It has been one year since the present pandemic of COVID-19 has placed a stranglehold on America. In this past year alone, the political and social problems that had already gripped the country’s backbone have since risen to catastrophic levels. The ever-increasing conflicts of racial violence, unjust distributions of wealth, and staggering surges of poverty and unemployment have caused many Americans to believe that their country is on the verge of national collapse. I have increasingly begun to depict these issues in my art. In the time frame of the past several months, I have worked in my studio every day, drawing these issues that I see, not only on the Nightly News, but also as I drive and walk along the roads and streets of Portland. In my drawings of people holding signs of desperation on street corners, crowds marching for the reopening of our country’s schools, and people feeling the tidal waves of racial unrest on the T.V’s of their living rooms, I want to show my viewers the importance of recognizing these issues. This mission has now become the sole purpose of my art, for I firmly believe that once my viewers gain more knowledge of these conflicts, then we the people will create solutions that will bring recovery to the American nation.
Image at top: Norajean Ferris, On These Pandemic Streets, pen, pastel, marker, and ink, 60 x 44 in., 2021 (photo: Matthew Rawdon).
For the past couple of years, I have enjoyed creating collaged and painted portraits of family and friends. This has been a source of comfort to me during the long time of quarantine and limited stimulation. It has helped to stave off those feelings of aloneness.
Every level of self—physical, sensory, mental, social, spiritual—is besieged by the pandemic. The terrorizing insult of unknowable illness is heightened by political tension and divisiveness, not to mention fear, bubbling along like dark waters under the street.
Perhaps unremarkably, themes of contagion and blame present themselves through rising darkness. For a while, my prevalent mood was uncertainty and making artwork halted—though it was extensively worried through and written about.
A riveting essay I found told the story of a plague doctor doll that inexplicably went missing in a New York apartment. Musing on the potency of the plague doctor, I started immersing myself in the history of the plague and using it as a lens to examine my own and the world’s circumstances. The miasmatic theory of disease held that odors could infect the receiver and cause illness, which seemed plausible cause for rampant conspiracy theories. Could the plague doctor help us now? Maybe it was prolonged isolation that made my usual collage-making seem unequal to the task. I abandoned collage and started working with clay and found materials to model my totem, the plague doctor.
Our speech and sense of smell, two critical human functions, are sorely impeded by the masks we now wear. According to the medicine of the plague doctor’s time, moving about in a cloud of perfume would be protective, and carrying something akin to a pomander ball would act as a charm to prevent infection. The doctors themselves had the curious beak masks filled with potpourri—and “pockets full of posies” signified both the mark of the bubonic plague and the nosegays that common folk carried to ward it away.
While walking on tapestries of seaweed by the wintry Atlantic, I pick up detritus—stones and shells—in which I imagine the features of my doctor. But the doctor could be a winged plague faery or a puppet or a cathedral’s jettisoned gargoyle, floating free. When I birth one, I ornament it, select its proper attire, and add a tiny bag of aromatics to augment its/her/his power.