An art project started online at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic goes on the road this month when Homer photographer, writer and artist Christina Whiting flies to Las Vegas, Nevada, to start her “Behind the Mask — Our Stories” adventure.
In March, Whiting created the public project inviting people to share photos and videos that gave a glimpse into life during the worldwide transformation of society by the spread of the coronavirus. She solicited stories through the “Behind the Mask — Our Stories” Facebook page.
Starting Oct. 20, Whiting, 51, begins her six-week project. In Las Vegas she will pick up a rental camper van and head into the heart of America to collect more stories. Whiting will have magnetic signs to go on the van that read, “Behind the Mask — Documenting everyday life during the pandemic. Care to share your story? Christine from Alaska.” She put “Alaska” on the sign “because everyone loves Alaska,” Whiting said in a phone interview on Monday.
“I’m curious to see how people in the Lower 48 are coping — or not coping,” she said. “Small town Alaska, I see what’s going on here. I want to step out of my comfort zone and see how the rest of the nation is.”
Whiting had been in Washington State at a directed writing retreat when the pandemic started in the U.S. and Alaska. Over the course of the pandemic from lockdown to cautiously reopening, Whiting would pose prompts like “What activities are keeping you safe?”
She collected images like a photo of an elderly woman throwing a kiss through a glass door — Brooklyn, New York, photographer Jamee Schleifer’s image of her grandmother, Joyce Arberman. Another photo by Karen Zeller Smith of Homer, “Passing the Time,” shows a collection of objects from her pandemic days: a face mask, a puzzle book, painted rocks and a deck of cards.
Whiting herself has been documenting the pandemic. The “Behind the Mask — Our Stories” Facebook page includes lots of photos of people in masks, but also of signs. One section features a road trip she took with a friend in her social bubble all the way to Deadhorse. Other photos document activities people developed to continue a social life while being COVID-19 safe, like “Deck Divas,” hanging out with friends while masked on decks.
A member of the Homer Rocks! group that paints colorful images on rocks and leaves them around town, Whiting also has photos of herself and others decorating rocks, some with pandemic themes. She also reached out to the group to paint rocks to give away on her trip, and now has 150 rocks. That’s something she had done before on her travels. An adventurer as well as an artist and writer, Whiting has visited Spain, done a Habitat for Humanity project in Jordan and hiked the Camino trail in France and Spain.
“I have traveled the world over gifting rocks to people,” Whiting wrote in an email. “This simple gesture of kindness serves as a hello and provides a wonderful bridge between individuals, despite cultural and language barriers.”
As another gift, Whiting’s mother in Alberta, Canada, has been knitting socks for Whiting to give to people she meets along the way.
Whiting’s project is similar to another road-trip storytelling project, Mary Latham’s “More Good” trip to visit all 50 United States where she collected stories of human kindness. On that trip, Latham visited Homer in September 2019. Whiting said she has a series of questions she will ask people to start a conversation: “Are you communicating more or less with friends and loved ones? Have you or any of your family and friends you know contracted the virus? Have you developed strategies for coping?”
From Las Vegas, Whiting will take her “Behind the Mask” trip to at least one destination on her bucket list: the Grand Canyon. Although she’s traveled the world, it’s an American landmark she hasn’t yet seen. Before winter sets in, she will head north and then work her way south as the snow falls. She doesn’t really have a set plan, though.
“I’m just meandering,” Whiting said. “This time I have a loose intention. My hope is people are open to sharing their stories whether they’re posing for a photo 6 feet apart at a picnic table or trailhead.”
The camper van she’s renting will be self-contained with a kitchen, a table and benches that convert into a bed. Whiting can keep a tight personal bubble and practice COVID-19 safety.
“I am still confident in the way I move through the world,” she said of her trip plan. “I can connect with people at rest stops, at trails.”
With wildfires in the Western U.S., political tensions and economic hardship, Whiting said she expects to hear some sad stories.
“I expect to see some things that are difficult,” she said. “… Really, just put myself out there and see what this is and how people are adapting and not adapting. I think it’s really important to put myself out there, smell it and feel it.”
Whiting’s ultimate goal with “Behind the Mask — Our Stories” is to create a coffee-table size photo book with stories. She’d also like to do a traveling multimedia art show.
While she travels, Whiting will post to a blog, behindthemaskourstories.blogspot.com. People can sign up to follow her trip and adventures. She also will post to her Facebook page, Behind the Mask — Our Stories, and continue to ask people to share their photos and videos.
And like any traveling artist sharing her art, Whiting will put out a tip basket — or, the modern equivalent, a Go Fund Me page. People wishing to support her work can visit her page at gofundme.com/f/behind-the-mask-our-stories.
“My goal is connecting with people,” Whiting said of her trip. “I think they will. I think storytelling is really important. I just really believe in the goodness of people. I believe in the kindness of my fellow man.”