Dominican Sisters’ COVID-19 Art Exhibit Commemorates Pandemic Deaths

ADRIAN, Mich. — During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the community of Adrian Dominican Sisters was a microcosm of the suffering and loss caused by the coronavirus. Of the 219 residents of the Sisters’ Motherhouse in Adrian, 14 died of COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic.

The loss caused the remaining sisters to experience their grief, and many chose to do so through art. Last May-August, the sisters displayed some of this art in an exhibit in their gallery at the Weber Retreat and Conference Center. The Art in the Time of COVID exhibition featured works by eight women, including five sisters.

It happened after a group of the sisters and their friends met on Zoom to share the work they created during the pandemic.

“It was an effort to process the reality of COVID and the pandemic and everything that was going on and a lot of the loss that was going on and the sickness and death that was going on and the uncertainty, plus giving expression to our own creative selves,” said Adriano Dominican Sister Suzanne Schreiber, coordinator for the sisters’ gallery space, INAI: A Space Apart.

The INAI Gallery — from a Japanese word meaning “inside” — was the vision of Adrian Dominican sisters Barbara Chenicek and Rita Schiltz, who died in 2015 and 2020, respectively. In the 1970s, the sisters converted an old laundry room into a studio and gallery space, and when Cenicek passed away, the sisters decided to turn it into a permanent gallery where they could also host classes and retreats.

The Art in the Time of COVID exhibition featured a variety of art styles, from painting to photography to quilting, journaling and collage, and more. Visitors were invited to write the names of those lost to COVID-19 on a piece of paper and place it in a basket as part of the exhibit.

For one of the artists, Adrian Dominican Sister Nancian Turner, the exhibit was a way to deal with the grief of losing friends.

“In a way, this global pandemic has made us global citizens, so while you were grieving these people you also knew, you also saw pictures of New York and Italy and France, and it was a chance to complain in a more communal way,” she told Detroit Catholic, the news agency of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Turner, who has been a Dominican for more than 60 years, participated in the exhibition with multiple artistic mediums, including memorial quilts, collages and creative journal entries.

“I made three quilts — the first one was a hope quilt when we thought COVID would be over in six months,” she said. The second quilt was called “Complaint”, made with darker colors but with a hint of light to show that “there is always a glimmer of new light and the hope of resurrection.”

Through quilting, Turner said she was able to take the variety of colors and shapes to create a new unity.

“I think it’s another wonderful example of female creativity,” she said. “In this time of hibernation and cocooning, it was very comforting to work on each week and remember my mother and grandmother again as I chose and sewed these different colors, which helped me to complain, but also helped me to have hope and peace.”

The exhibit also included photos of two other projects Turner is working on, including a memorial garden she created in memory of her own sister, who died prior to COVID-19. As he did so, he expanded into a memorial to everyone he knew who had died.

“It was a way to go outside and use soil and seeds and follow the legacy of my father, grandfather and grandmother who were all farmers, so it was another way I tried to create a place of beauty to honor the recent death of our own sister,” she said.

She also contributed to a larger memorial project for those lost to COVID-19. In 2021, Detroit began gathering people for a public art memorial to acknowledge the depth of loss in the region during the pandemic. Residents of Detroit and citizens of Southeast Michigan were invited to participate. Turner decided to make memorial bags for those she knew who were lost to the coronavirus, especially sisters.

“We lost 14 sisters to COVID this year despite our best efforts, so I made a memorial for each of them, and then several of the kids I had worked with at the Capuchin soup kitchen also passed away, so I made one for each of them too,” she said. “It was like a sacred effort to try to remember each of them and almost connect with them. Each of these little bags included a little prayer or a little letter next to them – sort of a memory for them. For me it was a very peaceful and holy effort to make the memory tangible. And every monument was different. I used beads, lace, yarn and stitches and I just felt connected (to them).”

In Adrian’s Dominican community of about 440 members, many are artists, and Turner believes that making art, albeit somewhat informally, is part of the order’s charisma.

“I think part of our Dominican spirituality and our Christian spirituality is to respond to God’s creativity and use our creative energy for the good of others,” Turner said. “There’s a lot of direct service that we do for justice and peace and working against racism, but I also think there’s a call to create beauty and a call to affirm people’s longing for the sacred.”

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Patty is a staff news reporter for Detroit Catholic, the online news agency of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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