MCC’s “Wave” conveys Arizona’s COVID-19 death toll

“Wave,” which covers the MCC Art Gallery’s east wall, is made of thousands of masks representing Arizonans who died of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Harris.)
Wave” is a powerful new art installation at the Mesa Community College (MCC) Art Gallery symbolizing Arizona’s COVID-19 death toll. MCC faculty Ronna Nemitz and Debra Everett collaborated on the piece, which consists of over 2,000 masks tied together in a blanket structure over the east wall of the gallery. The installation catches the wind, rising and falling like a wave.

“It came out of a number of conversations,” said Everett, who sewed all the masks from bed linens. “We were often talking about the current situation–this was in July–about how much masks have come to represent the current situation, and it just built from there.”

Art gallery specialist Jennifer Harris has seen the gallery in flux this year due to changes brought on by the coronavirus. The majority of MCC students aren’t allowed to take classes on campus. Because of school closure, the gallery has halted the biennial staff and faculty exhibition. 

“The whole summer we were planning two scenarios,” said Harris. “Either it would be completely virtual, or we would have limited in-person hours.”

Nemitz and Everett approached Harris with “Wave” as an indoor piece, but the idea was brought outdoors when that proved impossible, according to Harris.

“They will keep making masks to keep up with the death toll for COVID-19 so it’s kinda like a memorial,” explained Harris. “It’s a heavy piece. It is interesting to put a visual to the number.”

Nemitz said they’ve already sewn over 4,000 masks. The Arizona death toll as of Sept. 1 is 5,044, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

“A friend I worked with at Phoenix College, his brother died,” said Nemitz when asked if she knew anyone who died from the virus. “He was the caretaker for his parents. He went to bed that night feeling like he had vertigo. He didn’t wake up the next morning.” 

Back in July, Nemitz felt she had to do something. Nemitz and Everett decided art was the answer. 

“My first thought was to display it at the state capitol,” said Nemitz. “I was just so upset that no one was taking it seriously.”

With blue sheets already on hand, she recognized the correlation between the color and medical scrubs. “We thought okay, what’s our palette? Well, blue scrubs. Water. Air. Then it grew from medical masks to all these homemade masks that remind us of people.”

The masks sewn from bed linens are knotted together to form a blanket shape. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Harris.)

Everett and Nemitz hoped using various patterns meant the onlooker could see and relate to something or someone. Both Everett and Nemitz said while they enjoy looking at the piece, which can at first appear light and airy, they overall feel sadness.

“It’s just about loss in general,” said Everett. “The connections with people, the way we’re used to interacting, our emotional stability…It’s the grand scale of devastation of all this.”

The piece will come down in early September, but Harris hoped to have it back once the pandemic is over for students, faculty and others to view. 

The gallery is receiving all submissions virtually and is currently working on a website. They are hoping for the art department show to go live on their site in September.

About Author

Allison Cripe is a guest writer for the Mesa Legend. She also writes songs and short stories such as this one in Across the Margin: Dogs are her spirit animal(s).