Piotr Szyhalski on drawing his 225-day chronicle of the year that was, the COVID-19: Labor Camp Report
By Tim Gihring
On March 24, 2020, the day before Minnesota’s shelter-in-place order, Piotr Szyhalski went into his basement studio, took out a sheet of paper, some ink, and a brush, and began drawing. When he finished, he had an image of a severed head, plants sprouting from the eye sockets, with the hand-lettered phrase “Long Live Our Banks!” He posted it to Instagram.
The next day, he did the same thing. And the day after that — one drawing every morning as a pandemic and social uprising unfolded — for 225 days. Szyhalski, who teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, called the project “COVID-19: Labor Camp Report,” an extension of the Labor Camp framework that has encompassed his multi-disciplinary art practice for years.
All 225 drawings can be seen at Mia through September 19 in Gallery G370. And now they have also been collected in a book. A book launch, including a conversation and signing with Szyhalski, will be held August 15 at Mia.
I talked with Szyhalski about the project, the book, and what he hopes people remember about this moment long after we’ve (hopefully) moved on.
What compelled you to start these drawings — and keep going?
It was sort of the only way I knew to find some grounding. I say this to my students all the time, when they find themselves in a difficult situation: your work is the way to find footing.
Keep in mind, this was started during the first lockdown and I was honestly looking around the house, digging through the basement, to see if I had some materials. I was not prepared for this at all. I had seven sheets of paper in the beginning and I thought maybe I should just use them all up and that will be it. But as I was making the fourth or fifth drawing, I was already engaging in conversations with folks [about the drawings], and people started banding together to get me more supplies.
I was almost out of ink, and a friend of mine said, ‘I’ll call someone, he’s going to Pillsbury House and I’m pretty sure they have a bottle.’ And sure enough. He left it in one of those Little Free Libraries, and we drive up like spies, fully PPE’d with gloves and masks to pick up this bottle of ink. And in that single moment, it was oh my god, it isn’t just me. It’s not about my own little world here.
What was your process for making these drawings?
My sense of the project as it developed was that I was responding to that day. So the routine that evolved over time consisted of me reading in the morning — which I would do anyway but now with a little more intention — to understand what really transpired over the last 24 hours. I would take some notes, observe some bits of language. And that became a rhythm, collecting what I call news shrapnel — bits and pieces of language that stuck out for me from the stuff that I was reading, a word or a phrase. Not really a curated collection of these bits and pieces of language but very much like shards of what I was absorbing. Those often became the impetus or the starting point for a lot of the drawings.
Then I would come down to the basement and do some sketching for a while. Thinking visually around those words. Sometimes it started with words, sometimes with images. And at some point I would have to say, all right, what are some of the top things that I keep coming back to, and then commit to one or two things. If it started to be like ten o’clock, ten-thirty, I would say OK, I have to make a decision. By one o’clock, or two or three, I’d be done with the drawing, post it to Instagram, and then talk to people online for the next few hours.
What was the interaction like with your followers?
I would get messages and engage in conversations with people who opened up in a very vulnerable way. Total strangers who would talk about a multitude of traumas: experiencing racism, or difficult experiences with parents, or loneliness, or anger at the context in which we all found ourselves. And to simply say thank you for doing this.
Those things were crucial to me in sustaining the project, because I understood that it was not just me making some drawings. I felt like I was just tending to it, the way people tend to a garden or a complex piece of machinery. It was doing what it was doing; I was just there to tweak it every day a little bit, make fine-tuning adjustments, so that it could still accommodate what happened the previous day. I was very aware that it was a kind of service — a device, if you will — for so many people to process that reality. There was a sense of obligation or responsibility to maintain it.
Was the interaction meaningful for you, as well, as an artist and a human?
I think of art as a social act, that there’s always at least one other person involved, and the work connects or defines the space that we share. I think there’s a lot of currency in that. There’s a lot of power in being able to construct that space, that shared experience.
Given the context of last year, of this intensely corrupted sense of reality and truth, I really felt that the connections that were emerging — dare I say a community that built itself around [the project] — I was thinking about it as a way of slowly rebuilding some kind of footing. Here we were, suddenly disconnected from any sense of ground, floating, as if someone turned off gravity. And we were bouncing at each other, building a kind of relationship, a connection. To me it felt like starting to find a new way of orienting ourselves in an otherwise disorienting reality. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it made sense to me then.
You grew up in Poland, where you were initially drawn to poster art. Did that experience inform this work?
Poster, as a form, was one of my first points of attraction to visual art and visual language. Not necessarily political posters but cultural posters — just the presence of posters on the streets. The idea of this visual language of the street, so to speak. To me, there’s a unique language that emerges from balancing text and image in a particular way, and I was studying that, trying to understand how that works, how the two complete each other, how to resolve the tensions between words and images to construct something that is neither of those worlds. That has always been present in my work.
I do feel like I’ve been preparing for this project my entire life, and I mean that in the most humble way. From being a kid walking down a street full of posters, to exercising my hand-eye-brain connection, which made it possible for me to respond in a daily process and keep up that pace. Even the fact that I spent half my life living in a corrupt place — half my life there, half my life here. To see empty shelves at Target after seeing empty shelves in Poland. My whole life prepared me to step into this.
You made the last drawing on November 3 — election day. How did you decide to end the project then?
In talking to people about the election as that potential moment, I realized that I was never really thinking beyond that. I had resolved in my head that no matter what the outcome of the election, the project would end or it would have to be a very different thing.
Also, it was hard work. It was hard to look back each day and not just process it but also ask myself, ‘Do I have anything new to say here?’ If you can imagine, coming up with the 25th drawing was challenging but coming up with the 150th drawing is an entirely different weight. Add to this the fact that I was literally working on this every day — there was no break in this process at all. I never faked it, never fudged it, it was just the same thing every day for eight months. I started feeling it in many ways, emotionally and physically. And finally, I was mindful of not wanting to feel like I was in the 16th season of this particular show, which is never good. So it felt like the right moment for many reasons. It was a moment of reckoning that was taking place.
The drawings are now available as a book. Why do you feel they continue to resonate?
To have a very intimate, day by day account of what was happening — and uses language that is malleable or flexible enough that you can enter these ideas and make them yours — that’s what art really is. At its best, it connects with something in your own life that you can relate to it. There’s a resonant frequency that happens and allows you to say, “It’s not just that I know what it is, I feel it.”
That’s the language that seems somehow to go beyond all the other languages we’ve experienced describing to us the reality of last year. From the language of people telling you what’s actually happening to someone else telling you the exact opposite of that. And the languages of science, or religion, or spirituality — everybody is talking about it in different ways. I think there is something about art that escapes all of these things or is capable of containing all of them. A record of a time that is difficult to describe can be useful and uniquely suited to that moment. And I just happened to fumble my way into it.