GRAND FORKS — In July, Taylor Swift surprised fans by releasing an unannounced album. Much of the press around the album focused on the stripped-down sounds as a reflection of her writing and recording in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.
Tay Tay isn’t the only artist still creating during a global health crisis. A Grand Forks painter, Pieper Fleck Bloomquist, turned to a centuries-old artform to share stories of life around North Dakota during COVID- 19.
“Silver Linings” was commissioned by the North Dakota Council on the Arts to show how people around the state connected in isolation.
A painting about isolation during a pandemic may seem like dreary material, but Bloomquist wanted to make something that reflected “the positive emotional outcomes of the quarantine.”
“During this time, many people experienced a shifting in priorities as we were forced to face our own mortalities, reexamine how we spend our time and money, and isolate from our family, friends, work and social environments,” she wrote in a piece that accompanies and helps explain “Silver Linings.”
The work is created in the traditional southern Swedish folk art style Bonadsmålning, a type of storyboarding, often used to tell biblical tales or commemorate historical events. The piece is typically broken into panels with each frame depicting a scene with a decorative script running horizontally over the pictures, adding context.
The finished product looks like a large — 37-by-58-inch — cross between a comic book and a quilt as it takes a colorful look at life from farm to table and from church services to hallway bingo in retirement communities.
“When I started looking for examples of silver linings — people going above and beyond to make this situation better for others — there were so, so many stories,” she says from her home. “The more I talked to my friends and neighbors, the more fantastic examples I gathered. Artists and musicians all over our country were stepping up to the plate to make this world a little bit brighter.”
She’s not talking about the Taylor Swifts, but rather artists closer to home. At the center of the piece is a two-part panel. On one side are seven women sewing around the words, “We set aside our projects, our quilting, our jingle dresses, our ribbon skirts, our crafting, to make masks for our community.”
The other side of a floral motif separating the panel shows three kids cutting out paper hearts, a reference to the paper hearts many hung in home and business windows to show love and care during the shutdown. She’s even depicted the North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck, where lights were kept on at night to form a heart.
That panel is flanked by upright figures, both dressed in personal protective equipment, one a health care worker, the other working in the food service industry — two jobs greatly affected by the pandemic.
Bloomquist is a nurse and really wanted to express her gratitude for all that health care workers have done during the outbreak.
At either end of that center row are musicians. Bloomquist isn’t commenting on how concerts have mostly come to a halt during the pandemic, but rather how musicians found new outlets during it.
On the left is an image of The Waddington Brothers playing a drive-in Easter service at the fairgrounds in Mott. The show was held in a parking lot and broadcast over the radio to allow people to listen safely from their vehicle. On the other end is Judy Larson, who worked with her pastor to build a recording studio in an old building on her farm. There, she would record accordion music for the church services so parishioners could listen at home.
“A painting that can tell the positive stories of COVID-19 in North Dakota is an important historical item to have,” State Folklorist Troyd Geist says.
The bottom row also features a pair of musicians, David Gorder and Shawn Carrier, playing a concert outside an elder care facility in Langdon.
All of the bottom row depicts life inside and outside residential care spaces, including hallway bingo and writers Maureen McDonald and Matthew Musacchia interviewing people through the window at a senior center and turning their stories into "Where I’m From" poems.
Another section is set entirely outside a senior care center and shows how family would gather at residents’ windows to show their love and devotion. One person depicted is Bloomquist’s husband, Mike, whose mother took ill during quarantine and would later die in isolation.
“There are these really, truly touching personal stories people relate to in this painting,” Geist says.
Bloomquist says it wasn’t a difficult scene to include.
"It was a very joyous day for us. It was the first time in months we got to see her face to face,” she says. “We were so relieved on that day. As I walked around the building, looking for her window, I was struck by all of the family members there at the other windows. Just sitting, or standing, with their faces pressed to the glass. All I saw was great, great love at those windows. How fortunate we were.”
The scene also includes artist Melissa Gordon, who created sidewalk murals outside elder care facilities around the state. In the background is the depiction of a Fargo-Moorhead family that used a truck with a lift to rise up to a grandmother’s window to celebrate her 90th birthday.
“Bonadsmålning is meant to be compact, with small details filling every space, and like a lot of my paintings, I think there is so much going on all over the place," she says. "A person can look at it for a long time and keep finding new things tucked in here and there."