During the COVID-19 lockdown, artists expressed a slew of pent-up anxieties. For two studiomates, Betsy Rosenwald and Dawna Rose, both living and quarantined in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, it was an opportunity to make a massive piece of polemical art titled A Journal of the Plague Year(s), influenced by the toxic politics of 2020 and the homemade missives from the 2017 New York Women’s March. As you’ll see below, the project—a mural comprised of individual and disparate pieces—is a collection of signs painted on post-consumer cardboard. Each artist contributed their own messages and styles but as it became a critical mass of word, picture and color, there emerged a stylistic consistency and conceptual power. The work is currently housed in the Remai Modern, an indie museum in Saskatoon, which Michelle Jacques, the head of exhibitions and collections, hopes will reach a wider audience in the United States. I hope so, too. (The catalog, meanwhile, is a stunning array of details punctuated by essays.) I reached out from New York to Rose and Rosenwald so they could speak in more or less one voice about the breadth of this awesome act of expression.
So many artists made great work during the COVID-19 lockup. How did this project help you survive the mess?
Rose: Some of the stuff that came out in the signs would never have been made but for the pandemic—the series of screaming portraits, the exhausted nurses, and making signs of COVID death statistics that I eventually couldn’t keep up with. Making art keeps me sane. It doesn’t matter what it is.
Rosenwald: As an American living in Canada, watching what was happening in the U.S. was like the head-spinning scene in The Exorcist. It hurt to watch. Making the work helped me to deal with my anger and frustration, and it also became a way of having a conversation about what was happening. Sending out postcards of the work and sharing it on social media kept me connected at a time of extreme isolation.
How were you two able to work together during quarantine? Did you have a process or protocol that you adhered to?
We have shared a studio space for many years. We decided early on, right at the start of the lockdown, that to get through this thing without going completely crazy, we had to keep going to the studio. We maintained a strict bubble during lockdown that consisted of each other and our partners. We checked the provincial COVID stats daily at 1:30, when the government updated their website. To avoid contact with others in the building, we carried our own water to the studio and set up a sanitizing station. While we were actually working separately, our work gradually began to overlap. To reach out beyond our bubble, we began posting our images on social media and mailing them out as postcards across Canada and the U.S. Our presence on social media led to an exhibition in February 2021, bringing the earliest pieces of the project together with the title Journal of the Plague Year.
I understand you were inspired by the Women’s Marches. How did you interpret that inspiration?
The 2017 Women’s March in New York brought together thousands of people who were in a state of shock at the election of Donald Trump. What struck us was how the signs carried by the crowd communicated so many feelings—anger, humor, despair—and how quickly they were discarded after the march. They were beautiful, clever, funny, off-the-cuff, and we were sad that they were going in the garbage. What we took away was the beauty of the signs and the use of cardboard as a material—it has heft, it has options, it is not precious, and it is readily available. Its association to protest signs made it the perfect support.
At what point in the collaboration did you decide to make it into a mural (and allow others to contribute)?
Just to be clear, the Remai Modern exhibition encompasses a timeline of our individual works on cardboard made from March 2020–October 2022, which we refer to as the Journal of the Plague Year(s) archive. Also on view is a 40 x 12 foot mural on cardboard that we painted onsite as artists-in-residence during the exhibition, and a giant Tampax box (a reference to the supply chain crisis affecting womens’ products), also painted on cardboard. We invited members of the public to respond to the show by making and hanging signs in an area of the installation we titled “And Another Thing.” As we prepared for the show in August 2022, we began hanging our work together by month in the studio. It made sense to see how it fit together as a timeline, and we were excited by what we saw.
Words and pictures merge in dynamic ways. Individually they are striking, but when a critical mass, they’re incredibly startling. Did you design the layout, or is it an ad hoc and serendipitous composition?
It was both serendipitous and by design. Once the framework of a timeline was decided upon, we laid out the work on the gallery floor by month. From there, we began with our two studio talisman pieces: “the struggle is real” and “It’s always possible to begin again.” It was like putting a puzzle together, trying to make all the pieces of varying sizes, shapes and color work as a whole. We mostly maintained the chronology, but as visual artists, how it looked mattered more than keeping a perfect timeline. We had fun forming connections by putting certain pieces together; for example: “Shut Him Up” with “Blah Blah Blah Blah” and a portrait of George Floyd next to “9 minutes 29 seconds.” Arranging together the 20 “Frankly we did win this election” signs emphasized the statement’s absurdity.
I’m sure there are lots of people who, after seeing this work, would like to experience it too. But it is in Saskatoon, Canada. Can it indeed become a traveling show?
Thank you! We hope it will travel beyond Saskatchewan and Canada. Our curator, Michelle Jacques, is currently working hard to make this happen. If anyone out there would like to host the show, please reach out to Michelle at email@example.com.
There are countless iterations. Was every piece that you did used as part of the exhibition’s archive?
Yes, though we did lose some work along the way. We moved studio three times during the pandemic and learned that storing cardboard artwork in black garbage bags is not a good idea. There are some treasures out there in Saskatoon’s landfills, including an entire bag of supply chain paintings. Also, we added some of our signs to a collaborative mural on plastic painted while artists-in-residence at a local gallery. Rather than throwing the painted plastic out, we sold it for $10 per square foot and donated the proceeds to a local wildlife rescue group. A few of the signs sold at this event were loaned back for the exhibition.
What has been the response?
It has been pretty amazing! While working on-site for three months painting the mural, many visitors stopped to tell us their pandemic stories and thanked us for giving voice to some of what they experienced. There seemed to be a kind of collective amnesia about the early pandemic, and people were weirdly grateful to be reminded of all the crazy stuff that happened. From our position on the scaffolding, we heard people laughing and also crying. Visitors returned many times because there is a lot to take in and they wanted to take it in. “And Another Thing” has been a huge and unexpected success, with over 2,000 signs contributed by visitors thus far.