SURF CITY — As children started going back to school this fall with no end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, Long Beach Island artist Gwenn Seemel had an idea.
“I wanted them to feel excited about wearing a mask,” Seemel said. “And then I quickly realized, it’s not just the kids who needed reinforcement, this pep talk. I tried to pick characters that have a wider field.”
Those characters include Elsa from “Frozen,” Cookie Monster, Miss Piggy, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Rainbow Dash from “My Little Pony.” They and many more appear in Seemel’s “Lifesavers Fan Art” collection, a project that includes pop culture characters wearing masks.
Mask wearing has been a point of contention since the start of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention argue that a cloth mask, when worn correctly, can help prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus, which can move from person to person by respiratory droplets created when people cough, sneeze, sing, talk or breathe.
However, many still choose not to wear them. Some see mask mandates as an infringement on their civil liberties, find them uncomfortable or just don’t think they work at all.
Seemel said the collection has been “amazingly polarizing,” with some disgusted that she’s making pro-mask art, but with many teachers reaching out to get involved or use the artwork in their classrooms.
“That made me happy,” she said. “They wanted to spread that mask positivity. It’s a beautiful gesture, really, to protect other people than yourself.”
The collection is open to all artists who want to submit their work, with Folsom-based photographer Liz Wuillermin contributing several pieces, including one of the Dalai Lama.
“I do believe that art is very effective, and that’s why I was excited to see what she had done and what others had done,” she said. “I was grateful for her project, because it took me to a happier place. I keep telling people, you can make a mask fashionable. It’s not hard.”
Seemel’s work is “very whimsical, playful and joy of art,” Wuillermin explained, working to normalizing masks for children so they aren’t afraid.
And that fear, coupled with isolation from the pandemic, has worked to divide instead of unite, Seemel said.
“This is the time when fan art could really be beneficial, be useful, specifically in making commentary. To make it because you want to make a point,” she said. “I love the way with fan art, there’s the added benefit of all these intricate stories that hit different people differently, but we still hit that connection point. If you know who Yoda is, and I do, we have that thing in common.”
And all the works are available for use, she said.
“I want it to be as helpful as possible,” Seemel said. “We need to do this together. Like many things in our society, it works better when we do it together.”
PHOTOS of LBI artist Gwenn Seemel’s ‘Lifesavers Fan Art’ collection