Dominican Sisters COVID-19 art exhibition commemorates deaths from pandemics

ADRIAN, Michigan – During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dominican Sisters of Adrian were a microcosm of the suffering and loss caused by the coronavirus. Of the 219 residents at the sisters’ motherhouse in Adrian, 14 died from COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic.

The loss left the remaining sisters to process their grief, and many chose to do so through art. This past May and August, the sisters displayed some of these artworks in an exhibition in their gallery at the Weber Retreat and Conference Center. The Art in Times of COVID exhibition featured the work of eight women, including five sisters.

It came about after a group of the sisters and their friends met on Zoom to share the work they had created during the pandemic.

“It’s been an effort to process both the COVID reality and the pandemic and all that was going on and a lot of the losses that were happening and the sickness and death that were happening and the uncertainties and our own Expressing creativity yourself,” said Adrian Dominican Sister Suzanne Schreiber, coordinator for the sisters’ gallery space, INAI: A Space Apart.

The INAI gallery – from a Japanese word meaning “within” – was the vision of Adrian Dominican sisters Barbara Chenicek and Rita Schiltz, who died in 2015 and 2020 respectively. In the 1970s the sisters turned the old laundry into a studio and gallery space, and when Chenicek died the sisters decided to turn it into a permanent gallery where they could also host courses and retreats.

The Art in Times of COVID exhibition featured a variety of art styles, from painting to photography to quilting, journaling and collage and more. Visitors were invited to write the names of those who died from COVID-19 on a piece of paper and place it in a basket as part of the exhibition.

For one of the artists, Adrian Dominican Sister Nancyann Turner, the exhibition was a way to process the grief of losing friends.

“In a way, this global pandemic has made us citizens of the world and as you mourned these people who you also knew, you also saw images of New York City and Italy and France and it was an opportunity to lament in a more communal way. she told Detroit Catholic, a news outlet for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Turner, who has been a Dominican for more than 60 years, participated in the exhibition through multiple artistic means, including commemorative quilts, collages, and creative journal entries.

“I made three quilts — the first was a quilt of hope when we thought COVID would be over in six months,” she said. The second quilt was called “Lament” and was made in darker colors but with a tinge of light to show “that there is always a glimpse of new light and resurrection hope”.

According to Turner, through quilting she was able to create a new unity from the variety of colors and shapes.

“I think it’s another wonderful example of female creativity,” she said. “During this period of hibernation and cocoon, it was a very comforting thing to work on every week and remind me again of my mother and grandmother as I chose and sewed these different colors, which helped me lament, but also to have hope and peace.”

The exhibit also included photos of two other projects Turner was working on, including a memorial garden she created in memory of her own sister, who died before COVID-19. As she did, it expanded into a memorial to everyone she knew who had died.

“It was a way of going outside and using soil and seeds and following the legacy of my father, grandfather and grandmother, who were all farmers, so this was another way I tried to create a place of beauty to honor the recent death of our own sister,” she said.

She also contributed to a larger memorial project for those who died from COVID-19. In 2021, Detroit began crowdsourcing for a public art monument to recognize the magnitude of losses in the area during the pandemic. Detroit and Southeast Michigan residents were invited to participate. Turner decided to make memorial bags for those she knew who were lost to the coronavirus, particularly the sisters.

“We lost 14 sisters to COVID this year despite our best efforts, so I created a memorial for each of them, and then a couple of the kids I used to work with in the Capuchin soup kitchen died too, so I made for they made every one too,” she said. “It was like a sacred undertaking to remember and almost connect with each of them. Each of these little pouches contained a little prayer or letter to her – something of a memorial to her. It was a very peaceful and sacred undertaking for me to make remembering tangible. And every monument was different. I used beads and lace and yarn and stitches, and I just felt connected.”

In the Adrian Dominican Congregation of around 440 members, many are artists and Turner believes that making art, if somewhat unofficially, is part of the charism of the order.

“I think part of our Dominican spirituality and our Christian spirituality is responding to God’s creativity and using our creative energies for the benefit of others,” Turner said. “There are many direct ministries that we provide for justice and peace and work against racism, but I also think there is a call to create beauty and a call to affirm people’s longing for the sacred.”

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Patti is a news reporter for Detroit Catholic, the online news agency for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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