Week one of shelter in place I sulked around my tiny apartment.
Week two I turned to my favorite stress-relieving hobby: sewing. I made two quilt tops.
Week three I started sewing masks.
As SFMOMA’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, I often work on projects that either take years to come to fruition (opening a building) or are such large and important efforts (equity and inclusion) that the goal is to have them grow and permeate rather than conclude. Sewing is the opposite of this complicated work: there’s no consensus-building, it has relatively known patterns, deviations or mistakes are easily overcome, and a project can be completed in as little as a day. It’s a meditative process for me.
When I started sewing masks several weeks ago, my aim was to use this grounding hobby in service of others. Though I’m proud to say I’ve now donated more than three hundred washable, fabric masks to various groups, it wasn’t as straightforward nor as solitary an effort as I initially imagined — much to my surprise, my quiet efforts soon connected me socially with artists across the Bay Area.
The first problem I ran into was figuring out where to send the masks. I connected with photographer and social practice artist Stephanie Syjuco on social media, as she was also sewing masks and had posted about them; she shared with me an amazing spreadsheet linking sewers with frontline workers and care providers. I’ve worked with Stephanie on SFMOMA projects in the past, most notably Shadowshop, a pop-up shop featuring the wares of two-hundred local artists. Shadowshop highlighted things artists make that aren’t necessarily art — like t-shirts or pins — while drawing attention to the myriad ways in which artists participate in the economy (we also managed to disperse a cool $100,000 in sales to artists across the Bay Area). The masks we are making are not art, nor a social practice project, nor wares — Stephanie suggested to me, rather, that they are tools, emphasizing that she views her mask production labor, as well as the objects themselves, as separate from her practice.
Still, my mask-making endeavor is heavily artist-adjacent. Needing cloth for my masks, I turned to my fabric stash, and realized I had purchased several remnants from Allison Smith a few years back; Allison’s practice focuses on civilian crafting during wartime, so it seemed apt to exhaust that garage sale find for my current endeavor. It also meant that my neighborhood Rainbow Grocery Cooperative received old-timey looking floral masks; I catch glimpses of them during my weekly grocery shops and know that my labors are a small help to protect these essential workers.
The crafting world quickly experienced a run on elastic due to the surging demand for masks. Given the elastic shortage among online retailers and local shops, I posted a plea for elastic on social media. Artist and hair stylist Whitney Shaw gave me her supply and even donated her cotton curtains, while her housemates, Alicia McCarthy and Sahar Khoury, contributed leftover camouflage fabric from Sahar’s SECA exhibition. Curator Liz Thomas dropped by with a grip of stretchy shoelaces. Local drag queen and performance artist Fauxnique (a.k.a. Monique Jenkinson), dug into her costume-making trove, riding by my house for a socially distanced elastic hand-off. With these supplies, I was able to make hundreds more masks.
The national elastic shortage highlighted something much-felt among sewers, but little shared until now: a deep dislike of having to create one’s own bias tape, which can be used for mask straps when elastic is scarce. Bias tape is made from cutting thin strips of fabric, connecting them into longer strips, folding lengthwise twice, and then ironing the whole thing. It’s honestly a pain in the ass. In response to the shortage, prolific paper artist Imin Yeh quickly developed a DIY bias tape maker and sent me one in the mail. Made from Dunkin’ Donuts and Lucky Charms boxes, it is a thing of beauty — one that makes bias tape production much simpler.
Stephanie also recruited artist Lisa Solomon and social justice worker Sarah Garmisa into our mask-making posse; we have so far distributed more than one thousand masks to more than thirty groups, spanning organizations and individuals working at or with hospices, unhoused populations, day laborers, food services, healthcare facilities, disability justice, emergency city services, nursing homes, post office employees, food banks, and mutual aid groups. I have been profoundly affected by the extent to which this endeavor is made possible by the artists around me. As I shelter in place with my spouse, our apartment doesn’t seem so tiny anymore. Writer Rebecca Solnit, who is holding storytelling sessions on social media, said that we can make our spaces bigger by adding the rooms of everyone sharing these stories. In the past eight weeks my sewing table has grown not only by the thousand people wearing our masks, but by the tool-making, scrappy resourcefulness, and secret trading of goods and tricks particular to artists.