Some baked sourdough bread. Some learned to cut their own hair. Some focused anew on their gardens or organized their photos. Others caught up on offerings from streaming services and their own DVR queues. And artists made art. Several filmmakers figured out how to shoot socially distanced movies. Zadie Smith wrote a book. Richard Nelson wrote a new installment of his Apple Family Plays that was performed on Zoom.
Around Southern California (and in the Pacific Northwest), a group of six designers found their own way forward. They came together, courtesy of the embattled U.S. Postal Service, on a unique project: part chain letter, part collaborative artwork.
The canvas round robin was the brainchild of Brenda Parkin of San Diego, who spent 28 years as a color designer at Nissan Motors and now has her own color consultancy. She enlisted her sister, production designer and prop house owner Teri Whittaker, and four others she’s known for many years — one from kindergarten (Toni Davidson), and others from work in the automotive industry (designers Bryan Thompson, Marty McKelvy, and Longwood Highlands resident Judy AmicAngelo, who is also a color consultant).
Brenda says, “By week four of lockdown, I knew I needed to create some sort of creative fun or I’d soon be a 300-pound crazy cat lady. Plus there was some romantic side of ’70s chain letters in my memory.”
Brenda lined up the group. She put together six envelopes, each containing an 8×10.5-inch canvas and a sheet with names and addresses showing the order the canvas should be sent to other participants. Each canvas began and ended with one person, and subsequent recipients added their unique touches. Then they put it back in an envelope and sent it along.
Judy says, “It was so spontaneous. It got harder at the end because they were really beautiful and you had to get a feeling about what to add. Mine came back like the 1960s, which is exactly who I am. I wondered, ‘How did they know?’”
For some, the project was a main source of contact with the outside world during this period. For others, it was a return to art.
Toni, a Huntington Beach native now living in eastern Washington State, says, “WhenBrenda invited me, I was intimidated because I’m not an artist. I just retired after 26 years as a biologist with the Federal government. My creative self wasn’t being tapped for all those years, so it was great fun to honor that, and to join a bunch of professionals.”
Marty notes, “I didn’t know all the people involved. But each canvas had a clue so I followed people’s personalities by default. On mine, I did a big yellow swirl.” He then sat back and waited, not knowing that who had added raffia flowers (Teri) and fabric (Toni). Only on a Zoom call at the end of the project did the artists find out who had done what.
“At work, when I share and give back, I always get back something so much better,” Marty adds. “The same thing was true with the art.”
“The fun part was getting something in the mail,” says Teri. “And it was also fun figuring out how to makeshift our contributions because it wasn’t like we could run to Michael’s. We had to work with what we had at home.”
Marty adds. “You can see the commonality in them all, even though they’re very different.”
Bryan also expresses how fulfilling the collaboration was. “I love how people took it dimensional. I wouldn’t have thought of that.”
“It was exciting to get the mail,” says Brenda. “It was exciting to have something to think about rather than just watching CNN. I’d have to figure out what I wanted to do with it. Some would sit for a few days and then I’d have a few glasses of wine and create a masterpiece. The next day suddenly it didn’t look so good but I knew the next person would fix it. It was good to not have in my head exactly what it would be in the end, to just let it go.”
The project was not without its glitches. Bryan thought it involved only one canvas, not six. He left for Provincetown and briefly held up progress. The group learned that the Post Office charges $2 extra for rigid envelopes, so postage costs were confusing and some packages were returned to senders. Sometimes weeks would go by without a canvas, then three would come at once. But in the end, all six canvases made it to their respective homes, and brought all their artists joy.
“I’d love to do it again,” Judy says. But, she points out, “it would never be like the first time.”
When the canvases were done, Brenda used an Illustrator tool to pull out their predominant colors. Each work ended up with a color palette that matched their owner’s homes—even though participants hadn’t visited each other and most didn’t even know each other. The artists found that remarkable. Toni has been converting a camper van and plans to put her picture by the bed when it’s done. “The van is green and the colors all match,” she says happily.
What a great project! Thanks for sharing.