Unique student art exhibit takes look at a challenging time

UND Honors students create ‘Unmasked,’ an online exhibit that depicts life during pandemic

Screenshot of Unmasked online exhibit.

Just as the coronavirus pandemic has altered our lives in the past 10 months, so too have Zoom and face masks have become indelible parts of working, studying and, basically, just living.

For 19 students at the University of North Dakota, the video conferencing application and face coverings have also become art.

As part of their Honors art class this fall – led by Sarah Heitkamp, manager and curator of the UND Art Collection – the students put together a virtual exhibit, aptly titled Unmasked, that leans on Zoom and face masks to capture life in the age of COVID.

The exhibit is a de-facto final project in Heitkamp’s class, which exposes students to UND’s vast repository of paintings, pottery and other artworks. Typically, students would mine that treasure trove to assemble a thematic exhibit. This semester, however, students took a novel approach to the task at hand: create their own art.

“This was a brave decision, as the students aren’t art majors,” said Heitkamp during the Zoom unveiling of the exhibit on Tuesday. “They also talked about how even though they have such unique and individual opinions and experiences, they’d like their exhibition to be a display of unity. Their thesis revolves around creative expression as a solution to identity suppression caused by face masks. It’s an impressive idea.”

A story behind every mask

Students snapped pictures of their face masks – a stylish black covering, a UND branded cloth, a generic surgical mask – that can now be viewed on Squarespace arranged in the recognizable Zoom pattern of squares that typically contain the faces of video-call participants.

“Zoom, the online video communication app that we are all using right now, has become every student’s unwelcome best friend,” said biology major Brayden Groll. “Our class has decided that a virtual approach for the facilitation of our art exhibit is only fitting.”

Behind each mask, however, lives a story and an art artifact.

For example, under the frayed American flag-branded mask of freshman Matthew Russell, who is pursuing a major in computer science, lie two digital images he had created using the photo editing software Photoshop.


One of them features an upside-down cityscape in a representation of escapism that, earlier this year, won first place for graphic design in an art show hosted by Northeast Iowa Community College.

“Ironically, this was made right before the quarantine hit, less than a week before the country shut down,” Russell said.

Another student, Madilyn Connolly, who is a freshman studying physical therapy, had taken an old-school approach to art by painting plain face masks in vibrant hues and scribbling on them her favorite pre-pandemic activities such as spending time with family and friends.

“Each mask is painted with bright colors to show that we can make the best of the situation we’re dealt,” Connolly said. “COVID has impacted us all in so many ways, but focusing on the good things that happen helps with making it through this time.”

Like Connolly, dietetics major Quinn Hilber had focused on the positive but through a different art form – poetry. One Friday morning this semester, after two cups of coffee, Hilber penned Gratitude Unmasked.

Her poem begins:

“Behind the mask lies

a persistent smile that never dies…”

Words of congratulations

Present at the Zoom reception on Tuesday were UND President Andrew Armacost and Honors Program Director Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, both of whom congratulated the students on their unique art exhibit.

“When I heard about this exhibit, I smiled because trying to pull something like this off on Zoom can be tricky,” Armacost said. “But life is about experimenting and trying new things. It’s that spirit of wonderment, that spirit of creativity that we celebrate today with your final presentations as part of this exhibit. Congratulations to all of you.”

Focusing on the crucial aspect of art in formal education, Rozelle-Stone said, “Frankly, that you’re here, you’re sticking with things through this kind of difficult semester, is already a testament to your characters, to your resilience, and to, I’m sure, your understanding of how important it is to be in an art class as part of your education.”

Unmasked can be viewed on Squarespace.