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Chester County Press

Meet, Greet, Paint

04/26/2021 10:56AM ● By Richard Gaw

(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Landenberg Life)

Like many of us, Landenberg artist Nanci Hersh has spent the last year speaking – and looking -- into her computer screen. She has turned the faces she saw into art, and the result is a stunning portrait of moments in time

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

In its purest and most practical form, the entire mission of the Delaware Institute for the Arts in Education – commonly known as DiAE -- can be summarized in one word.


Its consortium of teaching artists, who visit schools throughout the state and expose young people to the arts, is often a very tactile form of teaching necessitated by the need to guide a young hand wielding a paintbrush; to position a young boy just so on a dance floor; or to high-five a child who beautifully times the rhythm of her drum beats to the sway of the accompanying music.

It is an organization of hands, opening up the great big toy box of discovery and inspiration and placing it all into the small, outstretched arms of those who have often never held these things before.

Then suddenly last March, the switch was flipped. COVID-19 had shuttered the windows of opportunity that had defined the organization since its founding 40 years before. In-person lessons became virtual ones, and packets were sent to schools that were forced to operate in a confusing, back-and-forth schedule between hybrid and full lockdown.

With little warning, Nanci Hersh – who has been the Executive Director of DIAE since 2017 -- was finding herself running the organization of teaching artists, staff and other contributors from her home studio in Landenberg, largely through a contraption of convenience and necessity known as Zoom.

“I felt like we all had to pivot quickly,” said Hersh who, in addition to her role at DiAE, has had a long career as a contemporary mixed media artist. “This pandemic has forced us to learn how to connect to each other in new ways.”

‘Unmasked: Portraits from the Zoom Room’

During one Zoom meeting early during the pandemic, Hersh caught sight of herself in one of the many faces on her computer screen. She snapped a quick selfie, and later began to sketch it. The pencil drawing became the portrait of the artist in the confines of a rectangular screen in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, and soon, the artist had cracked the code for a new project.

Now, 22 portraits later and still counting, Hersh is preparing for the release of her latest work, “Unmasked: Portraits from the Zoom Room,” an eventual wall installation of a series of acrylic paintings that capture the faces she sees every day on Zoom – teachers, artists and co-workers caught in various forms of expression. The exhibit is a near-exact reflection of her art, which has been informed by the experiences, relationships and places in her life, as well as their delicacy, beauty and fragility.

“With every screenshot captured, I found a different story, a new perspective, and a recognizable silver lining – illuminating the humor, boredom, pathos, and beauty that has kept us all connected,” she said. “The strange newness of being with other in the privacy of their own home while in the space of my home seemed surreal – and also intriguing. It seemed to epitomize the isolation as well as the connectivity of the time and place we have found ourselves in.

“It was a paradigm shift that moved me from focusing on what’s going on in the box to how we are now connected through this virtual space. The monitor is a frame which confines us, but the truth is that we are now all unmasked. We bring our lives to every meeting, trying to create this version of ourselves that is presentable, but as we have been learning, we can’t always control – with kids, pets and unexpected surprises that often ‘zoom-bomb” the sessions.”

Individual stories

What has made Hersh’s exhibit so riveting is not just its volume or its size, she said, but that every individual in these 16-inch by 26-inch rectangles brings his or her own story into focus. There is her fellow yoga student, who has taken the class not only online but into her backyard. There is the artist who has the talent and material to arrange parties on a moment’s notice, showing off a few of her party designs. There is the university professor who arranged to set up a virtual background up for his Zoom participation in the form of a Jake and Elwood Blues photo. There is young girl who lives next door to Hersh, who the artist photographed watching a virtual DiAE performance.

“I look at each person on the screen, in their environment and begin to visualize where there is a compelling story,” Hersh said. “It begins from a place of personal interest. I hone in on those moments within that rectangle that are the most captivating to me.”

Hersh is not alone. Many moments lived during the last year have been scarred by the residue of a pandemic or at the very least, impacted and inconvenienced. For Hersh, the pandemic – and the necessary evil of communicating through an app device – has magnified the power of human connectivity.

Hersh envisions the future of “Unmasked: Portraits from the Zoom Room” becoming an installation at a gallery, exhibit space or museum – one that will allow viewers to gather post-COVD-19 and interpret the work as a chapter marker document that celebrates our resiliency to carry on in the face of a pandemic.

“This project is about the connection and compassion I have for every person profiled,” she said. “What we really seem to be sharing is our vulnerability and or humanity, for which I am truly grateful, especially during this past year or so of dissonance, uncertainty, trauma and unrest.”

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To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].