Jackie Baer’s show ‘Pandemic’ makes the most of her battle with COVID-19

It was a tough spring for Jackie Baer. In March, the beloved 87-year-old artist, sculptor, photographer, and all-around blithe spirit slipped in the bathroom and broke her hip. The fall required going to Mass. General Hospital, but because of the coronavirus, no visitors were allowed at MGH, and it would be May before Jackie was allowed to see her family again.

Jackie progressed nicely at MGH, and in about a week, she was sent to the Elizabeth Seton Residence in Wellesley Hills for rehab. Again, she progressed nicely with her rehab, and was scheduled to be discharged, but she tested positive for COVID-19, and couldn’t be released.

I spoke with Jackie last week about the whole experience, and let’s just say she’s a real trooper. She downplayed the virus, saying, “Oh, I just had a mild case.” Others at Elizabeth Seton were not so lucky, at least six people died at the facility this spring.

“Her case of the virus was more than slight,” Chris Baer, her son said in an email. “While she never required hospitalization (she was in the rehab center and had sufficient medical access), and she never had trouble breathing, she had miserable flu-like symptoms for maybe two weeks, and a persistent cough that lasted more than a month. She was very weak and miserable, and wasn’t even able to draw when she was at her worst. We were getting very worried and alarmed before she turned the corner. It was a long slog. (And it set her back, rehab-wise.)”

Jackie was placed in quarantine in her room, and her daughter Gretchen knew that her mom was going to need some way to channel her creativity, to fight the boredom and help her get through this rough time. Gretchen contacted the staff at Elizabeth Seton and asked if it would be possible to give Jackie some art supplies. The hospital thought this was a splendid idea, and provided Jackie with a case of colored markers and a large supply of drawing paper.

Gretchen knew from past experience that when Jackie commits to a project, she immerses herself in it ,and this time was no different. Jackie would get up in the morning, take out her sketchpad, and throw herself into her drawings. She produced nearly a sketch a day for every day she was in quarantine. Jackie’s bright and fanciful drawings were posted around her room, giving both Jackie and the nurses and attendants who came to visit her a lift.

There were several themes that occurred throughout her work. The Elizabeth Seton Residence is a Catholic facility, so nuns were a frequent sight around the campus, and they figured prominently in Jackie’s drawings. “I’m not Catholic,” Jackie said, “and I only really saw them a few times, but they must have had a place in my subconscious. I enjoyed the spiritual atmosphere.”

Another theme of Jackie’s was cats. Cats in armchairs, cats at the beach, cats in trees. If you’re looking for some deep hidden meaning in the choice of cats (like, of course I was … Were they perhaps the nurses?), Jackie had a simple explanation. “I have two cats at home, Jack and Sammie,” she said, “and I really miss them.”

A third theme is a cherry tree with beautiful and vibrant blossoms that Jackie saw when she looked out her window. It was spring, and the blossoms were in full bloom.

Even as Jackie struggled with COVID-19, her irrepressible humor came through. I literally broke out laughing at one of her drawings, showing stylized coronavirus symbols and titled “Coronavirus Hits the Beach.”

“My drawings got me through the virus,” Jackie said. “Every day I looked forward to creating something new, and that allowed me to forget the virus.”

By early May, Jackie was ready to go home, and the Elizabeth Seton Residence published a special newsletter in her honor titled, “Artistic talent and creativity helps patient beat the coronavirus.”

The newsletter went on to quote Lori Ferrante, the administrator of the Elizebeth Seton Residence: “After nearly completing her rehab, with family support limited to phone calls, the unexpected extension of her isolated stay might have been quite debilitating. And yet Jackie had such a positive attitude. She was able to channel her energy through a positive lens, creating beauty with simple supplies. She was able to recuperate successfully from the virus, achieve her therapy goals, and leave the unit, accompanied by cheers from the nurses and therapists.”

Once she was back on the Island, Jackie’s son, Chris Baer, posted some of his mother’s drawings on Jackie’s Facebook page. And it’s here that the story takes an interesting turn. Anna Barber, the exhibitions and program manager for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, saw the Facebook post and loved the drawings. “I’ve been a huge fan of the Baer family for years,” Barber said. “Not only Jackie, but her husband Gene, who recently died, and their daughter Gretchen, who’s also a prolific artist. And Chris [Baer] teaches design at the high school.” (Baer’s column, “This Was Then,” has been a popular feature in the MV Times for years.)

Barber was looking for a way to gradually reopen the museum that would be safe and fun for patrons. She was thinking of staging “inside-out exhibits” that patrons could view without having to go inside the building, and she was thinking of featuring Jackie’s drawings, which were called “Pandemic,” as well as Jackie’s wildly colorful beaded mannequins. Jackie had begun creating mannequins two years ago, causing quite a stir on the Vineyard art scene, and last year she had a one-person show at Kara Taylor’s studio in Chilmark called “The Wild World of Jacqueline Baer.”

Barber’s idea was to put the drawings and the mannequins on display in the museum’s windows, where people could see them from the outside. “We’re even working on illuminating the beaded mannequins,” Barber said. “Jackie’s work is so joyful, we’re looking for a way to celebrate her story,”

There are 16 different mannequins being displayed in the windows of the museum, nearly her entire collection. “I really miss my girls,” Jackie said.

“What’s amazing,” Barber says, “Is that Jackie went to a place that was supposed to protect her, and yet she came down with the virus. But she was never bitter or resentful; she remained upbeat and positive. Everyone should see her work, it’s extraordinary work for extraordinary times.”

Martha’s Vineyard Museum, 151 Lagoon Pond Road, Vineyard Haven. 508-627-4441; mvmuseum.org/visit.