EAU CLAIRE — Local artists are transforming the Chippewa Valley’s pandemic stories of tragedy, sadness and hope into artworks that are being incorporated into a large mural, spearheaded by Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire.
Mayo Clinic is looking for local artists and memories from 2020 and 2021, and it’s already paired some of those artists and stories together.
The result: the beginnings of a mural the clinic has dubbed “Healing Reflections.”
The mural, made up of freestanding panels, can be expanded or broken down into sections. It will stretch around 45 feet long once completed, the clinic said.
Mayo Clinic’s Healing Arts Committee has been working on the mural project for almost a year, organizers said Wednesday.
“We looked around and saw people grieving in different ways,” said Dr. Todd Wright, a Mayo Clinic orthopedic surgeon and chair of the Healing Arts Committee. “Forms of grief are depression, denial, anger and some acceptance. You could see that in our patients and community.”
The committee wanted to capture those feelings of loss and helplessness, so everyone who has struggled or lost loved ones during the pandemic knows they’re not alone, Wright said.
In the stories, local people talk about financial hardship, mental health, fighting the virus on the front lines and the unique pandemic-era obstacles facing people of color.
Wright and UW-Eau Claire provost Patricia Kleine developed the idea of pairing stories with local artists.
“It helps the community to know this is not a one-person experience,” said Dr. Leonard Ezenagu, a Mayo OB/GYN and chair of equity, diversity and inclusion for Mayo Clinic in northwest Wisconsin.
When people view the mural, they’ll be able to visit a website to read the accompanying stories. The first stories and artwork can be found at the UW-Eau Claire Foundation’s website at tinyurl.com/4uaus7sh.
Collecting pandemic stories
In a story that inspired one panel on the mural, a Mayo Clinic physician helped a new parent who told the physician she couldn’t treat their newborn baby because of the physician’s skin color and accent.
To accompany the story, artist and Altoona art teacher Tom Burgraff created a collage image of a doctor listening to a baby’s heartbeat, the baby in her mother’s arms.
Burgraff calls it “Born to Love.”
“The doctor’s tenacity and inner strength eventually won the parents over as the baby became healthy again,” Burgraff wrote in a description of the piece.
In another story, a Mayo Clinic nurse recalls working during the Chippewa Valley’s COVID-19 surge in the fall.
“Staff looked shell-shocked. Every subsequent admission was COVID positive, and we were reeling … I began to have this internal mantra, telling myself that this wouldn’t last forever; it just couldn’t,” the nurse wrote.
The announcement of coming vaccines brought her to tears, the nurse wrote, calling the vaccines a “light at the end of this dark tunnel.”
That story inspired a composite photograph of a sunbeam bursting through a group of dark clouds, created by Eau Claire artist and photographer Mitchell Spencer.
Tracy Kennedy, a Mayo Clinic regional chaplain, created art for the mural, inspired by the story of Todd Comstock, a house supervisor and nurse at Mayo Clinic Health System-Northland in Barron.
Comstock, along with his daughter and her family, began making masks for people at the beginning of the pandemic. Kennedy developed an accompanying piece she calls “Behind Every Mask is a Story.”
The community is facing down individual trauma during the pandemic, “but none of us went through it alone,” Kennedy said. “ … We are united, we each have a truth and we’re sharing it through art.”
The mural organizers have reached out to local students, essential workers, first responders, local musicians and more. UW-Eau Claire is planning a similar sister project, Wright noted.
Between 250 and 300 community members have been involved in the mural so far, Wright said.
The mural’s early stories are primarily from Mayo Clinic staffers and frontline health care workers.
But the project is looking for more artists and storytellers, said Sara Martinek, a Mayo patient experience specialist and administrative lead for the mural project.
“We’re still collecting stories and participants,” Martinek said. “If anyone’s interested in being a part of this and sharing their talents and stories, reach out to us.”
Artists and people with stories about 2020 and 2021 who wish to participate can contact Martinek at email@example.com.
UW-Eau Claire, Artisan Forge, the Pablo Center, the Sticker Spot and other local artists also have played parts in creating the mural — Artisan Forge notably created the design for the “mobile mural,” Wright said.
Once completed, Mayo Clinic plans to rotate sections of the mural throughout Mayo sites in northwest Wisconsin. It also plans to display parts of the mural at UW-Eau Claire and in the Eau Claire area.
“Ideally, we’d like to have a grand display by the end of summer or fall,” Martinek said.
The first parts of the mural are already on display at Mayo Clinic’s Luther Campus in Eau Claire, but due to COVID-19 restrictions it’s not yet open for public viewing.
The public can view and read nine artworks and stories in the mural online at the UW-Eau Claire Foundation’s website: tinyurl.com/4uaus7sh.