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Just more than three weeks ago, the local arts collective ArtWatch received about 1,600 submissions for their project “Art from the Heart,” which sends artwork, as a token of thanks, to health care workers who are risking their lives to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The creations came from more than 230 people, including children and artists outside of the Washington area, from states like Texas, Illinois, Arizona, and Colorado. All pieces were limited to the size of an index card. The collection includes colorful, abstract images and drawings of flowers, birds, and hearts. Others depict health care workers wearing masks; with most of the faces covered, the emphasis is on the eyes. There are even a few funny pictures, like a dog saying, “Thank you for helping my human,” and a bottle of hand sanitizer next to the words, “Let’s come clean: your work is appreciated.”
ArtWatch distributed the art to three local hospitals, with bundles of about 500 artworks delivered to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, and MedStar Washington Hospital Center in D.C.
The mission of ArtWatch is to use visual communication to support democratic values and bring people together, with projects on topics like feminism, climate change, and inclusion that have included as many as300 artists.
City Paper spoke with ArtWatch’s co-founders Jackie Hoysted and Ellyn Weiss to learn about “Art from the Heart” and arts activism.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Washington City Paper: What was it like to go through all of the submissions for this project?
Ellyn Weiss: We knew pretty much right away that this was going to be big because of the immediate response we got when we started posting around. But 1,600 just exceeds our expectations. I think this project just speaks for itself; you don’t have to explain it. [Other ArtWatch projects have] had an edge to them. And this one we decided it would just be positive, it would just be thank you—and that’s what struck a chord.
WCP: What drew you to become arts activists?
EW:Both of us have been activists for a long time, and I’ve been involved with environmental issues for my entire professional life and that’s reflected in my art. But ArtWatch itself, the way it started was I posted a [photo] on Facebook right after the  election of an 80-plus-year-old woman holding a sign that says, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” And Jackie immediately messaged back, “Well let’s do something about it.” And that’s how ArtWatch started. It’s not a 501(c)(3). It’s not really officially organized. It’s just project by project. We reach out and the artists we know—we both have pretty deep roots in the DMV arts community—who are interested respond. I think artists, like anybody else, need to be engaged with the world around them. And this is where we choose to take a stand.
Jackie Hoysted: I didn’t set out to be an activist, but you can’t stand aside and just watch. You have to take part in making the community and the place you live the place you want to be. I think, especially with the current administration, I feel like so many things are kind of falling apart here. And we have to take a stand, and if we don’t take a stand, things will get worse. So that’s really I guess the bottom line. With forming ArtWatch, we’ve created a wonderful community where we can discuss these issues together, where we can work together to facilitate change. And I think having an art collective like this, we garner all the support together and do something more powerful than we could do individually.
WCP: Ellyn, you co-created an installation in 2017,Migration of Pestilence, about the migration of infectious diseases. Can you share what that work means to you now with COVID-19, or any messages from the artwork that relate to this time?
EW: The visual and the underlying conceptual message behind that was, we, in the northern world, have created the conditions for the movement of these diseases. We continue to be completely complacent about what we’ve created that is heading toward us, and you can’t help but feel, “It’s here.”
WCP: What have you learned from past artistic responses to crises?
JH: Working on what I call positive actions, like “Art from the Heart”: These are all positive measures where we stage what we believe in and try to get other people to come and have a conversation. I think [art] gives you the opportunity to initiate conversation, a lot of times in a non-confrontational way. It gives you a way to open up that dialogue.
EW: I’ve been surprised in my history of making climate change-related installations that they do educate people—I did one with Richard Dana, another local artist, a few years back on the destruction of the coral reefs. Lots of people came up to us and said, “Well, I didn’t really know about that.” When you’re involved in issues, you think that everybody knows about them, but they don’t. Art has the capacity to spread truth.
WCP: How would you encourage folks who aren’t activists, but are interested in getting involved in activism?
EW: You have to make your own opportunities and decide what you want to show. And take that to the galleries and propose it. I think you have to make what you believe in.
JH: It’s amazing when you do something different how many new people come into your community, and maybe you have a chance to make change.
WCP: What thoughts or feelings come up as you witness the current protests against racism and police brutality, and everything happening in our country right now?
EW: I think that the focus of activism for anybody who is horrified by where we are in this country, which ought to be a whole lot of people, has got to be on getting out the vote. ArtWatch will certainly be involved.
JH: The next six months up to the election will be the most important time in our lives. There can be nothing more important to do. Everyone must mobilize and put our concerted energy into ensuring a safe, free, and fair election come November. We cannot tolerate another four years of mayhem and rot.