A new ‘Decameron’: U art students respond to COVID-19 with special group project

Artists have always used the power of their work to rise the challenges of their times. Together with my Advanced Digital Imaging students, we are doing something very different for the end of our semester, a creative response to our current pandemic situation. We are basing our group project on a work of classical Italian literature: “The Decameron” by Boccaccio that aptly reflects our circumstances:

In Italy during the time of the black death (March 1348), a group of seven young women and three young men fled from plague-ridden Florence to shelter in a deserted villa in the countryside. To pass the evenings, each member of the group told a story each night, resulting in 10 nights of storytelling. Thus, by the end, they had told 100 stories. Each of the 10 characters was charged as king or queen of the company for one of the ten days in turn. This charge extended to choosing the theme of the stories for that day.

We have been doing the same thing photographically, telling the stories of this time and are creating a book to document what it is like to live in this pandemic crisis. Like the storytellers in “The Decameron,” we are sharing our art. Twice a week we gather together on Zoom to look at our images, compare experiences, and get our next theme from the one designated as our leader for the next “day.”

Their willingness to share their trials and also their optimism and creativity has been a genuine source of strength and hope for me at this time. Our book will go beyond this moment to show the complexities, feelings and responses that we as a group, sheltering from the plague, have experienced together.

For our new “Decameron,” each student has given us a theme that will be a chapter in the book. Their choices have been remarkably challenging and given us all much to consider as we go through this time of isolation. Our images have become a place to creatively embody our experiences.

  • Day 1: At This Time
  • Day 2: Collectively Disconnected
  • Day 3: Routinely Interrupted
  • Day 4: Photographs Not Seen
  • Day 5: Silver Linings
  • Day 6: Solace and Inspiration
  • Day 7: Indoor-Outdoor
  • Day 8: Collapsing
  • Day 9: CHAOS! in the supermarket
  • Day 10: Heroes

We all have a need to share our stories and feel connected. Art is a way to create meaning, especially in times of uncertainty. Also, we are doing what photographers have always done—produce a lasting record documenting this moment in time. The eight of us (I am included at their invitation) have now completed our images—80 of them. So along with a personal text from each, it is time to make our book.

I couldn’t be more proud of my students. Both in how they have faced the difficulties of these past weeks, but also in how they have creatively challenged themselves and produced art that far exceeded my expectations. These are my heroes: Will Betts, Sam Devine, Ethan Edwards, Brandi Gilbert, John Moffitt, Claire Palmer and Heather Pierce. Their willingness to share their trials and also their optimism and creativity has been a genuine source of strength and hope for me at this time. Our book will go beyond this moment to show the complexities, feelings and responses that we as a group, sheltering from the plague, have experienced together.

You can see a gallery of the images here.