Nanci Hersh’s working days like executive director of the Delaware Institute for the Arts in Education radically changed in March 2020. His works have also changed.
For years, Hersh’s paintings were abstractions, a lifelong portrait. The COVID-19 pandemic – and the sometimes surreal world of Zoom for meetings and calls – led to painting acrylic portraits of colleagues, artists, educators and others with whom she came into virtual contact via the video meeting platform.
The images are instantly recognizable as Zoom portraits, showing Hersh’s subjects, including people like Delaware Rep. Sarah mcbride, Ivan Thomas from DETV and the University of Delaware Director of the artistic department Greg Shelnutt, centered in a 15.5 “x 25.5” horizontal rectangle in front of various organized backgrounds. Some are animated, some appear to be looking into the distance (as happens on Zoom), all capture the disconnected connectivity of the pandemic.
The series, called Unmasked: portraits of the Zoom room is currently exposed to The mill in Wilmington until January 14, 2022. Just before the show opens this week, Technically spoke with Hersh to learn more about the exhibit:
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 colleagues, [artistic director] Ashley SK Davis and [administrator] Elaine Brooks. It was pretty early in the pandemic, and I just thought, “This is so weird that this is how I see them.” And then, at the same time, you start to search [and you see] there’s this painting I gave her for her birthday, I guess she likes it if it’s hung in her house – seriously, I’m not kidding, I did.
Then you start to look at yourself. After a while, I started to Zoom in the kitchen because I was sick of sitting still, but I wouldn’t want my tea towel behind me because I thought it looked really weird. Or I thought maybe I should put on some lipstick. There was something really weird about looking at the people you interact with, but you also look at yourself, it’s kind of like being in a mirrored room. It was so new. So I had this idea to take screenshots. I just thought it would be so much fun.
My work up to this point for many years was abstract, so I hadn’t done figurative in a long time, but just really wanted to start telling these stories. As I do Elaine’s, I see her mother is in the background. I knew her mom was still there because she had moved her mom to her New Jersey home during the pandemic, but as I paint her, looking at the screenshot, there’s Ms. Brooks in the back -plan, bending over to sew. Or with Ashley kennedy, her daughter is like her mini-me, so she would come in and say “hello” and show her new mask, and that’s where I really started to have fun. Every meeting was like, OK, who sounds really interesting? Sometimes it was their expression. Sometimes that was what was in the room. It was like, this is the range of emotions that we all feel.
T: It was interesting because you kind of took a look at people’s lives, but at the same time you know you are planning your own journey.
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 got the Blue Brothers and the way he was framed between them was just perfect.
Sometimes one of the things we would do is ask everyone to find their favorite virtual background – where would you like to be? Some people had origins in the west and in Maine, at the beach, and it became a tool of creativity. I know they did that with kids in classrooms too, because students, especially because of the inequalities, didn’t always want their cameras on. It wasn’t mandatory, but there were certain situations where schools could say let’s create our own virtual background. Obviously, the people I was zooming in were of a certain socio-economic level where we had the luxury of conserving our space.
T: Have you noticed anything that you might not have otherwise?
NH: It was quite funny watching people’s hair throughout the pandemic. It got longer, it got wilder, it got grayer, people grew facial hair. You just watched all of this development. It was like that time record. I think about time a lot in my work, and it was the most amazing way to capture a moment in time and then tell a story about it. And, one way or another, helps us always feel connected. Because we felt so disconnected.
My youngest son was a junior at Institute of Fashion Technology in New York when the pandemic hit, and he came home. So between my Zooms, I’m sort of looking over his shoulder. There would be college kids in bed. There was a girl under the covers, and she had her camera on. And there was the professor, still wearing a hat, and he was sagging lower and lower in his chair so that you could only see his forehead, and you could hear his wife on his Zoom because their apartment in New York was so small. And then my husband’s Zoom meetings upstairs, a little boring, engineers and salespeople, when a lot of mine were performers, and we were warming up, singing, 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 of where to have the show during the pandemic when I walked past a coworking space in Kennett, and thought that would be a cool space to do it. Then Le Moulin came to mind, and it was even better, because so many people [in the paintings] are in Wilmington.
‘Unmasked: Portraits from the Zoom Room’ is open to the public by appointment Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. To set a time, send the mill a request by e-mail.