Nanci Hersh’s workdays as executive director of the Delaware Institute for the Arts in Education changed dramatically in March 2020. Her artwork did, too.
For years, Hersh’s paintings were abstracts, a long way portraiture. The COVID-19 pandemic — and the shift to the sometimes surreal world of Zoom for meetings and calls — led a shift to painting acrylic portraits of her colleagues, artists, educators and others she came in virtual contact with via the video meeting platform.
The images are immediately recognizable as Zoom portraits, showing Hersh’s subjects, including people like Delaware Rep Sarah McBride, DETV’s Ivan Thomas and the University of Delaware Art Department Chair Greg Shelnutt, centered in a 15.5” x 25.5” horizontal rectangle in front of different curated backgrounds. Some are animated, some appear to be staring off into the distance (as happens on Zoom), all capture the disconnected connectedness of the pandemic.
The series, called Unmasked: Portraits from the Zoom Room is currently on display at The Mill in Wilmington through January 14, 2022. Just before the show opened this week, Technical.ly spoke with Hersh to learn more about the exhibition:
Technical.ly Delaware: Aside from the pandemic itself, what inspired you to start painting portraits from Zoom?
Nanci Hersh: I was in a zoom meeting with my two coworkers, [artistic director] Ashley SK Davis and [administrator] Elaine Brooks. It was pretty early on in the pandemic, and I just thought, “this is so weird that this is how I’m seeing them.” And then, at the same time, you start looking [and you see] there’s that painting I gave her for her birthday, I guess she does like it if it’s hanging in her house — seriously, I’m not kidding you, I’ve done that.
Then you start looking at yourself. After a while, I started doing Zoom in the kitchen because I got tired of sitting so much, but then I wouldn’t want my dish towel behind me because I thought that looked really weird. Or I thought maybe I should put on lipstick. There was something really bizarre about watching the people you’re interacting with but you’re also watching yourself, it’s kind of like being in a mirrored room. That was so new. So I got this idea to do screenshots. I just thought it would be so fun.
My work up until this point for many years was abstract, so I hadn’t done figurative in a long time, but I just really wanted to start telling these stories. As I’m doing the one of Elaine, I see her mother is in the background. I knew her mother was always there because she moved her mom to her house from New Jersey during the pandemic, but as I’m painting it, looking at the screenshot, there’s Mrs. Brooks in the background, leaning over doing her sewing. Or with Ashley Kennedy, her daughter is like her mini-me, so she’d pop in and say “hi” and show off her new mask, and that’s when I really started having fun. Every meeting was like, OK, who looks really interesting? Sometimes it was their expression. Sometimes it was what was in the room. It was like, this is the range of emotions that we’re all feeling.
T: It was interesting because you were sort of getting a look into people’s lives, but at the same time, you know you’re curating your own background.
NH: Yes! And then there were the virtual backgrounds. I only did one painting with the virtual background, Greg Shelnutt always had virtual backgrounds like building facades. But one day he had the Blues Brothers and the way he was framed between them was just perfect.
Sometimes one of the things we would do is to have everyone find their favorite virtual background — where would you like to be? Some people had backgrounds out west and up in Maine, at the beach, and it became a tool for creativity. I know they were doing that with kids in classrooms, too, because students, especially because of inequities, didn’t always want their cameras on. It was not mandatory, but there were certain situations where schools could say let’s create our own virtual background. Obviously, the people I was zooming with were of a certain socioeconomic level where we had the luxury of curating our space.
T: Did you notice things you may not have otherwise?
NH: It was kind of funny watching people’s hair throughout the pandemic. It got longer, it got wilder, it got grayer, people grew facial hair. You just kind of watched this whole evolution. It was like this record of time. I think about time a lot on my work, and this was the most amazing way to capture a moment in time and then tell a story about it. And, somehow, help us still feel connected. Because we felt so disconnected.
My younger son was a junior at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York when the pandemic hit, and he came home. So in between my Zooms, I’m kind of peering over his shoulder. There would be college kids that were in bed. There was one girl under the covers, and she had her camera on. And there was the professor, always wearing a hat, and he’s slouching lower and lower in his chair so you could only see his forehead, and you could hear his wife on her Zoom because their apartment in New York was so small. And then my husband’s Zoom meetings upstairs, kind of boring, engineers and salesmen, while a lot of mine were artists, and we’d have a warm up, we’d be singing we’d be stretching, there were puppets, you know?
T: How did the show end up deciding to have the opening at The Mill?
NH: I was trying to think where to have the show during the pandemic when I went past a coworking space in Kennett, and I thought it would be a cool space to do it. Then The Mill popped into my head, and it was even better, since so many of the people [in the paintings] are in Wilmington.
‘Unmasked: Portraits from the Zoom Room’ is open to the public viewing by appointment Monday through Friday 8 to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 to 5:00 p.m. To set up a time, send The Mill an email inquiry.