Zoller exhibition reveals sculptors' reactions to the pandemic — on paper

Amy Milgrub Marshall
September 20, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When COVID-19 began to spread across the United States and the world in March 2020, Penn State School of Visual Arts sculpture faculty member Cristen Millett was in Perth, Australia, on a Fulbright. Australia had just a few cases of the virus, but most of the continent was already on lockdown, store shelves were empty, and Millett had no idea when she and her family would be able to get back to State College, Pennsylvania.

“I remember going to the grocery store in Australia and worrying about finding food to feed my family,” she said.

Millett, her husband and their two children flew home in May 2020, cutting her Fulbright short and re-entering the United States at a time when the COVID death toll had begun to rise rapidly.

Millett’s feelings and fears upon returning to the United States at the beginning of the pandemic are reflected in her piece, “’Merica,” part of the traveling exhibition “I5OLATION,” on display Sept. 20 to Oct. 1 in the Zoller Gallery in the Visual Arts Building on Penn State's University Park campus. The exhibition features a portfolio of 50 drawings by 50 women sculptors created during the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition is co-curated by sculptors Cynthia Handel and Coral Lambert, who invited a diverse range of international women sculptors over 50 to participate.

Millett, coordinator of the exhibition at Zoller, left Australia on the day The New York Times published the names of the 100,000 people who had died so far in the United States.

That page became the background for her piece, which resembles an American flag, with the now-ubiquitous red coronavirus image in the upper left. Red lines resembling an EKG appear on dark gray stripes. Red dots and splotches are scattered across the page, representing COVID-19 hot spots.

“I was living in Australia when I first learned about a new virus spreading across the globe,” wrote Millett in her artist’s statement. “As reports of concern turned into sounds of alarm, checking the number of cases became a part of my daily routine. I monitored the changes — locally, regionally, nationally, globally — and became acutely aware of the disparate approaches to managing this public health crisis. On the day The New York Times’remembered the incalculable loss of 100,000 Americans, I said goodbye to Oz and began my journey back to ’Merica.” 

Handel, who currently lives in Montana, and Lambert, a professor of sculpture at Alfred University, began planning the exhibition in April 2020, following their conversations about how the pandemic had affected studio work. They started to check in on other artist friends and found that many sculptors had turned to drawing. Sculptors tend to work in collaboration or with a team of others to produce and install work. Because of COVID-19, so much of the artists’ practice had stopped altogether, been put on hold or changed drastically. Drawing is a practice that can be carried out alone and sometimes fits in between other tasks, such as teaching online. 

Black and white drawing showing three white masks along left side and pearls on the right

Cynthia Handel, "Masks and Pearls," Graphite and oil stick with collage, 2020.  During our quarantine, I was asked by the hospital to help cut masks. I cut more than 400. There is something about the daily repetition that appealed to me. The idea of collective memory, my hand moves over the cloth, touches and smooths the material. I added my mother's pearl strand as a collage element that seemed to work, counting the pearls like counting days.    

IMAGE: Cynthia Handel

Handel and Lambert — who have collaborated on various projects over their 25-year friendship — started by brainstorming the names of women sculptors and ultimately invited 50 of them to participate in the exhibition.

“We decided to go with women over 50 to narrow the field. It was overwhelming,” said Handel. “These were spectacular artists. We were honored that they wanted to participate. We did not even personally know half of them, but now we have this bond with 50 women internationally who are supportive of each other’s work and creativity.”

Lambert agrees, noting the participating artists are colleagues whose works they admire. “We wanted to celebrate women who had been making work through thick and thin over a period of time,” she said. “These are peers we admire and we wanted to support their practice and lend exposure not only to each other but to a broad audience, hence the online exhibition as well as the in-person exhibitions.”

The “I5OLATION” portfolio includes various methods of drawing, from mixed media and collage to traditional pencil and watercolor. All the works are approximately 14 inches x 17 inches, allowing them to be packed up and transported to different locations relatively easily. “I5OLATION” was first displayed at Livingston Center for Arts and Culture in Livingston, Montana, in late spring 2021. For the exhibition at Zoller, which is a larger gallery, 11 artists from the region were also invited to exhibit their sculptures. The curators’ goal is for the traveling exhibition to ultimately find a home at a major art museum.

Two bronze globe-like sculptures on stands covered in part with pink felt

Coral Penelope Lambert, "COVID-19 Earth and Super Pink Moon," Bronze with pink felt, 2020. During the coronavirus quarantine, there were several celestial events, including a pink moon and a super pink moon. These provided a cosmic distraction from the isolation and I began to watch the night skies, enjoying them so clear of air traffic. I started to draw a series of pink lunar phases. Looking at nature anew it reminded me of the bright blue and green image of earth seen by astronauts in 1968; it was so vibrant, alive and full of hope. My rendering of pink earth is in poor health, pale and unfamiliar - a COVID-19 Earth.  

IMAGE: Coral Penelope Lambert

Handel said reviewing the submissions was an emotional experience.

“All of these women do steel, and now they are working on paper. Their reactions (to the pandemic) in their pieces … I literally wept when I opened some of them. Cristin’s was one of them.”

Handel and Lambert are currently investigating opportunities for showing the exhibition in Europe. 

“We hope that when the portfolio of 50 drawings travels to other places, then the exhibition can have a different focus,” noted Lambert. “For example, we are proposing the exhibition travel to Berlin for the International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art this time next year. Sixteen of the women sculptors in the portfolio work with cast iron.”

For more information and to see the online exhibition, visit i5olation.org.

Last Updated September 24, 2021