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When Masks Are A Thing of the Past

Photos by Nora Edinger Artists have long memorialized major events such as the COVID pandemic in their work, according to Kara Yenkevich, curator for the Museums of Oglebay Institute. Here, she displays a Victorian-era quilt that commemorates the Great Comet of 1882. While the comet motif is repeated across the quilt, its most striking appearance is on the four corners, where it bears a multi-colored and patterned tail.

WHEELING — The day will come when it is possible to go to school or to the grocery store without a mask, which begs an interesting question. What will happen to all these colorful scraps of fabric and elastic when COVID is contained?

“Some people are going to be so excited to not wear a mask, they’re going to want to burn it,” joked Kara Yenkevich, curator for the Museums of Oglebay Institute. “You’ve got to have celebration — like the memes of people turning them into hamster hammocks.”

But, if history tells us anything, she said it’s equally possible that some masks will make their way into museum archives. This could be as physical artifacts of the COVID-19 pandemic — like those already being collected by institutions such as the Smithsonian. Or, it might be in the form of art.

It has happened before, Yenkevich noted, carefully opening two art quilts from the Oglebay Mansion Museum collection. Both 19th century works reflect the major events of their times in a way not unlike Andy Warhol’s pop art or the massive quilt associated with the mourning of AIDS victims.

A STITCH IN TIME

One smallish quilt in the Oglebay collection is spectacularly well preserved given that it commemorates the Great Comet of 1882. Done in “crazy quilt” style, it combines irregularly cut patches of sumptuous fabrics embellished with embroidery.

“This one is really, really good,” Yenkevich said of both the quilt’s condition and the skill of the quilter. “Crazy quilts get a bad rap, but when it’s done right, it’s really a master class in stitchery.”

It’s also a master work of design. Each of the quilt’s corners depict a bit of comet with a glorious tail pieced from varied colors and patterns of fabric. Elsewhere on the quilt, both realistic and abstract interpretations of comet orbs and tails abound in smaller-scale piecing and stitchery.

The quality and smaller size of the piece suggests to Yenkevich that it might not have been made entirely from scraps, the concept that is the very DNA of more utilitarian quilts. “She probably bought the fabrics for this because it’s a work of art.”

And something more, she noted. “They are like little historical documents.”

This is ironic, she noted. Only because fabrics such as an announcement of a Civil War soldier reunion found on another Oglebay artifact were worked into art quilts rather than turned into rags are they still around.

“This is one of those things that’s maybe survived best into the current days,” she said of quilts’ unique ability to trap history in a textile form of amber.

GRIEF IN VIEW

Event-based art quilts sometimes have another facet, Yenkevich added, referring to the AIDS quilt as a modern piece of mourning art.

With enough panels to cover entire sports fields or venues such as the National Mall, that multi-maker textile remembers those who died from the disease. She could see something similar happening with COVID, which has killed more than 500,000 Americans — about 80 of them from Ohio County alone.

“It would be a really neat community project to collect masks and have an artist put them together when this is all over,” Yenkevich said.

“I think in the way that the AIDS quilt is visually impactful, this could be like knock-you-out visually impactful.”

Or, as even recent history suggests, there may also be smaller-scale efforts, she added. It is currently trendy among textile artists to produce quilts from a student’s team T-shirts or memorial quilts or teddy bears from a deceased loved one’s clothing or neckties.

Turning masks into memorial textiles would be easier following this pandemic, she noted, as many have been made from actual quilter’s cotton. “Last time we had this, masks were made of gauze,” she said of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

That flimsier fabric wouldn’t have held up under quilt conditions, she explained. And the idea of reusing medical supplies as anything but rags may have felt taboo in that era.

(An interesting aside unearthed by Sean Duffy while doing research on the 1918 pandemic for Ohio County Public Library: While personal protective gear such as N-95 masks would have been unavailable a century ago, medical workers were just as resourceful. Area nurses are known to have used battle-style gas masks in their work.)

FAST MASK FASHION

Noting that the culture has changed greatly in the century between the two pandemics, Yenkevich returned to her joke about the bonfire. Modern Americans may not see any taboo associated with using masks to make art or polish their cars, she said. But, they may not see any point in keeping them around, either.

“We’re a fast-fashion culture,” she said of the possibility many will be landfilled in disgust.

“We don’t want to lose everything (artifacts) in our eagerness to move forward. I think it will be easy to gloss over the pandemic because we don’t like to ruminate on bad thoughts.”

Oglebay Mansion Museum won’t necessarily collect masks as a precaution against their disappearance, however. Archive space is too limited, Yenkevich said. Staffers are instead planning a rapid-response collection of oral and written narratives that tell the local version of the COVID-19 story.

Ironically, it is a story that is compatible with the museum’s overall history, she added. During the 1918 pandemic, mansion builder Earl Oglebay’s son-in-law, Courtney Burton, Sr., died from the so-called Spanish flu at age 38, leaving behind his wife and an 8-year-old son.

“This (COVID-19) would have been something that would really have hit home with them.”

Yenkevich noted it has also hit home with her. Regardless of where other people’s masks go when this is over, she has plans to save at least a few in case they are again needed at some point. She pointed to the Asian norm of wearing masks during illness outbreaks or in crowded conditions such as subways.

“You never know.”

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