Wear your mask

Gretchen Baer’s new exhibit comes straight from the frontlines.

Gretchen Baer was dismayed and perplexed. Cases of COVID-19 were spiking in Bisbee, Ariz., the small town where she lived. Bikers for Trump, the KKK, even the Nazi Party were holding rallies in the town, and in their eyes, the virus was not the problem — masks were the problem.

Gretchen is originally from Martha’s Vineyard; she’s the daughter of Island artists Gene and Jackie Baer. Gene Baer was a longtime Island art teacher (and artist). You might know Jackie for the dazzling work she does with beaded mannequins. And Gretchen is the sister of The MV Times’ “This Was Then” columnist, Chris Baer.

Gretchen moved to Bisbee in 1988 because she was attracted to the vibrant art scene there. The town is in southern Arizona, near the Mexican border. “You’d like it down there,” she told me, “It’s a lot like the Vineyard.”

Gretchen found Bisbee to be a great outlet, not only for her free-spirited art, but for her activism as well. She started an art center for kids just across the Mexico border called Studio Mariposa, where kids are encouraged to make art, play music; they’ve even done colorful paintings on a mile-long section of the border wall. Gretchen has been going to Studio Mariposa regularly, even during the pandemic, and the contrast in how the Mexicans are handling the situation and how it’s being handled in Arizona is stark.

In Mexico, residents may have to travel four or five hours to get medical help, so they treat the virus very seriously, whereas in Arizona many citizens are treating it as a hoax. Gretchen knows all too well that the virus is not to be taken lightly. This past spring, her 87-year-old mother Jackie was recuperating from a broken hip in a nursing home outside Boston when the nursing home became a hot spot for coronavirus. Of the 85 people in the home, 65 people, including her mother, came down with the virus, and six died. “The hardest thing,” Gretchen said, “was that when your loved ones are in the hospital, you might never get to see them again.” So for Gretchen, the virus was personal. And it was troubling — disturbing — to see the reckless way people in Bisbee were dealing with it.

In the beginning, Gretchen said that the residents of Bisbee, many of them artists, did a good job of wearing masks and keeping social distancing, but when people from outside Bisbee began coming to town, cases began to skyrocket. Gretchen knew that something as simple as wearing a mask could help enormously, so as an artist, she decided to do what she did best, and she created a series of posters that might persuade people to “mask up” and help save lives. Little did she know she was walking into a hornet’s nest.

When she first began putting the posters up around town, the mayor of Bisbee came to her and asked if he could use the images to produce posters and banners of his own. “So far so good,” Gretchen thought.

But to illustrate just how vehement some people’s opposition to wearing a mask was, Gretchen tells the story of a 77-year-old friend of hers who was descending a set of stairs, and a person not wearing a mask was blocking his way. Her friend asked the person if he would either move or put on a mask, and the person spit in her friend’s eye and bludgeoned him on the skull, sending him to the hospital with a concussion.

Understanding the visceral hatred some of them had for even suggesting they should wear a mask, Gretchen was careful to try to maintain a light touch with her posters, keeping them fun and upbeat. “The last thing I wanted to do,” Gretchen said, “was try to intimidate people, or God forbid, shame them into wearing a mask.” These people seemed to be answering to a higher power. “I think we know who that was,” added Gretchen.

After the town shut down in March, restaurants and bars began seriously reopening around Memorial Day and Fourth of July, and over the summer, “people started coming back and partying their butts off,” Gretchen said, “and the numbers started going off the hook.”

“So was it time to do any more posters?” I asked Gretchen.

“No,” she said, “I got tired of people tearing them down.” I suggested that perhaps people just wanted to have the posters for their cool artwork.

“Not likely,” she said. Gretchen had printed the posters on canvas, and they were attached to poles in such a way that they were almost impossible to pull down. “People had to rip the posters apart to take them down,” Gretchen said, “and they’d invariably leave a big corner still attached to the pole, and it wasn’t enough that they tore the poster down, they would then write snarky notes on the part of the poster that was still attached.” All of Gretchen’s posters got ripped down, but people couldn’t get to the banners the mayor put up, so they’re still up.

One day this summer, MJ Bruder Munafo, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, was looking at Gretchen’s Facebook page and saw the colorful “Wear a mask” posters and loved them. She’d been a big fan of Gretchen’s for a long time. In 2014, when the Playhouse was getting ready to build its Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse Art Space, Gretchen was the first artist to be exhibited in the new space. “It was wonderful,” Munafo said; “her work filled up the entire room.”

When she saw Gretchen’s mask posters, she had an idea. Wouldn’t it be great, she thought, to feature her work again in the Playhouse Art Space, this time to raise money for the theater. But since people aren’t allowed inside because of the pandemic, the posters could be mounted in the windows facing out onto Church Street. And coincidentally, this was exactly what Jackie Baer had done earlier in the summer at the M.V. Museum. While Jackie was recuperating from COVID-19 in the nursing home, she produced a drawing a day for 40 days, and all of that work, as well as some of her mannequins, was shown in the windows at the rear of the museum as part of the museum’s “Inside-Out” exhibit.

Munafo tried the idea out on Gretchen, who thought it was a great idea; she’d do anything to help out the Playhouse, she said. Not only would it help raise money, but it would give Gretchen an excuse to come to the Vineyard and see her family, whom she hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. The only problem was that all the posters had been torn down, so Gretchen spent a marathon weekend coming up with a whole new series of posters. Then it was off to the Vineyard.

The flight Gretchen was able to book took her to the Island via Las Vegas and New York, with plenty of layovers — the entire trip would take 24 hours. Gretchen was not a fan of flying and airports even before the pandemic, so she designed an outfit for herself that was both practical and made an artistic statement — she looked rather like a punk astronaut. She wore a silver cowl to cover her hair, white ski goggles, a face mask covered with mesh, a shiny fake leather silver jacket and pants, and a bright, holographic pouch which she used for storing Clorox wipes. And for shoes she wore reflective gray sneakers that lit up when she walked on them.

I asked Gretchen if she had any trouble with antimaskers in the airport.
“Hell no,” she said, “they were frightened to death of me.”

Gretchen’s poster collection is currently on display in the windows of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse; you can purchase them for $5 each at the M.V. Playhouse website. Everyone is invited to purchase these colorful posters, even members of the KKK, the Nazi Party, or Bikers for Trump. Ideally you’ll put them up for people to see … but if you just want to destroy them, that’s OK, too. All the money goes to a good cause.