Plague Journal: When the outside world got complicated, artist Barbara Randall turned inward

CHAMBERSBURG – When Barbara Randall started sharing pictures from her latest journal project (dubbed “The Corona Diary 2020”) with friends on social media, she didn’t know how they would be received.

“Do I want to be that guy on Facebook who shares something sad?” she wondered. “Am I embarrassed by my own sadness? Should I really show people this? But I was proud of what I had made.”

“I don’t want people to be sad because of me,” she said laughing, which she does often and loudly. “My misery doesn’t love company. I don’t want to make people sad.”

The reaction from her friends, however, was instant and sympathetic, and Randall was deeply affected by the number of people who messaged her to say they knew exactly how she felt. Rather than adding to the overall sadness of the internet, people were actually relieved to know that someone else was experiencing those feelings, too.

The journal entries are created primarily with paper collage and paint, and the aesthetic style will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen Randall’s art on display at The Garage Studios or the Council for the Arts (she contributed a piece to the Sarah Taylor-Foltz reading).

If there can be said to be an overriding theme to her “Corona Diary,” it is the division between internal and external – what we can control versus everything else.

And it’s hard to think of something more inwardly oriented than a journal.

The imagery is dream-like, and, accordingly, lends itself to symbolic and mystical interpretations. And, like dreams, some will always remain a mystery, perhaps even to Randall herself.

The people throughout the journal are often depicted in isolation, separated from the outside world by glass.

In one instance a lonely person in quarantine is looking out of a window at figures hiding in a lush forest longingly, and she paradoxically implores them to “be socially distant with me.”

But in another, the mood is reversed, and the interior space has become the garden sanctuary, a refuge from the (quite literal) demands of the outside world. [This one is clearly inspired by actual events in Randall’s life.]

On another page, plants from her neighborhood are sealed in a snow globe that reads “Welcome to Quarantine.”

Elsewhere a gray alien looks at the flowers around its house (usually a source of great joy) and wonders if its symptoms are caused by allergies or something else….

Song lyrics and the names of local businesses that she wishes she could support bubble up and float by.

Frida Kahlo, Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Mothman all make appearances.

Unlike classic works of plague literature like Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” or the diary of Samuel Pepys, anyone stumbling upon her journal won’t find a cataloged inventory of events or even a narrative of her experiences. Instead, they will find an emotional record of the pandemic.

“When the lockdown started, and I was sent home from work,” she said recounting the confusion of the early days, “people kept saying to me, ‘You must be making so much art. You’ve got all this time at home, you must be making so much stuff.’ And I wasn’t.”

“I was in a complete emotional shutdown because, like a lot of people, I was going through a lot of emotions, a lot of uncertainty, and it was hard to know what I wanted to make art about when everything felt so surreal and out of control. The book was a way to process that.”

So she did what she always does when she’s creatively blocked:

She started a journal.

“It’s easier for me to start to process and go through complex emotions visually,” she said. “I can make a page and step back and look at what came out and see things in there that make sense to me because it’s in my [visual] language.”

She explained that any book can be turned into a journal, but in this case, she started with Lisa Currie’s “The Positivity Kit,” which presents participants with a series of prompts to help them get started.

“The first few pages of any journal are always meh,” she said, “and then as I get into the groove of it, they get way more intensive and way more open.”

“You can always tell that at first I’m a little shy in the beginning of a journal, and then, all of a sudden, by the end, they’re for more expressive and open and honest. The book starts to have its own personality to me. It takes on a life of its own.”

“If an emotion hits me, and I’m like, ‘this is a core of something, I’ll notate it down,” she said of her technique of capturing ideas on her phone throughout the day. “That’s what you want to go back to. That’s a great thought. You relate to that. That’s something you want to explore.”

The challenge then became resisting the urge to create content that was designed to please her online audience.

“You’re creating it for you,” she told herself. “Don’t go into it thinking ‘what can I make today that they will like.’ Those aren’t the pages that you’re going to go back and feel connected to. I’m just going to do what I need to do.”

If there is anything that the world needs right now, it is a few inches of space to act and create without rules or consequences.

“The hardest thing that people have a hard time getting over is the fear of making a mistake,” she said. “It’s not going to come out exactly how I want it to look. I don’t think that’s what the journaling should really be about. It should be about that freedom to make mistakes in it.”

“This isn’t going to a museum. This isn’t going in a fancy frame. If you don’t like it, rip the page out. If you don’t like it, paint over it. A lot of people have trouble letting go of that or nowadays it’s very popular to want to do things that are step-by-step processes where everyone comes out with the same project.”

“In journaling, you don’t want the same page because you’re a different person. Sometimes people have trouble trusting their own creativity and giving themselves the learning curve.”

Once she started posting her “Corona Diary” online, she was surprised to discover that the entries that depicted her unfiltered honesty and emotion were the pages that were getting the most responses.

“It makes me feel less alone, too,” she said. “It makes me feel connected to people. It makes me feel like I’m not crazy or irrationally emotional. We’re all going through stuff, and some of us are having very similar feelings.”

But such openness doesn’t come easily.

Barbara Randall has cultivated a reputation in the Chambersburg art community for her increasingly personal art projects that often engage the community.

Her “Tell Me Show Me Project” (2017-18) consisted of a journal, a desk and a variety of art supplies that were placed in various locations around Chambersburg for the public to fill with drawings, notes, and well, anything they wanted, really, over the course of a year. The locations included The Garage Studios (102 S. Main St.), the Heritage Center (100 Lincoln Way E.), and a dressing room at maurices (1320 Lincoln Way E.).

By placing the journal in unexpected places and adding a touch of whimsy (she posted pictures of the desk as it traveled across town to its new home ach month), she enabled people who wouldn’t normally allow themselves to be creative in a public forum to express themselves freely.

Of course, trusting the public to express themselves freely and anonymously has inherent risks, but Randall reports that she checked on the journals periodically, and not once did she have to censor anything, and the desk survived the experience intact.

“I got one pair of scissors stolen, but somebody left a vintage mug and left pencils in it,” she says laughing. “And I’m like, ‘Fair enough. I’ll trade you a mug for scissors.”

Then, in early 2019, Randall set up a box and invited Chambersburgers to anonymously write down and submit their inner-most secrets, which were then interpreted visually by local artists. The resulting show, titled “Unspeakable” (2019), opened in early February at The Garage Studios.

“I liked the idea of pulling the public into it in a way that allowed them to openly speak without feeling judged,” she said. “Taking a secret that’s burdening you, that’s weighing you down, and handing it to somebody else and helping somebody carry that for a while was the idea behind that.”

And as with the “Tell Me Show Me Project” there was an element of giving reluctant artists a platform on which to create freely.

“I asked very specific people [to participate],” she said of the artists who were selected to interpret the public’s secrets visually. “Our artistic voices were so different that everything would look like a unique voice speaking.”

“Everyone Gets a Chance to Be Brave” (2019) marked a turning point in Randall’s artistic development.

With each project, Randall had dialed back the community’s input (“Tell Me Show Me” was almost entirely participant created; “Unspeakable” relied on other people’s secrets and a team of contributing artists) and she has gradually turned up the personal.

Everyone Gets a Chance to Be Brave” is a solo show and the secrets are her own.

It is – by far – her biggest and most complex exhibit to date.

It is also her most personal and harrowing.

She had previously asked the community to trust her with their secrets. Now she was putting herself at the mercy of the community.

“For this show, the jumping off point was a year filled with a lot of loss and a lot of pain,” said Randall in an interview at the opening reception at The Garage Studios. “It started feeling like I was being weighted down by things very intangible, things I couldn’t see, couldn’t touch, and it was like giving a monster a face. I needed that moment with my grief where I saw it face-to-face.”

“I’m someone who loves horror movies – and for me, that’s part of it,” she continued. “It’s escapism. The monster isn’t scary when you can see it face-to-face. Monsters in the real world, that you can’t see, are terrifying.”

Like luring Freddy Krueger out of your nightmares into the physical world or unmasking a ghost in Scooby-Doo, monsters are only vulnerable when we can see them for what they are (it should be noted in both of these examples, the monsters are still threats, but they can at last be dealt with).

Barbara Randall’s monster was sadness; a wound so deep that bandages were only concealing an ever-deepening infection.

The only cure was exposure.

“For me, it’s about seeing those painful things and then the journey to try to understand them in order to move through them,” she said at the time – a sentiment that she would return to when discussing her “Corona Diary” in 2020.

In the period leading up to “Everyone Gets a Chance to Be Brave,” she had been to four funerals in as many months, and she was advised in a Tarot card reading that she was stuck in a process that she was trying to control but couldn’t and that “You can’t resurrect the dead, but you can restore the living.”

After a year of events both tragic and surreal, she used paint, wood, rocks, doll parts, a typewriter (and the letter that inspired the title of the exhibit cued up in it), a peacock chair and more to create an immersive shrine to sadness that is layered with references to Christian mysticism and the supernatural.

“It’s supposed to be a little bit ominous, but sometimes it’s comforting when somebody else is feeling the way you’re feeling,” she said at the reception. She was discussing a particular piece (the heavily modified peacock chair), but it applies to the entire exhibit. “That release of ‘I am in this unsettling place, come and sit with me for a while. Would you help me face it for a little bit?’”

Through the experience of the exhibit, Randall struggled to give herself permission to even have these feelings – let alone express them – and she discovered that there is relief through communication.

“The first two portraits I did [for the exhibit], the first one was ‘Grief’ and the next one was ‘Shame’ because I was ashamed to admit how sad I was. I was saying things like ‘I wasn’t even so-and-so’s mother or wife or I wasn’t even their significant other. I have no right to be said. I am allowed to be sad, and I don’t have to be embarrassed and I don’t have to hide it and bury it and face it all by myself. You have to allow yourself to be in pain, and if you can’t bounce back right away, to not force it. It’s okay to be in pain. You just don’t want to stay there too long.”

She added: “The weight of displaying it and finally showing it to people does make me feel way better…This show is so much darker in tone than anything I’ve done here before. You don’t want to disappoint people. I’ve learned a long time ago that if somebody tells you they don’t like one of your pieces, that piece wasn’t made for them. That piece was made for someone else.”

While her “Corona Diary” isn’t a full-scale exhibit, it is a culmination of the “Tell Me Show Me Project,” “Unspeakable” and “Everyone Gets a Chance to Be Brave” in the sense that it is an attempt to publicly process uncomfortable emotions, and it is designed to connect with people and inspire other Chambersburgers to confront their own pandemic frustrations.

Barbara’s employer eventually brought her back in to work – same position, different job.

The interior of the business has been closed to the public, but she keeps an eye out for the names of regular customers as she picks online orders.

And she can still catch glimpses of customers who are sitting in their cars through windows and masks as she loads curbside pick-up orders into their trunks.

Most are appreciative. Most are thankful.

But adapting to change of such a magnitude is exhausting for everyone.

“In times like this, people’s emotions are all over the place, and I think the most unexpected things can cause them to overreact,” she said of the transactions that go bad. “If you’re the person in front of them, you’re the person who’s going to get it.”

And, as someone who is simultaneously blessed to continue working and cursed to perpetually worry about bringing the virus to the at-risk people in her household, she gets it.

“If they’ve gone through their whole day feeling like their whole routine is different now – they can’t go to their favorite restaurants, they can’t do this, they can’t do that – and if you have one more answer that day that is, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t,’ you may be their final straw of the day. It’s not always fun to be on the receiving end of that.”

She added: “It’s almost grieving your happy places, too. We are people’s happy place. They come to us to relax. It’s why service is so important to us. We know that inside, they’re angry and they’re sad. Sometimes it just comes out in ways that aren’t always nice.”

From her own experiences, Barbara knows grief when she sees it, and she knows that you can’t expect people who are in the throes of suffering to behave rationally or see clearly.

But while people are feeling out of control in their dealings with the external world as they wait for counties to change color and vaccinations to be developed, there is something they can do right now:

They can take a page out of Barbara’s journal and seek refuge within.

[Main image caption: A collage of entries from artist Barbara Randall’s “Corona Diary 2020.” All photos in this article depicting the journal itself were submitted by the artist. Photos from the various exhibits are property of The Chambersburger.]

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