Looking Back on a Year of COVID Art

When the organizers of Paint the Void started their project, they had no idea how big it would become.

After almost 30 years in the art world, Heather Jain knows that she is biased when it comes to public art. “I’ve worked in the arts my whole life,” says Jain, who currently makes a living as an independent art guide tasked with coordinating museum and gallery tours for small groups interested in contemporary art. “Art fills my soul.”

She also knows that plenty of people don’t think about art the way she does. But she hopes the pandemic changed that. 

“One of the blessings of the pandemic is that it created this moment in which art could prove to people (beyond the already indoctrinated) that it makes a difference. When you remember how you felt walking down the street and seeing black boards covering storefronts, and then how you felt seeing those boards painted over with images, you realize art makes a difference.”

For those who aren’t living in Jain’s “art bubble,” she is talking about Paint the Void. The San Francisco non-profit was launched in April 2020. COVID-19 had prompted many businesses to close, and local artists — who often struggle in normal times to make ends meet — were truly at a loss for ways to draw a paycheck. Paint the Void initially set a goal of raising enough funds to pay artists for 10 murals to liven up the bleak boarded-up facades of local storefronts. The project reached its first goal overnight. By July 2020, they had sponsored 55 murals. And by August 2020, this number was at nearly 100. 

Businesses and pedestrians alike were delighted when local artists added a touch of color to the plywood sheets covering storefronts around the Bay Area. Yet, as the city reopens, these transient works of art risk being lost. 

So, Paint the Void has embarked on a search and rescue mission to preserve their pandemic murals. And what began as an economic opportunity for artists during hard times has since morphed into a crusade to reassert the value of art in everyday life.

For the past six months, Jain and Inga Bard, co-founder and creative advisor of Paint the Void, have led a preservation effort in the hopes of putting together an exhibition. Thanks to a map which shows exactly where all of the Paint the Void murals are, and photographs of the ones that have already been taken down, Jain was able to discern overarching themes. 

“Once I saw all of the murals, they just gelled into this sort of relatively clear narrative,” says Jain. “In the beginning, there was hope and optimism as we were overwhelmed and unsure of what was going to happen. Then, the killing of George Floyd widened the dialogue about social, racial and climate injustice. Everything came to the fore last summer and spurred a lot of murals. Throughout it was interesting how much the artists bore witness to their own emotional journey of the time as they grappled with social distancing, grief, and loss.”

With a shortlist of 30 of the best murals and a tentative venue, Paint the Void is getting close to finalizing the exhibition they hope will take place this fall. 

“The goal is to create an opportunity for viewers to go back and reflect on the different emotional phases of the pandemic through the art,” says Bard, who also serves as the executive director of Art for Civil Discourse. “We’re really hoping to create an experience of reflection and catharsis as well.”

In the meantime, a show of studio works by Paint the Void artists will take place on Thursday, August 19 at 111 Minna Gallery in SoMa. 

While Paint the Void has the investments, abilities and resources to do the hard work of tracking down, storing and preserving the murals, they’re not the only ones who are looking to save these artifacts of the pandemic. 

“We’ve heard whispers of other exhibitions happening in Oakland, so I hope that there will be multiple opportunities to see murals that were put up during the pandemic,” Jain says. “There is so much fabulous work out there, it’s just a matter of preserving it.”


Sienna Barnes is an intern at SF Weekly. Twitter @is_nenaB

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