In the middle of March, I excitedly packed my bags to visit a college friend in Cleveland, my boyfriend in Brownsville, and my family in Pittsburgh for West Virginia University’s Spring break. In the weeks before, the news was increasingly filled with rising reports of COVID-19, which had seemed to be a foreign problem until it hit the United States seemingly all at once. By the time I made it to my parents’ house on the 4th day of that Spring break, quarantine went into effect. I, like many others, found it difficult to stay sane through the worst days of quarantine, and as we have seen in recent weeks, Americans are still not out of the woods yet. As Change Seven began accepting submissions at the start of June, we saw work on the theme of COVID-19 come up more than once, but one artist’s work on this subject moved us in a particular way.
Cheryl Ryan Harshman is a visual artist working in multimedia, often acrylics, clay monoprints, fabric, and encaustics. During quarantine, she created The Covid Quartet: four clay monoprints, each 36” x 36”, with machine stitching and staples. Individually titled Covid Angel, Malaise, Open Heart, and Piecing It Back Together, these four pieces together tell a complicated story that relates to so many peoples’ experiences in the time of COVID-19.
When Natalie and Melissa first shared images of the quartet, I was blown away. I had never seen work of this kind before, but the images resonated with me. The first piece, The Covid Angel, is haunting. The dark angel looming over the work seems at once comforting and a bit threatening. While so much seems to be standing on weak, wobbly ground, I think many have questioned if we, as a world, can ever recover. Is this angel here to help heal us, save us, or is it all time to be over? The second work, Malaise, conveys the chaotic unknowing that we have all been forced to endure over the past several months.
Using not paint, but only colored clay printed onto canvas, Cheryl’s work illuminates the myriad of emotions that she, along with millions of others, have felt during this pandemic. While our world can often feel like it is falling apart, we know that we are not alone in our frustration, our fear, and our confusion. Cheryl’s art is evidence of these common experiences. She was also kind enough to let us in on her creative process as she made her quartet.
Change Seven is ecstatic to feature the work of Cheryl Ryan in our second Better Judgment column and offer our readers a peek into the mind of this unique artist. ~Paige
Cheryl, on being an artist
I come from a long line of people who make things—brick masons, painters, needle workers, potters, gardeners—and like them, I must make things. Whether it is a pie from scratch, a new shirt, or a pair of socks, I love making something from nothing, making it all on my own. For me it is the problem-solving, putting puzzle pieces together, exploring the ‘what if’s’ of creating that is so thrilling. Whether I work in fiber or clay or paint or all at the same time, I need to see what will happen next. Each stitch, each mark, each brush stroke changes the work, moves it in another direction, maybe even away from where I thought I was taking the work. And those changes in direction, those whole new worlds of possibility are infinitely exhilarating to me. I am driven to discover where the work itself will lead. The style of my clay prints, flat and graphic, has been informed by my years as a needle worker, as a seamstress and as a quilter. I lay out designs as I lay out dress pieces and often I see the clay prints as fabric to be run through the sewing machine. Stitching and appliqué are often seen in my prints.
About a year ago, I was involved in Women of Appalachia, a moveable poetry and art program from Ohio University and WVU.
The piece that was accepted was a large clay monoprint. (This is a process which most people have never seen or heard of*) As my printmaking experience grows, I try to find ways to kick it up a bit. I find that I’ve outgrown some techniques and want to grow into more sophisticated ones. This was an opportunity for me to view my prints critically, especially their presentation. A few weeks later I saw an exhibit at the Huntington Museum of Art that included mammoth sized prints by Sarah Amos. I compared my print presentation to her museum works.
I yearned to stretch and grow my work. I knew that what I really wanted was to make BIG art. Go Big, or Go Home! There was a lot of physical preparation before I could make any art. First, I built a new clay slab 36”x36” and covered it with 50 pounds of clay. But what images would I make on this clay base? What did I have to say? What could be important enough for me to say it? make it?
That was January 2020. Then came the first of the COVID pandemic and the stay at home order. Also this was when I learned the surprising news that I was to undergo major open heart surgery. All creative thoughts ceased. I was frozen. I kept thinking of that giant clay form in my studio and, like the proverbial “white sheet of paper,” its emptiness grew larger and more daunting by the day.
With the stay at home order, I had what we all had—TIME. And so I kept busy doing things to keep from facing my mortality, both the pandemic and the upcoming surgery. I baked bread, washed walls, straightened closets and drawers, planned supper menus for the upcoming weeks and months…all of this to keep from really thinking. Finally I understood that if I were going to be serious about art making again, then I had to take the first step and just start.
Somehow, in the physicality of preparation—mixing colors, arranging the studio— my spirit and intuition were forming an idea, a theme, a big concept for this big art. Somehow, my subconscious was working on my fears. I was flying! The actual making of the art only took a few days. So what about these times inspired these monoprints? Fear. Fury at the government. Reckoning with death and mortality; choosing life and hope. Remembering my mother and father. My aorta, my valve, my heart, my life.
I made four prints each with a title and theme but together they are like individual movements in a piece of music. I call the ensemble The COVID Quartet.
- Cheryl Ryan
*For an understanding of what a clay monoprint is, see www.mitchlyons.com Mitch discovered this process and was Cheryl’s mentor.
The angel of death? Or the angel fighting death like healthcare workers? Viewers’ choice.
8 weeks at home. What do I feel? Who do I miss? What should I do? Where is the pattern in my life? Where is the image in this print?
This began as 2 separate pieces. The red circle in Japanese art is Enso and represents completion, serenity. I sewed these 2 rectangles by machine to create one large piece and in doing so, cut and appliqued other clay pieces of a broken heart. These symbols can be read as personal, my aorta and broken heart, or as universal, the current pandemic. Serenity and wholeness shattered. Families broken. Connections severed.
I have used stitches and staples/sutures as a way of mending the heart.
Piecing It Back Together
I love to sew! I love to quilt! I went back through my clay print scraps and built a log cabin style quilt. In quilting, the log cabin quilt square is built by sewing concentric “logs” or rectangles around a center square. Traditionally each of the blocks in the quilt have a red square in the center to represent the home fire in the center of the cabin, the center of life and the family. I did that in a very 2021 way, again using staples this time as hand stitches.
Does making art help me cope? YES! And writing this out helps even more!!!
I had just come through a tumultuous year personally in 2019 and was afraid that art making might be gone from me. And I was facing a very big surgery with recovery of months. Making more big art is on hold again until I heal. But as I said, I was flying as I made these four. I had purpose and vision. I had skill. I had the absolute clarity that this was my important work, and that it had to be done, and done NOW! A powerful force flowed through me as I created and mounted one each day, for 4 days. FLOW, Spirit, I don’t know what it was, but I felt the rush of it.
Cheryl Ryan Harshman wears several hats, sometimes all at the same time. Professionally, she has been a librarian for more decades than she would like to admit, first as a children’s librarian and later the director of a university library. Her early years in the library world were centered on children and books for children. She told stories every day in the library and at folk festivals around the region. Those stories helped launch her writing career. She is the author of four books for children, including Sally Arnold, Red Are the Apples, and Christmas Morning.
More recently, Cheryl has turned from the black and white world of libraries and books to the full color world of making art. She started her years of making as a girl with a needle and thread, first as a seamstress and then as an art quilter. A workshop on clay mono printing changed her life. Her clay monoprints have won in numerous regional juried exhibits including Cross Currents at Oglebay Institute, the West Virginia Juried Biennial and Tamarack’s Best of West Virginia. Her paintings have been shown at the Westmoreland Art Museum in Greensburg, PA and the Zanesville, OH Art Museum as well as in local state juried exhibits.
In civic affairs, Cheryl serves on the Ohio County Public Library Board.
You can find Cheryl Ryan on Facebook, Instagram, and on her website, https://cherylrharshman.wixsite.com/artwork