Photographer Shevaun Williams on Oklahoma Contemporary's COVID campaign and the art of compassion
In the midst of the pandemic lockdown, Shevaun Williams was feeling trapped. “I had to leave my studio,” said the acclaimed Oklahoma photographer. “It was heartbreaking, but I understood. I had to close down the business and send my staff away.”
Her only outlet? Long walks, capturing flowers on her iPhone.
She wanted to do something creative. Something meaningful. “I think when we inject a little style and humor and creation into our work to do a good cause, it makes it more effective.”’
So she started to brainstorm.
“Creation is what got us through the lockdown,” she said. Favorite books, Netflix binges, DIY projects and even those iPhone photos. But she had something bigger in mind.
Williams began to reach out to contacts, some of whom were typically booked far in advance. And as spring COVID reports got a little safer, she found an outlet to return to creative work — and to help her community.
“Projects that are more meaningful, for a cause, really inspire me,” she said. “I truly believe, and I think the science shows, that we can all get back to work, back to creating, if we wear masks.”
And the project was born. Williams, working with stylist Elizabeth Wheat
(Will and Grace, Scrubs, Mad Men) paired artistic masks, photogenic models and beautiful backgrounds. She created fantastic image after image, and quickly wanted to put them to work. So she reached out to see if Oklahoma Contemporary could use them.
Projects that are more meaningful, for a cause, really inspire me. I truly believe, and I think the science shows, that we can all get back to work, back to creating, if we wear masks.
Even before OKC’s mask mandate, Oklahoma Contemporary’s senior team planned to make masks mandatory as part of the organization’s new COVID protocols.
“We fell hard for Shevaun’s mask project — visitors will find some of her initial photos displayed on the screens behind our front desk,” said Lori Brooks, director of communications.
She thought the images were picture perfect, “but a set shot in our galleries would be even more on brand.”
A collaboration was born. Williams and Brooks tag-teamed to find models with Oklahoma Contemporary connections — local artists and families, Studio School instructors, staff, donors, board members and more.
Williams longed to shoot musician and teacher Jahruba Lambeth in the midst of Bright Golden Haze. “He’s a piece of art unto himself.”
ArtNow exhibiting artist Tiffany McKnight was another obvious choice — she’s incorporated her unique work with patterns into her own line of masks.
“Early on, I had a feeling that we were going to need to wear masks at almost all times to protect ourselves and to reduce the spread of the virus,” McKnight said. “Since I am a pattern designer, I naturally envisioned wearing a mask with my designs, but knew I didn’t have the technical skills to fully pull it off. So I decided to collaborate with my mother, Deloris McKnight (based in Memphis) and local artist Amber Rae Black. Both are fantastic seamstresses whose skills pair perfectly with my custom designer Spoonflower fabrics!”
Donor Annie Bohanon, presenting sponsor for Bright Golden Haze, was another easy pick. Her vibrant sense of style and vivacious attitude were an automatic fit.
“I was head of the laboratory at Children's (Hospital) for over 20 years, so I understand about the virus and how contagious it is,” Bohanon said. “I believe it will be with us for a while, so it is important that places like Oklahoma Contemporary make it possible to go there, with restrictions. “
“At times like this, the arts are especially important,” she said. “They uplift our spirits and give us hope for the future. Oklahoma Contemporary is a special space to stimulate our senses. It elevates our minds in the possibility of things, like light!”
Artist Marilyn Artus, whose just-completed Her Flag project celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment, agrees. “The arts are critical in this time to turmoil, they help us navigate and work through our feelings and process all that is going on. They can galvanize people to action.”
She was excited to model for Oklahoma Contemporary’s mask campaign. “I wear a mask to protect others,” she said. “I wouldn't want to be the person that got someone else sick. I am trying to embrace wearing a mask. I make my own and use fun fabrics that promote voting or kindness. One of my masks says ‘We rise by lifting others.’”
Counselor Deanna James, who brought her husband and two children to the shoot, looks forward to enjoying all Oklahoma Contemporary has to offer. “Contemporary art expresses our current cultural context and helps combine what we know with what we feel,” she said. “Exposing our children to the arts encourages them to express, to feel and to be creative. It teaches them to better understand the world around them and enhances their perspectives.”
I wear a mask mostly for my mom and other members of my family with weakened immune systems and underlying health conditions. If it can help them in the slightest way, there’s no reason not to wear it. I do that happily.
Kau’i Kanahele also put her family in the spotlight. Oklahoma Contemporary’s coordinator of Youth and Family Programs was excited to show them Bright Golden Haze and to be a part of the project.
“I wear a mask mostly for my mom and other members of my family with weakened immune systems and underlying health conditions,” Kanahele said. “If it can help them in the slightest way, there’s no reason not to wear it. I do that happily.”
Board Secretary Kim Bruno, who was photographed with her daughter, Krissy, may not be happy about the need, but she understands the importance. “In all honesty, wearing a mask isn’t my idea of fun,” Bruno said. “However, considering the current circumstances, it is simple, common courtesy for the well-being of mankind and I care.”
Lance McDaniel, who was also asked to participate in Oklahoma City’s Mask Up initiative, had a ball at the shoot.
“Fortunately, I was asked to pose with my favorite work in the Bright Golden Haze exhibition, the new landscape from Oklahoma-based artist Yatika Fields,” McDaniel said. “Fields' beautiful painting shows the gorgeous colors of an Oklahoma sunset illuminating and interacting with the land beneath it, allowing the waving wheat and swaying trees to dance across the canvas.”
The mask campaign is only one example of how Oklahoma Contemporary supports both local creatives and the larger community.
“Oklahoma Contemporary has been incubating, launching and supporting artists, events, and arts nonprofits since their inception,” said McDaniel, former executive director of deadCenter Film Festival (which was born at Oklahoma Contemporary’s fairgrounds location). “And, thanks to their commitment to diversity, I know that each time I visit, I will be introduced to a new idea or experience that will expand my own thinking and understanding of the world.”
Photographer Williams wanted to be a part of that.
“At the point in my career, it’s about who I’m working with and what the cause is,” she said. “I wanted to see what I could do to help Oklahoma Contemporary as a business, to allow the public to safely experience the space and exhibitions.”
The mask campaign, part of all promotions tied to the new timed ticketing system and limited public access to the building, was a beautiful answer for both Brooks and Williams.
The latter sums it up. “We had the chance to do something purely creative that was meaningful in the world we live in.”
Images: All photos by Shevaun Williams.
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