An Artist’s Daily Drawings of Life During COVID

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On the morning of March 24, 2020, Piotr Szyhalski woke up from a strange dream. He visualized a severed head grimacing on the ground with plants growing out of his eyeballs.

The image followed him through his morning cup of coffee, through his reading that President Trump was considering reopening the economy despite objections from health experts, through news that the Senate was about to to reach a recovery agreement. Then, late in the morning, when Piotr reached a productivity stalemate, using a sheet from a pile of Bristol paper in his basement and his Japanese self-inking drawing brush, he drew the dream.

Where the branches of leaves sprouted from the eye sockets of the severed head, the words “Long Live Our Banks” smeared across the paper. At the bottom of the page, read the words “COVID-19: Labor Camp Report: March 24, 2020”.

This was the first drawing of 225.

The next day, March 25, 2020, the MCAD art teacher woke up to draw a hand cutting a wound with a knife to let the dollar signs bleed. “Open it! For business!” is written in the footer. The next day, a coffin with a dollar sign and the words “Your death is their profit”.

For the next eight months, Szyhalski woke up every morning, read the daily news, collected “news shrapnel” (he began collecting phrases that stood out for him in the news, and began a list on his phone of these “fragments.” “When something exploded, snippets of news got stuck in my head,” he says.), create a poster in his century-old Fulton home, then post the drawing to his account instagram @labor camp.

An art exhibit at the Mia, a traveling art exhibit taped to block walls, and 2,000 out-of-print art books later, Szyhalski’s “COVID-19 Labor Camp Report” serves as poignant, daily documentation of a country’s collective anxiety, frustration and confusion over a life-changing year.

Artists often react to current events by recreating them in their respective works. During the Spanish Flu, Edvard Munch drew a portrait of himself with the disease in an impressionistic palette of murky blues, sickly pinks and reds, and pea greens. In 1917, Morton Schamberg captured flu isolation across an empty New York cityscape in black and white in [View of Rooftops]. And for the better half of 2020, Syzhalski spent an average of seven hours a day for 225 days — or 1,575 hours in total — soaking up the news, taking stock of the country’s daily morale, and documenting it all with a 14 ½ by 21 sheet of paper and an ink brush.

Born in Kalisz and raised in Poznań, Szyhalski came of age under the rule of the communist Polish People’s Republic that emerged from World War II. He learned to speak English in high school classes in Poland – that’s when he read George Orwell 1984. “You can imagine,” Szyhalski tells me, “under Communist rule in Poland, this book hit a little too close to home.”

It wasn’t until he started studying art in the United States that he stopped seeing his second language as a disadvantage. “This distance from the language, I see it more as a way to see events from an external point of view. It’s the same idea that allows us to look at historical events of the past with a clearer mind, because we can see the bigger picture,” says Szyhalski.

When he left in the early 1990s for the United States, Poland had just undergone a systemic transition of government power, throwing off its communist regime, reviving legislative elections, reforming the market and undergoing large-scale privatization. . Prior to 1990, Polish elections were “a performative joke”, according to Szyhalski. “I never voted because it just didn’t matter,” he says. Now in the United States as a legal alien, Szyhalski still hasn’t voted in an election.

“There is a sense of urgency, or a kind of responsibility, to be present in this democratic space. So I like to think that somehow I’m able to vote for my work,” he says.

Szyhalski spent a few years in the Northeast before moving to Minnesota in 1995 to accept a teaching position at MCAD. He taught young artists everything from graphic design and propaganda art to media art and performance-based art installations, a central part of his own work.

Waking up to absorb daily headlines, stubbornly drawing pictures, posting them to an account and engaging with viewers, Szyhalski says, is a performance in itself. Once the project started and other people followed his journey through the labor camp, he spent his days discussing the photos with his followers.

“I look at this project and see it as an event where I was engaged one hundred percent of the time. I was not only sharing the drawings, but also the process of making the drawings, the development of ideas and the engagement in hundreds and hundreds of conversations with people over that time,” he says. “I really think it was an eight-month performance.”

Le Mia commanded the labor camp from mid-March to mid-September 2021, where he lived on the walls of Gallery 370. Upon entering the space, the fonts and phrases stylized in a way reminiscent wartime propaganda submerges you in a sea of ​​pure whites and sharp blacks. The words spring from the posters hanging on the walls and come to mind: “THEY LIE, WE DIE”, “I CAN’T BREATHE! IF IT’S NOT COVID, IT’S THE POLICE”, “LISTEN, DEBATE, DEBASE, VOTE.

“Even though we’re talking about supposedly opposing systemic structures – communism and capitalism are supposed to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum – last year’s experience,” Szyhalski says, “in a very depressing way reminded me so many strange echoes and unfortunate parallels to the kind of experience of living in Poland under a very different system.

Now the project lives on as a book, with 2000 copies sold. Although getting your hands on one of these books is currently a difficult task, interested readers can witness the project where it began, on Szyhalski Labor Camp Instagram.

On Election Day 2020, the 225-day labor camp documentation came to an end. “I can’t imagine or couldn’t imagine at the time continuing to work on this project with the same tone, with the same language and all the strategies that I developed over the eight months.” For Szyhalski, the day felt like a chapter was over.

A year later, I asked him if he thought things had changed since the labor camp election ended. “Marginal gains have been made,” he says. “The damage of the past five years is going to be exponentially more dramatic than I could have ever imagined.”

We have seen a rise in populism around the world and the country is politically polarized more than ever. “But it happened here. It would be the last place I would expect something like this to take hold, but it did.

So what’s the next step? How do we emerge from all the horror that we have collectively experienced throughout the pandemic, through injustice, through a world that willfully opens a wound as dollar signs gush with blood?

“It will take a lot more work that really goes beyond politics. The kind of structures that we’ve come to rely on for some kind of stability as a culture, I don’t think we can rely on those anymore. They’ve been compromised to such a degree that the only thing we’re left with is each other. And I sincerely think that for me, this project, when I look back on it, it’s in the sense of community that came out of it that I find real, real hope, and it’s the fact that we were able to connect and find a foothold in that connection in each other, sort of. To me, that’s the real currency, the real value of it all. That’s why it was worth it.

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