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.