‘What Lives On’: The power of art amidst the pandemic

Art has the capability to speak when words aren’t enough.

No one shows the truth of this statement greater than Tennille Davis Shuster, associate professor of graphic design at Mercer University.

Shuster is the artist behind the newest display at the Plunkett Gallery of Hardman Hall, located on Mercer University’s Macon campus.

Combining her love of graphic design with creative writing and reading, Shuster created a collection of memories and moments to both help us survive and remember the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shuster created the book art project titled “5 Things” that is based on the podcast hosted and produced by Tara Anderson. Students in Shuster’s ART 310 Graphic Design II class were told to identify five things that tell the story of their quarantine experience via an artist’s book.

The students were asked to consider questions like, “how do the objects we love define us?”, “what can we learn from the things we treasure?” and “how can we discover a life story through these objects?”

By focusing on things that helped them during the pandemic, students were empowered to alter the way they viewed the pandemic, transitioning from a time of isolation and loneliness to one of simple joy for the everyday pleasures.

With this emphasis on the simple things, we get a glimpse into Shuster’s passion for art as a whole.

“Books, held in the hand, provide a personal interaction that many design formats simply cannot. They engage the senses. Hearing the crack of a spine as you open a book, revealing a beautifully marbled endpaper. Feeling the cotton paper on your fingertips. Even catching the scent of freshly printed ink as you turn the pages,” Shuster said.

This emphasis on the simplistic beauty of her work is highlighted once the viewer looks closer at Shuster’s latest personal project, “What Lives On.”

“What Lives On” is a pandemic journal project designed to aid in documenting personal narrative histories during COVID-19. These journals also house places to honor those who did not survive the pandemic and facilitate a correspondence between the pandemic survivors and future generations.

The “What Lives On” project allows the individual to fill in the enclosed pages by responding to 20 prompts. Through the addition of photographs, recipe cards, personal memories, love letters or any other special mementos that helped an individual during the trying times of the pandemic, the book project is as much a way to remember the trying time as well as to heal from it.

Those who fully immerse themselves in the art and write something recalling their time spent during the pandemic or during quarantine focus on the bright moments that made the pandemic bearable, while also remembering those who were lost.

“I produce book art editions that are, at their core, graphic design objects, yet they are personal and precious, just as many books continue to be for so many readers,” Shuster said.

These books are viewed as treasured objects, as books not only have a definitive historical significance but have also been instrumental in changing the world.

“Books have shaped nations and spread religions. Books, held in the hand, provide a personal interaction that many design formats simply cannot,” Shuster said.

The quarantine journals seen in “What Lives On” are the embodiment of human emotion, showing the thing we must all hold onto during this time: the memories, both good and bad.

This idea that books can transcend time and space is also seen in Shuster’s work, “The Party’s Over,” created in 2017 amongst political turmoil and a divided nation.

“I believe that book art provides the perfect artistic vehicle to communicate complex emotion in response to cultural events,” Shuster said.

This emphasis on the power of art is only more poignant upon inspection of Shuster’s paper marbling in which Turkish Ebru, Japanese Suminagashi and Spanish Moire methods result in a series of colors and shapes reminiscent of geological structures formed under various stresses and pressures.

“The new series is realized as a visual representation of the current state of tension caused by the global pandemic, political unrest and call for social justice. Each is a reminder of the unpredictable nature of external forces each individual must yield to,” Shuster said.

This emphasis on the full immersion into the grief, tragedy, joy and love that the pandemic brought to the surface creates an exhibit that appeals to the plethora of human emotion without being forced or cliche.

The elevation of the seemingly simple medium of paper to an exquisite and multifaceted work of art shows the tangible and real beauty of everyday objects, particularly against the background of the pandemic.

From the bright colors of the geographic designs to the multitude of prints found on the individual quarantine journals, Shuster creates a display that is not only beautiful to look at but also captures the imagination with its bold swirls, textures and lines.

Shuster has created nothing short of a masterpiece display, using the darkness of the pandemic to bring happy moments and even sad memories to light. By allowing the individual to submerge themselves in their emotions and feelings, Shuster does not shy away from the difficult moments. Instead, she faces them head-on, creating art that is striking and purposeful.

It does no good to forget those that have passed or the melancholy moments we have faced in 2020 and now 2021. Instead, we must embrace them, remembering them as moments of growth where we worked towards glimmers of light despite the darkness around us.

Reflection, resolutions and realizations have been key to surviving the pandemic. Shuster’s ability to combine the intricacy of paper with the bold and skillful world of graphic design allows her to create an exhibit that not only catches the reader’s attention but calls to the yearning book lover and hopeful soul in us all.