Art and Text by Susan Dickman
In the beginning the virus was called Corona: a crown, a wreath, named for the aura of plasma surrounding the sun. It had a strange beauty, when you looked at its rainbow saturated images and mysterious spikes jutting out from the surface, like some bizarre new planetary body circling our own. But as it migrated across the globe wreaking panic and death, it acquired another descriptor, novel because we hadn’t before seen this scary and ever-changing version.
When it started, I began playing with oil pastels and olive oil, the action of rubbing colors into paper a way to self-soothe, an attempt to create something from the loss of control as the virus swiftly took over and it was all we heard and read about. What emerged was a series of frankly feminine pod-like shapes I thought of as Birth Capsules. I knew I was searching for safe passage out of the chaos and fear: new beginnings, new life, a fresh untouched path.
And although I’m not one who prays daily, a phrase from the daily Shacharit (“Asher Yatzar—Who Has Formed Man”) had been buzzing around in my head as well:
(1) Blessed are You, God, our God, sovereign of the universe, who formed humans with wisdom and created within him openings openings and cavities cavities. It is obvious in the presence of your glorious throne that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence.
Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and performs wonders.
“Openings openings and cavities cavities”— I’ve always loved this doubling of words, and the body knowledge of a rabbi from 4th century Babylonia amazed me. Although it’s normally recited in reference to using the bathroom, the blessing reveals more broadly the wonder at how the human body is formed. I think of the valves of the heart, the map-like system of arteries and veins carrying precious bodily fluids between vital organs, each opening and cavity serving a particular purpose and function. The encaustic pieces I made reflect my sense of horror/fascination with how I imagine the path of the virus in cells throughout the body. I chose to use small substrates, and after an initial piece (mostly black flooded by red), I found myself crowding them with color, covering, scraping away, and reapplying many layers of wax and oil sticks as I worked. It was a challenge to consciously work against creating something aesthetically pleasing to depict actions so devastating, and I’m still not sure that I’ve succeeded.