

He says the visual arts have played a particularly crucial role in telling stories, though, especially in places and throughout eras when not everyone could read.

While studying in Paris as a young painter years ago, Chang was captivated when he experienced the Notre-Dame Cathedral’s art and learned its history. “Notre-Dame was special because it had this beautiful stained glass,” he says. “In medieval times, [stained glass] was invented because it’s visual literature. The whole Bible is in every window pane. People could look at the window, and know the story of the Bible. Visual arts was a communicative tool.”

And it continues to be one today.

In good company

Art is personal. But it’s also communal. That’s why museums, movie theatres, concerts and other community arts venues exist.

When self-distancing and quarantine began in Miami, Deborah Plutzik Briggs, vice president of arts and community at the Betsy-South Beach Hotel and a longtime FIU supporter, reached out to John Stuart, director of FIU’s Miami Beach Urban Studios (MBUS). The two hashed out a plan to create a sanctuary – a virtual sanctuary.

After years of partnership, MBUS and the Betsy Hotel, combined forces once again to create a series of virtual community gatherings where people could experience the Zen of the arts, together. The events featured global architect and MBUS advisory board member Chad Oppenheim; talented FIU cellist Jason Calloway; award-winning FIU poet Campbell McGrath; and renown photographer Robert Zuckerman.

“With our series, the guest speaker was somebody you knew was talking live,” Stuart says. “You saw how many other people were on the call. This is part of that Zen. If it comforts you to be with other people, this is for you. This is a safe space. It’s a place where we hope you feel a little bit renewed, where it can help give you a little more resilience in your emotional landscape for whatever comes.”

The series has proven to smash event attendance records through the roof, doubling the average number of folks who usually attend in-person events hosted collaboratively by MBUS and the Betsy Hotel. One of the managers at the Department of Cultural Affairs – City of Miami Beach, Stuart adds, even congratulated the team on the project’s being the first comprehensive online program known to come out of Miami Beach in late March.

The team is eager to continue these kinds of events, and have already organized a second series of virtual events featuring women poets in collaboration with Supporting Women Writers in Miami (creative writing alumna Caridad Moro-Gronlier is an associate editor at the organization.) The series will begin on April 27 and can be accessed via Zoom or Facebook live.

“Art is the thing that civilizations are remembered by,” says Briggs, who is also an MBUS advisory board member. “People are reaching out to us because they want to be involved or have an idea for a series. We want to continue to do something we think is very special.”

The sound of music

Making music together – virtually or from neighboring back yards – is another form of art that allows us to feel like we’re part of something larger than ourselves.

“That sound, that instrument, connects you to something and makes you feel grounded,” says Karen Fuller, interim director of the School of Music. “It makes you ‘feel’— even if it’s just for a moment, but that moment really has a healing power, a mental and emotional kind of healing power. You might come back to reality after, but you are able to face that reality differently.”

To help provide comfort through song, the school is sharing previously recorded concerts every Saturday through April and both students and professors have begun posting individual performances on social media.

Faculty member Federico Bonacossa, for example, shared his rendition of a famous Sardinian song titled “No potho reposare” (I cannot rest) on Facebook a few weeks ago, dedicating the performance to his parents and his hometown in the Italian island of Sardinia.

“The tune just came to me,” Bonacossa recalls. “I’m not very good with words, but I felt like I had to say something to my parents and those at home. I had to record this song.”

Students like Vanessa Gentzschein have also taken to social media to share an uplifting song. Gentzschein graced the FIU community with her interpretation of “Smile” – and even her dog in the background added some flare to the song’s finale.

“Smile  is one of my favorite songs,” Gentzschein says. “I’ve always loved that song. That’s a go-to song for me when I’m feeling down, just because of the lyrics and the song. It’s sweet and simple. The message it conveys is to keep your head up even if things are bad. I just thought it really fit [to share on social media].”

She adds that musicians sharing their performances online is a crucial way to help spread hope. “I think it’s important as musicians, we always want to share our talent. We want to spread a positive message, specially now. Music is more than just about performing in a building. We can be musicians anywhere. We don’t need to be in a concert hall or in front of an audience to share our gift or the message of positivity that we as artists set out to share.”

Gentzschein performing “Smile”

Serving through art

You may have heard the maxim that claims poets are prophets. The idea that creative minds act as visionaries commenting on society and recording history is deeply rooted in our culture.

And these things may be true. But, Phillip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing Campbell McGrath says, the role of the artist is much simpler – and yet more profound – than that.

“Art is therapeutic,” he says. “Humans are very good at doing destructive things, having wars and conflicts. Art is the opposite of war. Let’s just create a thing. None of us are going to be Shakespeare. It’s just to create anything, to create art is good. It’s bringing something to the universe of a positive value, and I think nothing could feel more therapeutic than that.”

That’s why, he says, now is the best time to engage in creating art. Even if you don’t consider yourself a poet or a painter or a singer, share something beautiful with the world or create it just for yourself.

At its deepest level, adds Pomeroy, the Frost Museum FIU’s director, art is about giving something, sharing something. In fact, bringing art to the FIU community – whether in-person or remotely – is an essential service of the university, she says.

“Art is not a luxury,” she explains. “Everybody is wired for some sort of creativity. Whether it’s music, visual art, dance, everybody has it. When we express it, we express being human. It’s this urge, like breathing: To make sound, to make markings on the walls….To make art.”

To celebrate the tranquility that art can bring during these times, FIU alumni trained by Chang in his Academy of Portrait and Figurative Art, have shared their art, born of serenity and passion, with FIU Magazine in the hopes of inspiring our readers to pick up their paint brushes and engage in art, or to simply look at these paintings and let the landscape call us into its story. Alumna Lucia Morales’ “Siena Landscape” at the top of the page is just one of these works. Tune into FIU News this week to check out more paintings of peace and other similar artwork. 

And to learn more about McGrath’s reflections on poetry and get his expert tips on writing poems during the pandemic, check FIU News for the third story in this art series. 

The programs mentioned above are just a few of the intiatives helping bring art to Panthers and the local community. Check out the FIU virtual events calendar to learn about more arts events happening remotely. 

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