Containing disease and restarting the economy have been the prime twin goals of coronavirus efforts, locally and across the globe. But dealing with our emotional and community responses have been important as well, particularly among artists who have been sidelined by lockdown orders.

Reflecting how artists are responding has been one of the results of a digital campaign by Community Works and New Heritage Theatre Group to celebrate local Harlem heroes in the time of coronavirus. Through posts on Facebook and Instagram, the campaign is building on the spirit of the 20-year effort to spotlight local heroes, famous or not, who are making a difference through the pandemic. It is getting a lot of response.

Andrea Arroyo’s paintings, for example, remind us that art can help healing. Her latest works are from a series she calls PAUSEd in NY to record her own and others’ experiences in the virus lockdown, and to encourage widespread acceptance of the Stay at Home message as a way to help frontline workers treating those caught up in the contagion.

From the earliest days of coronavirus in New York, it was clear to photographer Lisa Dubois, curator of X Gallery, that people were not wearing masks, and it bothered her that they were not protecting themselves—or her. So she launched a personal campaign to hang masks from statues—people of note, actually, who might draw attention in the area, including Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln. It was a way for the Harlem-born artist to creatively point out how to keep healthy, if we listen.

Robin Holder’s paintings are complex, multi-technique-driven textures layered by people, environments, history and cultures. They tell stories, which are now about being caught up in a world of pandemic, exhibiting just the kind of creativity that brings forth questioning and pointed concern about our world.

Keeping up cultural spirit is at the heart of healing, as is looking to the creativity of the arts, “not just because things are visually appealing,” but because that feeling of being engaged is what is central to our lives. Enter Michelle Bishop, a premier fiber arts artist and executive director of Harlem Needle Arts, an organization that is holding online workshops during enforced stays at home for emerging artists using thread and needle. “The health aspect is in using our hands,” said Bishop. “We want our Mantra Mondays, as well call them, to be a gathering space that creates a space of healing,” she explained, adding that “continuous spinning is the mantra of the stitch. Everyone is looking at a sewing machine.”

The yarn crochet work is across from Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem, a sign that reads El Barrio YOU to thank frontline coronavirus health workers. It is the work of fiber artist Naomi Lawrence and five neighbors known as El Barrio Crochet Collective who decided that they needed to do something public to bring notice and to contribute to the healing of the neighborhood. Their colorful acrylic yarn pieces—Lawrence makes large yarn flowers hung on fences, among other public places—are about healing without a political edge, she explained, but definitely not about beautification. “It became as much about supporting each other as it was to make the piece,” she said, noting that one contributor’s grandmother had contracted COVID-19. “What’s behind my public art is always about some kind of healing and making people smile.”

The disease has prompted Harlem’s activist people and institutions from medicine, the arts, education, food service, religious life and environmentalism to undertake work to help keep our community healthy, particularly in exploring the data showing that the virus is disproportionately striking Black and Brown communities.

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