In employing a pattern created at the end of the 1918 Spanish flu, the painter and sculptor hopes to convey the idea that humanity will find its way to the other side of the coronavirus
As the coronavirus crisis started to unfold, artist and professor Melissa Vogley Woods hit a wall within her own work, displaced from her usual studio amid “stay at home” orders and beset by anxieties that prevented her from accessing the headspace in which she had been creating prior to the pandemic.
“I had been doing paintings and sculptures, work that referenced the figure, but also architecture and abstracts, and I just couldn’t think of an image. Normally … you’re continuing on in this journey using the [artistic] language you’ve acquired, and I just couldn’t access it. The language was gone,” Vogley Woods said. “I was looking at this painting, and it was like, ‘Why would I even do this?’”
In weighing this mental block, the artist, who professed a long-held interest in history, started researching past pandemics, largely the 1918 Spanish flu, spending less time considering the human toll of the virus than the beauty and humanity that emerged on the other side of the plague.
“I really wanted to show that this will end,” said Vogley Woods, adding that much of her work is based on an abstract idea of time. “In researching, I realized that if I could find an image or artwork that was made after that  pandemic … then I could connect [my work] to this previous circumstance in history that we shared collectively.”Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
With help from the librarians at Denison University, where Vogley Woods works as a professor, the artist started researching paintings and designs from that era, eventually hitting upon a pattern created by French painter Raoul Dufy around the year 1920, when feelings of rebirth started to awaken at the tail end of the global flu.
Working with reflective vinyl left over from a previous project and repurposing Dufy’s bold pattern, Vogley painstakingly crafted panels to fit each street-facing window on her home at 964 Neil Ave. in the Short North. These panels have transformed the house into a massive installation ideally suited to the social distancing era, as it can be viewed from a distance either on foot or by car, best seen at dusk when illumination from passing vehicles, street lights and even camera flashes can really make the reflective material pop.
“I wanted it to be on the windows of the house so that I can look through this pattern, and then people can see it from the street, almost bridging that space between private and public. But, more than that, it’s a way to show that we have experienced this before as humans,” Vogley Woods said of the installation, dubbed “Always,” which will remain on view until social distancing ends. “Here’s something made at the end of the last pandemic, and we can almost look through this design as a way to see our future, and know we’re going to get through, and that perhaps change will happen culturally, socially … and hopefully for the better.”
In the past, Vogley Woods has taken a more abstracted approach within her work, often obscuring or blurring meanings to leave pieces more open to interpretation. But with “Always,” she’s taken a purposefully more intentional approach, clearly defining its sourcing and inspiration, and even including signage (complete with a QR code for accessing further information) viewable by passersby.
It’s a clarity that has carried over into her own state of mind, with the creation of these panels and the more intensive focus on brighter days to come clearing many of those stumbling blocks that had previously prevented Vogley Woods from accessing her long-developed artistic language, which has finally started to reemerge, if somewhat changed.
“I feel like now my work is going to be a little different. I’m thinking more now about pattern and this bold graphic-ness … and it will be interesting to see how that folds into my work,” she said. “But I do feel motivated now to make a painting, to make an object. ... It’s like I broke down that barrier, somehow, through this piece.”