Costume has long been used as a form of expression and communication. A series that could only be made in the time of Covid-19, Tina Gutierrez’s project titled Covid-19, Coronavirus Wearable Art Response Project allows participants to share their feelings toward the pandemic through clothing, costume, or other wearable art.
Kennedy Heights Arts Center (KHAC) will present a solo exhibition of photographs by Cincinnati photographer Tina Gutierrez titled Covid-19, Coronavirus Wearable Art Response Project. The exhibition will run from May 7 to July 2, 2022 with a free Opening Reception on Saturday, May 7th, 5–8pm . Featuring over 120 portraits taken over the last two years, this will be the first time images of all of the participants will be on display. As costume has long been used as a form of expression and communication, participants were prompted to “respond with clothing, costume, or other wearable art to express how they felt about the coronavirus, quarantine, and social distancing.”
The start of the pandemic was a challenging time for so many. Quarantine led to isolation and the lack of social opportunities led to loneliness for some. On her website, Gutierrez said, “For me this work is about embracing rather than resisting sadness, loss, and discomfort using the creative process. Wearable art allows these emotions to be expressed in a non-verbal yet extremely powerful visual language.” This exhibition serves as a celebration of human resilience.
FotoFocus met up with Gutierrez on the porch of the Kennedy Heights Arts Center to discuss her upcoming show and the inspiration behind the project (the interview has been edited for clarity):
FotoFocus: At what point during the pandemic did this project become a reality? How were you feeling and what, ultimately, influenced your decision to start this project?
Tina Gutierrez: It was about a week into quarantine and I thought about how much relief I get when I go to costume parties—the idea that costumes can allow you to be someone else or go someplace else, like a fantasy land—and the act of making a costume is very therapeutic. Even with mandates, we could still be outdoors and photography was one of the few things you could do at a safe distance, with a long lens.
FF: Who are the participants and how did they become involved in this project?
TG: In the first round, it was mostly friends and neighbors but there were other people that came too because I posted it on our community page in Northside. So the first round was mostly Northsiders. After that, I started meeting people individually. I spread the word here and there and then the news picked it up so I got some people from that. The people who participated were like “thank you. It’s so good to have something to do and get out of the house.” I never said no to anybody. If you have a costume, let’s do it!
FF: Who was the very first one?
TG: Brad Smith. He’s a photographer too. He’s got on a shriner outfit and his dog—just some things he had. People had to use things they had around their house because they couldn’t go and buy things. I really wanted people to make things from their home to see what they could do.
FF: Did any of the participants share any particularly compelling stories with you?
TG: Dori Lucas. I’m going to cry. She was a teacher and she was just like, “Kids can’t learn. Half of them don’t have devices and if they do, they are sharing with four other family members.” She missed reading to her kids at school. She brought these dolls that her mother had made and Where the Wild Things Are so she could read to them. That’s the one that makes me cry.
FF: What do you hope viewers will learn or reflect upon after attending your show? What do you want them to come away with?
TG: I want them to come away with joy and a sense of celebration. At least at this point, we’re almost getting back to what feels like—for most people—somewhat normal kinds of activities. Most of them are very powerful costumes where they take on a personality that’s powerful, like a warrior, or something that made them feel beautiful. Art, in general, is transformative and can help us heal. And also to remind us how lucky we are, too. We lost a lot of people [to the pandemic]. To me, it’s powerful, but mostly very joyful. I really wanted to get as much as I could [with photos showcasing the foliage] of each season to show the passage of time—that was really, really important to me—and that’s why I photographed them outside. I wanted some of them to mark time such as the political situation or protests—I really wanted someone to dress up as a cicada, though.
FF: Are you still making more portraits for this project?
TG: This is the culmination. It was hard to know when to stop but it sort of stopped itself. Once I started asking and people stopped saying yes because they were busy again, it wasn’t necessary to do anymore. Part of it really was to have something fulfilling, satisfying, and healing to do, and [the participants] didn’t need that anymore.
FF: What’s next for you?
TG: I’ve got a bunch of stuff! I’m working on a series called América and it’s about the diversity of Hispanic women in America. A lot of people have this idea of what Hispanic people look like. I’m half Cuban, which is why it’s important to me. I’m also doing this series where I’m experimenting with double projection—projecting on the background and projecting on the person. That’s been really interesting and a really difficult learning curve but I’m starting to do some things that I really like! Then, I’m working on a FotoFocus show with Larry [Brown, Tina’s husband] for [the FotoFocus Biennial: World Record in] October. That is going to be really interesting. It’s got such a great name—it’s called Phantasmagoria: The Fictitious Truth of 1666 Bruce Street. That’s going to be totally different from things that we’ve done and my first project with Larry.
Opening Reception with live music and refreshments:
Saturday, May 7th, 5–8pm
Kennedy Heights Arts Center
*Artist Tina Gutierrez encourages all guests to wear color, if they’d like, to treat this opening like a celebration.
Gallery hours are Tuesday–Friday, 10am–5pm, and Saturday, 11am–4pm.