'Let's Zoom' traveling art exhibit captures boredom, frustration of connecting virtually

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

We've all been there -- stuck on what seems like a never-ending Zoom call when your eyes begin to glaze over and your mind wanders.

No wonder a self-portrait by artist Matthew Hughes of Ypsilanti feels so recognizable. Hughes painted himself with a hoodie over his head, one eye rimmed with red and the other one melting.

The portrait is one of dozens featured in a timely new exhibition now traveling throughout Metro Detroit called "Let's Zoom: Self-Portraits of our Artist Communities." Now on display at the Irwin House Global Art Center and Gallery on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, the exhibit features 60 -- and growing -- self-portraits by artists from all over Michigan that capture the frustration, boredom and isolation of endlessly connecting on Zoom over the last 16 months amid COVID.

Misha McGlown (from left), Amanda Koss, Debbie LaPratt, and Marta Carvajal hold their portraits as part of a traveling exhibit of art created by artists from all over Michigan called "Let's Zoom: Self-Portraits of our Artist Communities" at the Irwin House Detroit on Friday,  July 23, 2021.

"All these people are expressing their emotions and their intrepretation of how the pandemic has helped them or not helped them," said Amanda Koss, an abstract expressionist from Macomb Townhip who helped curate the exhibition.

The self-portraits, each 12 by 12, cover a range of mediums -- ceramics, metal, fiber art, acrylics, mixed media, even photography.

"I thought it was brilliant concept," said Misha McGlown, director of the Irwin House Global Art Center. "We've just been inundated with Zoom in every aspect of our lives. I've been teaching classes on Zoom. Just to give everybody a space to really express how that experience has been for them, it's just beautiful."

The brainchild of Marta Carvajal, a painter from Lincoln Park, she said the idea came to her as a member of the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club. The group -- which consists of artists, gallerists and art supporters from all over the southeast Michigan -- used to meet weekly for breakfast until they shifted to Zoom last spring. Artists usually show one or two paintings and explain them.

"When we were doing these (Zoom calls) sometimes you get bored or day-dreamy," said Carvajal. "So one of those days, I thought 'Why don't we make a panel during the pandemic and it will join all the artists in our community?"

Carvajal turned to Koss and Debbie LaPratt, a Detroit ceramicist, to spread the word to artists this past spring. Soon, submissions were coming in from all over the state.

A self-portrait by local artist Matthew Hughes is one of roughly 60 featured in a new exhibition called  "Let's Zoom: Self-Portraits of our Artist Communities" at the Irwin House Detroit on Friday, July 23, 2021.

"I didn't think it was going to become as big as it did," said Koss. "When I did the call for art, we didn't limit it to the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club. We've had submissions all the way from Kalamazoo and Lansing to Jackson."

Once 48 self-portraits, it's now at roughly 60 -- and portraits are still coming in. 

"People are attracted to the culture of it," said Koss. "We sat there and we experienced Zoom for God knows how long and we still are. Every time we move, we get more people (artists) and more people come out."

A self-portrait by artist Ida Hawkins includes the words "Help Me" on her glass lenses.

The self-portraits cover a range of emotions. Some are optimistic; others capture the frustration and anxiety of Zoom. One painting features the artist surrounded by cats. Another, by artist Ida Hawkins, has "Help Me" painted in the lenses of her glasses.

For her own portrait, Carvajal layered her image over dictionary pages for texture. But the pages also have meaning, symbolizing "isolation and loneliness." She painted her portrait in acrylics.

LaPratt's, meanwhile, features keys as a symbol of lockdown.

As the exhibition travels from location to location, it's also created a sense of connection that's been missing with COVID. The artists who submitted portraits are finally seeing each other in person.

"We're reconnecting because we haven't seen each other," said LaPratt.

After "Let's Zoom" wraps up its run at the Irwin House Aug. 9, it'll go to Detroit's Brewery Park Aug. 20 and eventually Sterling Heights. But Koss, Carvajal and LaPratt say they're open to it traveling to even more locations or possibly being purchased one day.

"Everyone is free to create art," said Koss. "And when you're in a pandemic, what are you doing? Some people use art to get through it or process the crisis."


'Let's Zoom: Self-Portraits of our Artist Communities'

Through Aug. 8 at Irwin House Global Art Center and Gallery, 2351 W. Grand Boulevard, Detroit.

Open 12-7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Go to amandakossart.com for exhibition schedule.