As 2020 raged on, A-list music venues, once-bustling city squares and even top-rated restaurants fell to unprecedented silence, and life as the world knew it came to a screeching halt. But one thing that could not be contained was the minds of artists.

James Madison University faculty have two art exhibitions in April dedicated to the connection and advancements made during the last year. In the New Image Gallery, Pandemic Highlights uplifts samplings of graduate faculty scholarship while Duke Hall Gallery builds a growing interactive exhibition that provokes conversation and confrontation.

We Need To Talk (abbreviated WN2T) at Duke Hall Gallery began taking form on campus in March 15, but co-designers and industrial design professors Audrey Barnes and Kevin Phaup expect the installation will evolve into its final form at the start of next month.

Last year was not only hallmarked by a global pandemic forcing humanity into isolation -- it was a year tinged by revolutions and violence.

Now more than ever is a time for conversation and empathy, said Barnes.

“Read these, listen to them, even speak someone else’s truth through these devices in the hopes that saying the words of someone else will build empathy,” she said. “For us, it’s this really interesting juxtaposition of digital and analog and bringing together lots of people’s ideas and perspectives.”

Digital and analog referring to the discursive designs, modeled from a variety of maple, walnut and ballistic nylon. From these speakers, anonymously submitted voices will be amplified in the room for visitors to listen, read and respond to through layers of voices and opinions.

Barnes said submissions range from emotional, direct messages to broad, expository messages but every voice is filtered to exclude hate. Criticism is fair game.

On April 5, an online artist talk with the two designers will allow the community to converse more about the intent and potential life beyond the exhibition’s end, scheduled for April 10.

Presenting WN2T in its final form has taken countless hours of design and collaboration as Barnes and Phaup are building 5-foot tall cone-shaped speakers connected in a tangle of tubes for audio feedback or to promote response.

“We are all struggling from both the lack of human social interaction because of the pandemic and the increased opportunity for miscommunication because of the pandemic,” Barnes said. “You don’t get to experience and interact with others not like you and for us this is a ways to bring some of that back, at least in some small way.”

Industrial design seniors Harper Kelly, Paul Policastro and Kriszten Szakal also supported the exhibition for their independent studies.

Pandemic Highlights is also a vein for connection but strikes closer to home with an inspection of the recent work and styles of JMU School of Art, Design and Art History graduate faculty.

Curator and current gallery manager Corinne Diop said the idea came together to bridge familiarity between graduate students and their mentors, who might not know each other given the age of online learning.

“They don’t know much about each other because we’re not running into each other on campus,” Diop said. “I also felt like I don’t know what my colleagues are doing because we’re all in our own studios, so I felt like it’s a way to see what each other are doing.”

Twenty participating graduate faculty members submitted work ranging from photography to ceramic. Art history and art education faculty also submitted a selection of reading for visitor interaction.

Daniel Robinson is an instructor of art studio as well as alumnus of JMU’s studio art master’s program. His primary medium is photography and historically, the majority of his work focused on landscape, solitary imagery. In recent years, he began dabbling with portraiture and interactive photography, which was quickly halted by COVID-19.

“It really made me think a lot about how I approach my artistic life and what I do, so I spent much of the last year exploring,” Robinson said.

In the show, Robinson has a book featuring a portrait of a local artist he captured in 2019 for Harrisonburg’s Art Lotto. The book, “Box Camera Now,” was authored by Lucas Birk and published during the pandemic.

While his creative exploration was momentarily stunted by the pandemic, Robinson said the book’s publication and feature in the show felt like “the seeds that were sown previous to the pandemic were becoming more fruitful.” And that same growth, he said, is demonstrated by his colleagues highlighted in the New Image Gallery.

“It’s fun to see how people’s work has changed and evolved,” he said. “Art is still being made. We’re still finding ways to show it, so it really makes me feel hopeful about the persistence of art practices and that when this is all over there will be an abundance of art to see.”

Graduate students Anikó Sáfrán and Sarah Phillips designed the exhibition.

Due to the narrow space of the New Image Gallery, visitors should schedule visits to explore the collection of work. Only one person or pod (a small group of individuals who are remaining close contact during the pandemic, such as family or roommates) can schedule an appointment by emailing Diop at diopcj@jmu.edu or by calling the gallery at (540)568-6485. The show is also available online.

Contact Kathleen Shaw at 574-6274 or kshaw@dnronline.com. Follow Kathleen on Twitter @shawkareport

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