Reflections on an anxious year inspire work in ‘Coping Mechanisms’ exhibition, on view now at Bridge Gallery in Franklinton
Columbus artist Gaye Reissland is the activities director at a convent of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, which meant her work constituted an essential service during the pandemic. The sisters, most of whom are older adults, had to remain at the convent to stay safe, and Reissland was tasked with finding fun, productive activities for them.
“My boss texted me on a Saturday night: ‘You’re going to be in charge of making masks.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know how to sew. Is this a joke?’ And she said, ‘I wish I was joking,’” said Reissland, who made her way to Joann Fabrics. Fortunately, she discovered the sisters had plenty of sewing skills.
Over the course of the pandemic, Reissland fretted over the safety of the sisters, isolating and taking extra precautions to prevent spreading the virus to the convent. At the same time, Reissland moved in with a boyfriend who struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, adding another layer of anxiety. “The CDC would come out with guidelines that would put his OCD into overdrive and drive him bananas,” Reissland. “I’d be in the bathroom and he’d say, ‘That didn’t sound like a 20-second hand wash to me.’”
Meanwhile, as the pandemic raged, it became apparent that COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting older adults and people of color. “It was like I had a target on my back, because I’m no spring chicken. … I’m pushing 60 now. I’m a grandmother. I’m African-American, and I’m curvy. I’m not skinny,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God. I’m going to die.’ It was terrifying.”
Those anxieties manifested in a painting Reissland made during the pandemic titled “Inner Thoughts.” Worry emanates from the face of a woman Reissland created with acrylic paint and oil pastels, the chaotic pops of color hinting at the emotional turmoil churning in the subject’s mind. “A lot of my inner thoughts were, ‘What am I gonna do? I don’t know what to do. Jesus, help me. Jesus, take the wheel,” she said.
“Inner Thoughts” and other works by Reissland are currently on display as part of Fresh A.I.R Gallery’s “Coping Mechanisms,” a multi-artist exhibition held at the Bridge Gallery inside the 400 West Rich building in Franklinton (Fresh A.I.R.’s Downtown gallery space remains closed due to COVID precautions; A.I.R. stands for Artists In Recovery.) A virtual version of the exhibit will also available at Fresh A.I.R.’s website.
Reissland also channeled her creative energy into paintings Downtown during the Black lives matter demonstrations last spring and summer, making portraits of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in a stained-glass style that presented the three as saints. Nearby, Reissland painted the words, “Black lives martyred.”
“I found the protests to be a positive experience. It gave me hope for my granddaughters. It gives me hope for the future,” she said. “The younger people, they’ve got the right idea.”
The sisters at the convent helped Reissland get through turbulent times, as well, acting as a surrogate family when she couldn’t be with her blood relatives. “I work with these women who are very wise, very learned and very, very spiritual. They were in constant prayer for me and my family, and that gave me great comfort,” she said.
Reflecting on the difficulties of the past year now, Reissland feels fortified. “The pandemic let me know that everything that I need, I already have,” she said.