If you are driving on Highway 82 and pass a large colorful banner that says ‘We are GREENWOOD STRONG’ and wonder, “What’s that?,” let me explain how making surgical masks led to a community-wide art project. In the early days of the pandemic, my Greenwood community came together and we were able to encourage each other by creating fun and uplifting banners displayed around town. The “Greenwood Strong” project, as it became known, shows what a little creativity and art can do to shine some light during a dark time.
As a gesture of gratitude to this lovely community, I decided to launch a project to spread encouragement, confirm our tenacity, and connect us all in a small but cheery way.
Covid-19 crawled into the Mississippi Delta not long after I got married in New Orleans during Mardi Gras in 2020. As a result, I soon found myself out of a job at ArtPlace, our local nonprofit where I teach art to preschool and elementary kids and sewing to tweens, teens, and adults.
Late on March 20, 2020, I received a Facebook message from Blair Harper, a nurse, asking if it was possible for me to make some masks to address a shortage at our local hospital. She included a video made by Dr. Laura R. Vick, a general surgeon in Jackson, that provided specifications for making surgical masks.
Within 24 hours, a couple more nurse friends requested masks, each message more urgent than the other. This set off a massive mask-making marathon. After completing Blair’s order, I made a similar video to Dr. Vick’s as well as a PDF instruction sheet that I sent out to all my students and fellow sewers with a call for their help. Then an unexpected thing happened. Because I posted this video and information, people approached me and started to place orders for masks.
It was so strange to go from an active life filled with the sounds of enthusiastic kids to a quiet one of solitude in my studio, making thousands of pandemic masks for friends near and far. I was working from 7:00 in the morning to well after midnight. I had previously spent many late nights at my downtown studio sewing items for my Tomboyart business, including skirts, shoulder bags and other items, but once the city went into lockdown with a 9:00 p.m. curfew, I requested a letter from the mayor giving me permission to travel between my studio and my home.
After making masks alone for about a month, I found myself with pangs of loneliness and longing for the innocent and joyful energy of kids, yet I knew getting together was forbidden and dangerous. I often found myself overcome with emotion, holding these masks in my hands and trying to process this world wide pandemic. The plague. Both of my parents in my native South Africa had passed away a number of years ago, and I wished they were still alive so that we could talk about this strange situation. I knew this was a marathon, not a sprint. To combat the mask-making fatigue and that collective feeling of dread, I needed to find a way to connect and create with my community. There had to be a way.
Like a sliver of light on a cloudy day, a plan came to mind–a way to connect myself with kids and the community in a safe way and to feed the creative yearning that I so desperately needed. As a gesture of gratitude to this lovely community, I decided to launch a project to spread encouragement, confirm our tenacity, and connect us all in a small but cheery way.
We have to stand together and care for each other
and do what we can to uplift our collective spirit.
My inspiration came while delivering an order of my handmade masks to Wade, Inc., a huge farm equipment retailer in Greenwood that sells the green and yellow John Deere farm implements that you see dotting the Delta landscape. I took note of the giant, pristine windows and visualized a long, colorful banner—in essence, an artist’s dream exhibit space. I asked owner Wade Litton if he would like to hang a big banner painted by his kids that said “Greenwood Strong” with a tractor on it. I was missing seeing his kids who came to my classes at ArtPlace before the pandemic, and I thought the project would give kids a creative outlet when they needed it most, as well provide the greater Greenwood community a little bit of hope. Everyone who drives by on Highway 82 would see it. Wade loved the idea, and “Greenwood Strong” was born.
I had no idea how the project would grow.
I asked friends who worked at other local Greenwood businesses—Turnrow Book Company, Greenwood Pharmacy, Riverfront Liquors, Mississippi Gift Company, The Alluvian Hotel, Planters Bank and Trust, Harris Shoe Repair, Greenwood Leflore Hospital—if they’d like a similar banner, and YES was the collective answer. Underneath the “Greenwood Strong” slogan on each banner was an image unique to each business. For example, I illustrated three vintage booze bottles for the liquor store, the iconic prescription symbol of a snake and a bowl for the pharmacy, martini glasses for the Alluvian, and a fish platter for Lusco’s restaurant. All illustrations were drawn with bold lines that could be seen clearly at a distance.
The kids who would have normally been in my art classes were the first ones I called on to see if they’d like to paint a banner, and—BAM!—this thing took off. People contacted me via Facebook and text messages, some wanted to help paint or to get a banner for their business and some wanted to do both! After making the initial set of banners, I shared the colorful images on the Facebook pages for myself, Artplace, and our local business support group, tagging everyone I could think of. The orders rolled in.
Dan Splaingard, an Artplace board member, suggested asking for donations to generate monetary support from the community to help cover the cost of art supplies through a companion campaign called “Donate Strong.” This proved to be a brilliant way to keep our nonprofit afloat and also raise funds for future sewing workshops at ArtPlace. We also printed t-shirts in a bunch of colors with a hilarious tongue-in-cheek Delta-style emblem.
Every day I dropped off paper banners and liquid watercolor paint kits to anyone who wanted to help. Loads of creative and enthusiastic families and friends who wanted to be a part of something positive signed up. Early on in the pandemic, everyone was stuck at home, and this was a fresh and grounding thing to do. I hand-drew each banner with India Ink, and all my collaborators had to do was color them in, kind of like an extremely large coloring page. They decorated the banners to their hearts’ desire, and I delivered them to the businesses.
It was a lot of fun being creative in customizing the images—the hospital’s banner featured a big building with a red cross, the insurance agent’s an image of a financial transaction, and the chiropractor’s banner had a smiley skeleton. It became a warm and fuzzy experience to drive across town and see these colorful and sometimes hilarious banners.
I am not a great artist—I never went to art school—but I enjoyed making these large art banners with their simple, comic-style drawings. And, as it turns out, my Greenwood community enjoyed them, too.
A Zulu proverb, “Noma bungaba bude kangakanani ubusuku kodwa ukusa kona kuyafika,” translates to “No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come.” This proverb reminds me of how I felt about this bleak and scary time we were in and how the “Greenwood Strong” project became a way to steer towards the positive. We have to stand together and care for each other and do what we can to uplift our collective spirit. My hope was that when our community saw these around town, it would inspire them with renewed energy and strength and know that we are #greenwoodstrong.
I, along with the people of Greenwood, made over 176 banners. Many of them are still hanging around town, including the very first one at Wade Inc. Most colors are faded by the sun, but you can still see the line drawings and read the words because the India ink is so tough, just like my Greenwood community.