Look for the helpers—you’ll find the artists

Purple fabric, template, pins and instructions for making masks

While the strategy to combat COVID-19 changes on a minute-to-minute basis, one recommendation has continued to gain traction as the pandemic unfolds: wearing masks can help protect essential workers from the virus, and even help prevent infection among the general public in places like grocery stores. But getting a mask to all citizens—even just essential workers who consistently have contact with others in their communities—is a massive undertaking.

And that is where the artists are coming in.

A collective of skilled artists and makers, known as the Richmond Arts and Cultural Workers Coalition, is banding together to produce protective face masks for medical staff at VCU Health; home and public health care workers; bus drivers; and other essential workers.

The coalition is supported by Studio Two Three and 1708 Gallery, in collaboration with VCUarts and with funding from the VCU da Vinci Center. Jon-Phillip Sheridan, one of the coalition’s organizers and assistant chair in the Department of Photography + Film, says they’ve already received large requests from Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, the Richmond City Health District, and Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center.

The work started at Studio Two Three, where staff organized a safe schedule for volunteers, and provided sanitized workstations and protective equipment for makers. The nonprofit studio, along with 1708 Gallery, also put out a call for donations of sanitizing wipes, gloves, hand sanitizer, and funds to support the coalition’s efforts.

“Richmond’s creative community is well suited to serve our frontline workers in moments of crisis,” says Kate Fowler (BFA ’13), Director of Development at Studio Two Three. “We’re accustomed to figuring things out with our hands, making objects in large quantities and making do with less than we need. Our local arts community is supportive and we share many of the same volunteers, staff, teaching artists and hopes for Richmond. This effort is a natural extension of the relationships we’ve been building with each other for a long time.” 

Studio Two Three started with a donation of 500 yards of medical-grade fabric from u-fab, an area fabric and furniture store, which can produce approximately 5,000 durable, reusable and washable masks. Right now, they have two teams of five to seven volunteers who work in two-hour shifts and make about 100 masks per day. At full capacity, Fowler says, they should reach 150 to 200 masks per day—but with more supplies and volunteers, they’ll keep expanding.

“We are hoping to go as big as we possibly can,” she says. “We recognize that each mask we make represents an individual who is currently working without the protection they need.”

Faculty and students from the VCUarts Department of Fashion Design + Merchandising are adding to the local mask count, although with a focus on medical providers. Chair Patricia Brown has coordinated with Muzi Branch, director of cultural programs at VCU Health, to make washable fabric masks that can be worn with N95 masks. Branch brings kits with fabric rectangles and ties, instructions, and a pattern, which Brown distributes to faculty and students. They return the completed masks to Brown, where Branch picks them up.

The coalition is also bringing other local artist organizations and businesses together to share resources and expertise. The Visual Arts Center of Richmond recently joined their efforts, allowing the coalition to engage a larger segment of the arts community in mask production.

In another partnership, fashion students are working with local denim company Shockoe Atelier, which received a contract to produce 20,000 masks for VCU Health. Owner Anthony Lupesco already had the facilities and equipment to cut 4,000 masks a day, but only had enough staff to sew about 600 per day. Cate Latham (BFA ’10), an instructor in the Department of Fashion and owner of Van Herten Outerwear, thought fashion students could help fill in-house production needs.

Latham has also been working with the VCU School of Pharmacy to design and prototype an all-in-one PPE gown made from .7 mil plastic.

“I feel more connected with people, but in a different way,” Latham says. “I’m collaborating and brainstorming with new people I would have normally never met. It’s encouraging how people have banded together so quickly, and without question, to combat this problem. Hopefully with so many people in the community making an effort, we can help alleviate a lot of the strain the medical professionals are experiencing during this pandemic.”

Latham’s PPE gown prototype is one of several exploratory projects bridging VCU’s two campuses, many of which are coordinated by Communication Arts professor Sterling Hundley. Hundley is also an artist-in-residence in VCU’s Department of Surgery. Before COVID-19, he had been exploring 3D printing for prosthetics and other medical devices; more recently, the Department of Surgery approached him about printing respirators and N95 masks. Hundley thought there might be more efficient possibilities, such as printing molds and establishing a manufacturing process.

That’s where Hundley also saw an opportunity to coalesce teams from VCUarts, the College of Engineering, the Department of Chemistry, VCU Libraries and the da Vinci Center—along with community makers—and establish a coordinated effort with VCU Health. While he says VCU Health would first seek to use their current inventory and traditional suppliers, this team is building a supply chain that could fill gaps, should the need outpace their resources.

“Our local community has individual printers, the technology software, and the expertise,” Hundley says. “What they are looking for from the university is a system where they can prototype and we can test and get them a validation, hopefully with some type of credential, letter of intent, or purchase order. This gives [community partners] the authority to act as good Samaritans and put things into place.”

“My role has developed into what I call a creative investigator; I seek opportunities to interject innovation and technology to facilitate efficiency and best practices. All of this was in play when the stars fell out of alignment perfectly—and it’s just a need right now.”

As Richmond’s makers, designers and creatives come together to solve a critical community need, Sheridan says the coalition is proof that artists have skillsets that are uniquely attuned to responding to crises.

“This is the foundation of my teaching theory,” Sheridan says. “Artists are fundamentally makers and flexible creative problem solvers. Learning to make art is learning to create solutions with limited resources. We are exceptional at teaching ourselves new skills, and learning to use new materials. [We also know how to] activate social economies: if I don’t know how to do something, I have a network of artist friends who can teach me how, or who will do it for me.”