Island community uses quirky, oversized art to drive COVID awareness

"The eyeballs move!" — Michelle Bates, co-creator of the van mask

This is the week my daughter and I had expected to be vacationing on Vashon, a lovely island in the southern Puget Sound where a dear friend of mine resides. Our plans were, of course, thwarted by the pandemic. Now, my friend has been assuring me that nothing fun is happening there this summer, that everything is closed and that we won't be "missing anything." But then I saw a post on the VashonBePrepared Facebook page that triggered my FOMO. It shows a minivan that has been anthropomorphized with eyes and an oversized mask. Quirky large-scale art with a message is definitely my thing!

I had to know the story. So I tracked down one of its creators, Michelle Bates. She told me that her partner Stefan Freelan had originally masked the van for a friend's graduation parade. Together they updated it, and later drove it through an island-wide Fourth of July parade representing the Vashon Emergency Operations Center.

Michelle shared that the masked van was inspired by another unusual piece of art. This past Memorial Day, artist Mik Kuhlman welcomed visitors to Vashon from the back of a pickup in a giant red coat.

Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber:

The purpose behind the performances was to greet Memorial Day visitors to Vashon at the moment they disembarked from ferries and traveled through town, urging them to wear masks and consider the fate of an island community with limited healthcare resources.

But that's not all. "The Nose Knows," a giant nose and swab (created by Kuhlman and Toovey respectively), has been serving as a roadside PSA for on-island COVID testing:

"The nose is part of an iconic giant puppet built in 1990 by the founding members of UMO Ensemble, paraded and beloved in countless theatre events, festivals, street fairs, and protests. Conceptual artist and test site volunteer Patricia Toovey, created a large scale testing swab to accompany the nose as a means to delightfully inform our community of on island testing for Covid-19. We aim to serve as a reminder that as we open our community back up to business and summer we need to wear masks, maintain safe distancing and get tested."

Small community making a big difference with big art — love it!

One more thing Michelle shared:

The Vashon Medical Reserve Corps has created COVID-19 testing program for the island and put together a digital toolkit to share what it has learned with other rural areas and tribal communities. The toolkit describes how to do testing with minimal use of PPE with safety for unpaid volunteers. The project was featured in the New York Times.

van mask photo by Jim Diers; "Big Red COVID" photo by Jeff Dunnicliff with coat by Patricia Toovey; "The Nose Knows" photo by Michelle Bates (performers street shot L-R: Lynelle Sjoberg, Janet McAlpin, David Godsey, Mik Kuhlman; against building shot: Patricia Toovey, Janet McAlpin, David Godsey, Mik Kuhlman)