Thank You for Your Service
At the heart of Memorial Day is honoring the concept of service — those who have served, the reasons why they served, and what their contribution of service means. Now, as the world faces the coronavirus pandemic, recovery efforts depend heavily on the civic duty of civilians.
“We can all do acts of service,” says Mark Lipscomb, a Navy veteran and Adobe’s vice president of global talent. “When I first was commissioned as an officer, [I] learned pretty quickly that my job, first and foremost, was to serve my team and not the other way around.”
Right now, it’s nurses, doctors, educators, postal carriers, supermarket employees, and delivery people who are the heroes on the front line. Their work has been given its most apt descriptor yet: essential. They’re here for us around the clock, at great personal risk, and are operating far past max capacity.
But what happens when those who serve us need us to step up for them?
This is not a theoretical question — it is what we are facing, in more ways than one. Misinformation about the transmission rates, symptoms, and origins of coronavirus is all over social and mainstream media, some of which openly discourages quarantine and other preventive measures. At the same time, medical professionals find themselves confronted with both staggering volumes of COVID-19 patients and a depleted supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), leaving them at greater risk of exposure. Face masks designed for single use are worn for days on end, and makeshift stand-ins for PPE have become worryingly commonplace.
Serving those in service
The shortage of basic protection is what made Eva Radke, founder of the film and TV art department network ArtCube, spring into action. “When it’s an emergency, it’s an emergency,” Eva says. “Our doctors are wearing trash bags. We’re on it. We can do this. We’re able.” Turning to ArtCube’s nationwide member base, most of whom had found themselves out of work as studios and productions went dark when the pandemic hit, Eva put out the call for volunteers: anyone and everyone who could make masks and face shields or had the supplies and equipment to do so.
The response was enormous. Set decorators, art directions, and fabrication shops, most of them based in New York, all signed up. Eva and her friend Cat Navarro, an art director and food stylist, got to work organizing what was eventually named the “ArtCube Army” into a functioning — and socially distant — assembly line. It worked — as of May 5, the ArtCube Army members had made and distributed over 10,000 face shields. “I’ve had surgeons tell me we’re the only game in town,” Eva says. “Our model of quick turnaround, small batch — it was essential to keep people safe.”
Andrea Purcigliotti, who has been the production designer for “Saturday Night Live’s” film unit for the past 10 seasons, heard about the face-shield fabrication effort from Danielle Webb, the SNL film unit set decorator. “When I came on, [the ArtCube Army] was a well-oiled machine,” Andrea says. But when Danielle mentioned that she had a grab bag of odd materials, Andrea took a different approach to the process. “That just put the spark in my head,” she says. “’Wouldn’t be great if you can come up with a method of making this stuff with things that you can get from Home Depot or Amazon so people can just start making these from home?’ And that sort of became my impetus and my goal to figure it out.”
It didn’t take her long. Andrea quickly designed an ultra-simple, extremely economical face shield that required little cutting and no fabricated or 3D-printed parts. Along with Andrea, Danielle, and Liz Frino, the SNL film unit set dresser, began production lines in their own homes.
Andrea estimates that she personally has made around 1,000 face shields, while Danielle, along with husband Steven Brower, who runs the multifunctional Brower Propulsion Laboratory, have generated somewhere around 3,000. “We just started banging them out,” she says. All of the shields have gone out to hospitals and clinics, many of them small or underserved locations. “I was able to fill orders for these small medical facilities… that were on the bottom of the list to receive any aid from states or locally, so they were just working off of volunteers or whatever they could get.”
One of the recipients was a VA hospital on Long Island. “There was a woman whose father was a nurse [there], and she was all over Facebook, trying to find PPE for her dad,” Eva Radke recalls. “And she found us!” Andrea hand-delivered a batch of face shields, each adorned with an SNL sticker, to the hospital. She also included a handwritten note: “Made with Love From the SNL Film Unit Art Dept.”
The VA nurse was delighted. “When he opened up the box, he took a picture of the notes that I wrote and sent it to his daughter,” Andrea says. The stickers and notes were swiftly adopted into the SNL art department team’s workflow. “It just became a really nice way of personalizing the project,” Andrea says. “Letting people know that, you know, even though we’re out of work, we recognize that you guys have so much work to do, and this is why we’re doing it.”
The power of artists
The tradition of artists and craftspeople stepping in during (and after) times of crisis is long-standing. In the years directly following the Great Depression, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt galvanized teams of artist workers under the umbrella of her Work Progress Administration (or WPA) program, which was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal plan. The WPA workers, many of whom were people of color, did everything from sew American flags to design furniture. The landmark Timberline Lodge in Oregon (shown below) was built by teams operating within the WPA.
The workers were also responsible for educating the public by creating and installing public works of art, including staged dramatic plays, all of which centered around significant moments in American history. These skills, the first lady maintained, were what made artists uniquely valuable as community leaders. “[It] is the great power of the artist,” she wrote in 1934, “the power to make people hear and understand, through music and literature, or to paint something which ordinary people feel but cannot reveal.”
Activism as service
Along with that power often comes a sense of civic responsibility. Artists have long been the first or only voices to speak up about critical issues, breaking the barriers of silence and taboo in favor of education and safety. As the AIDs crisis devastated communities throughout the 1980s, muralist Keith Haring used his kinetic street art to draw attention to the facts of the illness, which many were too afraid to dare mention. Keith, himself diagnosed with AIDs, had grown frustrated with the staggering amount of public misinformation and shame that surrounded HIV and AIDs. He was able to combat both via his work. His was a one-man, entirely volunteer public service announcement, and he continued to use his artwork to educate as he joined the larger AIDs awareness movement.
Like Keith, a Paris and New York City-based collective of photojournalists and writers called Dysturb is combining the principles of graffiti art and activism. Dysturb uses a non-destructive wheat paste glue to adhere prints of captioned editorial photos to walls, buildings, and other surfaces. Recently, the organization turned its focus toward the coronavirus — as a result, COVID-19-specific works by Dysturb have been popping up in both New York and Paris. “[It’s] a way to inform people that don’t necessarily read, watch, or listen to the news,” says Benjamin Petit, co-director of Dysturb. “It is [also] a way to inform underserved communities where they are.”
The content of each wheat-pasted mural varies, and their placement is strategic. “The way we choose the location of our pastes has been different,” Benjamin says. “Because of the mandatory lockdown in France, we did it mostly next to supermarkets and hospitals. We always try to adapt our message — who are we talking to? Who is our target audience?”
Doing what we can
These are extraordinary times, and many are living with fear, anxiety, and in precarious circumstances. The severity of the coronavirus makes it difficult to imagine what impact the individual can have — but “What can I do?” is a common refrain. The answer? What you can. As Mark Lipscomb points out, an act of service can be something small. “It doesn’t have to be a huge community service project or donation,” Mark says. “If service really is about putting others’ needs ahead of your own, you can do service all day. Whether it’s that you smile at somebody, you hold the door open for them, you listen to them — those are ultimately, in my interpretation, acts of service.”