Home is where this is: In virtual exhibit at Forbes Library, writers and artists reflect on what they’ve discovered about home during pandemic 

  • “Joe,” oil painting by Jeanne Henry Hoose, which comes with the tagline, “Homebody in his element.”  Forbes Library

  • Shades of Tom Sawyer: In “Home Work,” Richard Getler profiles a young window washer who finds the experience more a game than work. Richard Getler/courtesy Forbes Libary

  • “Cats in the Garden”: To keep busy during the pandemic, retired librarian and children’s book author Sally Keehn painted this mural on sliding closet doors in her bedroom. Forbes Library

  • The pandemic drove many to seek solace in nature, as Rebecca Leopold did by kayaking in Tully Lake north of Athol. Rebecca Leopold/courtesy Forbes Library

  • Florence Night Out 2021: “Community is home too,” says photographer Jesse Merrick. Jesse Merrick/courtesy Forbes Library

  • In her colored pencil drawing “Everyone is Looking for Their Winter Nest,” Amy Kotel considers the loss of “alone time” during the pandemic, with so many people hunkered at home. Image courtesy Forbes Library

  • “Grasshopper Sparrow,” watercolor by Meghan Schwelm, who says she feels most at home “when I am surrounded by nature or creating artwork in response to it.” Forbes Library

Staff Writer
Published: 4/8/2022 9:12:22 PM
Modified: 4/8/2022 9:11:20 PM

Last year, in the depths of the pandemic, Forbes Library hosted a virtual exhibit, “In This Together,” that invited artists to submit work reflecting on issues that had gained prominence since the onset of COVID-19: human health, social justice and climate change.

This past January, as the omicron variant spread more uncertainty and chaos, the library conceived of a second online show, this one centered on another theme that had emerged during a time when many people saw their lives dramatically circumscribed: How do you define the concept of “home”?

Now, 77 contributors to “Home” have produced a range of work — paintings, photos, woodcuts, poems, essays and more — that explores that theme, including how the pandemic has made them reassess what’s important in their lives, or in some cases led to a sense of isolation that’s been hard to shake.

The exhibit, which runs to April 30, includes 117 selections, all from western Massachusetts artists and writers. The work covers a range of emotions, including humor and at times a sense of loss. Yet some contributors say they’ve found renewed joy in living in a region with plenty of natural beauty.

“We’ve been really pleased with how thoughtful and creative people have been in addressing the themes for both of these [online] exhibits,” said Faith Kaufman, the head of Forbes’ Arts and Music Department and a co-curator of “Home.”

“We put out a broad call for art and we don’t know what we’ll get until we see it,” Kaufman says. “In this case we got a very balanced mix of visual art and writing … It’s especially nice to have a place where we can make that writing available, since that’s not a part of our in-person exhibits.”

Some of that writing speaks directly to pandemic-induced isolation. In her poem “Covid Chrysalis,” Michele Keane-Moore describes a palpable sense of alienation in which bad news seems amplified; she wonders what she’s turning into in her enforced cocoon.

“Less charming than Eric Carle’s / Very Hungry Caterpillar, / I have eaten my way / Through endless headlines / And news stories on the pandemic. / Wrappers of countless atomic fireballs, / Peanut M&Ms, and various crumbs / Are also piled around me. / Now, bloated and over-full / Of bad news with no end in sight, / I retreat into myself.”

In a short essay, Diana Federman reflects on her connection to her home state of Illinois. Though she’s lived half her life in Massachusetts, she writes, she stills feel the pull of the Midwest, a part of the U.S. that some dismiss as “flyover country.”

“If you always fly over the Midwest, you will never drive past fields of wheat and corn, waving in a mesmerizing sheen that stretches to the horizon,” Federman writes. “You won’t be dazzled by the sunrises and sunsets that are the gift of a wide open sky. You won’t smell the rich, black, freshly upturned soil in spring, or wonder at the rolling Mississippi, a mile wide in my part of the state.”

And in “The House on Keyes Street,” Ed Orzechowski notes that the home he grew up in near Florence center was torn down long ago and replaced by a parking lot. He recalls his father listening to Red Sox games on an A.M. radio while sitting on the front porch, and the slow chug of freight trains on nearby tracks that eventually became the Northampton Rail Trail.

“For me, 14 Keyes Street still exists, in a snapshot in my mind,” he writes.

The visual ‘home’

“Home” offers a wealth of images, including outdoor photos, as some people sought refuge in nature or through meeting others outside. For his atmospheric black and white shot of downtown Florence during the village’s “Night Out 2021” celebration last September, Jesse Merrick writes, “Community is home too.”

In her folk-art flavored drawing “Everyone is Looking For Their Winter Nest,” Amy Kotel touches on another aspect of pandemic isolation: a loss of “alone time.” Her colored pencil tableau depicts a sort of human/bird figure with its arms/wings spread wide, while to its right a tiny house nestles on a tree branch.

“In some ways I have lost my inner home,” Kotel writes in accompanying notes, reflecting on the last two years. “I share where I live with my husband, who is working at home a great deal, and my spirited daughter. There is very little quiet in my house and this has challenged me to find my inner stillness.”

Then there are the simple — and amusing — pleasures of home. Jeanne Henry Hoose’s oil painting “Joe” depicts a guy lounging on a couch, feet propped on a low table; he holds a wine glass in one hand that’s extended to his left, and his head is turned that way, too, as if he expects someone to give him a refill.

“Homebody in his element,” Hoose writes of her painting.

In a trio of photographs, Richard Gettler offers contrasting views of home: a striking image of a small red cottage in a snowy field, with bright blue sky and puffy clouds overhead; a closeup of a broken window in an abandoned house; and a portrait of a happy little boy pulling a squeegee down a soapy window.

“It takes a child to find such delight in washing the kitchen windows,” Getler writes.

Sally Keehn, meanwhile, who describes herself as a “72 year old former librarian and children’s book author who had never painted any art work in her life,” shared images of the large murals she painted on her basement walls and an upstairs closet door to keep busy during the pandemic.

“[H]ome is not only a shelter from the storms, but also a safe place in which to let my creativity soar,” she writes.

Kaufman says she’s not sure if Forbes Library will host additional virtual exhibits, with the pandemic seemingly winding down. But with the library’s in-person exhibits at Hosmer Gallery still facing a big backlog from shows postponed during COVID’s worst phases, she says “Home” has provided a great opportunity for a broader range of artists to share their work.

“I think it’s been a really cool way to introduce artists to one another, to build community, and to kind of reflect on this strange time we’ve been in,” she said. “So we’ll see what we do further down the road.”

There will be a online artists’ reception for “Home” on April 14 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at which 28 of the contributors will discuss their work. You can register for the event and view the exhibit at forbeslibrary.org/exhibit2022.

The current Hosmer Gallery exhibit, which runs through April 29, features rubber stamp portraits by Alison Johnson, mixed media/sculpture made from found materials by Jen Dieringer, and photos of new Americans by Mark Chester.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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