Ohio Arts Council Communications Strategist Katie Monahan makes her curatorial debut with “Ohio Arts Beacon of Light,” an exhibition chronicling the journeys of 17 Ohio artists surviving and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic at the Riffe Gallery located downtown of Columbus.
In the spring of 2020, when the shutdowns began, Monahan was put in charge of the Ohio Arts Beacon of Light initiative, an idea that led the council to create an online platform for artists to submit their work for a chance to be featured in Ohio Arts Beacon of Light Instagram page. This initiative allowed artists to showcase their work, connect with others and work together in an effort to inspire and enrich Ohio communities, Monahan said.
“We want to give people a place to be inspired by art, but we also want to help artists,” Monahan said. “We asked them to include a narrative of how they coped, how their practice changed, whether they were able to create – or maybe they just couldn’t find it in themselves at the time – how they dealt with it.”
Three hundred artists’ works have appeared on the Instagram account, Monahan said. Intending to turn the initiative into an exhibition, Monahan said she and Kat Sheridan, director of the Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery, narrowed the pool of artists to 17 to be included in the show.
“I just think it’s such a wonderful full-circle story, like, here we are, seeing the work in person,” Monahan said.
Each artist featured in the Ohio Arts Beacon of Light has two to six works on display, and those works include many of the artists’ online offerings as well as works created since the initiative began, Monahan said.
The result is a large exhibition that includes photography, mixed media, sculpture, watercolor, acrylic and oil paintings, charcoal and colored pencil drawings, installations and ceramics, Monahan said. Through Ohio Arts Beacon of Light, Monahan said she hopes to convey how art can connect, communicate and serve as a coping mechanism.
“I think we really wanted to be able to communicate the power of the arts as a salve for artistic practice, as a healing mechanism, whether it’s artists who create the art who use it as their own healing practice or people who are looking at it who can relate to that in some way,” Monahan said.
COVID-19, Monahan said, is a collective experience, but each individual experiences it differently. Despite the artists’ different backgrounds and styles, Monahan said they all returned to a selection of themes related to their struggles during the pandemic.
“There were definitely themes that came up when we started looking at the artists and the works that we chose, and they were all themes of basic human need: the need for shelter, the need to feel safe, the need for community,” Monahan said. “It’s this collective need for connection and a sense of safety and being able to have those conversations.”
Inside the gallery, on the right side of the exhibit — what Monahan considered the beginning of the experience — focuses on solace in nature and the solitary healing process, she said.
Moving through the gallery, charcoal drawings focused on grief bridge the gap between the reclusive individualism at one end of the exhibit and the community-based works at the other, Monahan said. At the far left end of the room, Monahan said visitors will find work representing light in times of darkness.
“I think of it as a journey. It’s driven by that lonely, internal process that I think a lot of us went through,” Monahan said. “I’m standing here with these flowers and I can feel those early days when all I could do was go outside and then as we move, it kind of represents that feeling of, well, there’s light at the end of the tunnel and inserting that physical community back in.”
Sheridan said Monahan’s curation of the Ohio Arts Beacon of Light and application of the themes surrounding COVID-19 are phenomenal. She said she appreciated the way Monahan created a seamless viewing experience through her selection of artists and placement of the works.
“She accomplished a milestone at a really difficult time, and I think she perfectly epitomizes the way that every artist either uses art as a salve to help themselves move through this space emotionally, or uses it to help heal community, or use it to articulate ideas about what’s going on in our world,” Sheridan said.
“Ohio Arts Beacon of Light” will be on display at the Riffe Gallery, located at 77 S. High St., from noon to 5 p.m. through Friday. Original proposals for the initiative can be found on the Instagram of the exhibition.