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Vancouver photographer turning masks into fine art

Her work is a commentary on COVID-19 and the health of the planet

Along with COVID-19 mask mandates came mask waste.

Inspired, in a way, by this was Michelle Leone Huisman, a Vancouver photographer and mother. She's created a series of artwork focusing on the two issues.

"As subsequent waves have persisted, I started to think more critically about two pandemics — the first and more acute is COVID-19 and the second, and more insidious, is the waste we’re producing in response," she writes in a statement about her upcoming show Global Pandemic. " What are the lasting impacts of our choices today?"

The show will feature a series of photos created using masks Huisman found on the streets of Vancouver. In early 2021 she was inspired to take an artistic look at the twin issues, contrasting masks with signs of spring and rejuvenation. Initially, she felt overwhelmed by the amount of pandemic-related waste she saw, and her art reflected this, but then she met David Papineau.

"This serendipitous connection coincided with finding more children’s masks in the streets," she writes in the statement. "With Ring-Around-The-Rosie bouncing around in my head, I was inspired to bring the darker subjects of the pandemic and pollution together with proverbially playful children’s nursery rhymes and games."

Many of the pieces in the series have friendly names, like Make a Wish or Light as a Feather, while addressing the darker issues the masks represent.

"As all of us can attest, play is the universal language of childhood. This is where we learn to cope, to give and take, and to share in the joys and challenges of human interaction," she writes. "In the school year of 2020/21, my daughter began to play a game called ‘infection’ at school. Infection is similar to tag, except once
infected, you are on the same team and, as you might expect, the last person not infected wins."

Huisman's method isn't straightforward. She's using a technique from the 19th century called tri-colour gum bichromate over palladium, a chemical process done by hand.

"This meticulous artistic process ensures each work’s uniqueness and the timeless quality of the print preserves the integrity of the fine art photographs over
time," notes Huisman.

Global Pandemic will be at the Dal Schindell Gallery at Regent College at UBC from Mar. 2 to Apr. 10, though a digital version of the show can be seen on Huisman's website.