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In the coming weeks, Carla founder and editor-in-chief Lindsay Preston Zappas will be hosting chats with members of the L.A. art community via Instagram live on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
The following was edited for web from an Instagram Live conversation on March 23, 2020, at 5:30 PST.
Lindsay Preston Zappas: What has your life been like the last week? How have you been keeping a routine, what have you been doing, how have you been staying sane?
Molly Surhazsky: Initially, once the quarantine and stay-at-home started, I think I sort of became a shell of myself. I wasn’t really functioning—it took a few days. And I certainly felt a little pressure to create, like, “now I have to go out and create this genius artwork!” And so I sort of had to step back from that and just let myself rest.
LPZ: I think that’s really smart. I think a lot of us have been feeling that pressure to quickly respond, including me, but I think that’s wise to take a step back. I’ve been trying to listen to that advice and just take some time for yourself. I mean, it’s so important right now.
MS: Totally, totally. Luckily, right now my employer is still paying me, so it’s a very privileged position, at least for the time being. I sort of just rested at first, and then once I started getting back into the swing of things I started to focus my attention on the stories I’ve been hearing, which is that nurses and doctors are out of masks. I have a skill: I sew in my practice, and it just became clear that this is what I have to be doing right now.
LPZ: Right, okay. You’ve been sewing masks for doctors. I love that you’re telling us the impetus behind that, but can you tell us a little bit more about how that works and how you’re getting those to hospitals?
MS: At the moment I’m just using my own fabric scraps to create the masks. I started to hear stories—not just from the news, but also from a friend whose sister is a doctor and she shared with me that her sister has been using literally just a scarf to cover her face, which is just absolutely unacceptable. At this point, the hospitals are just running out of the basics. So that’s where that started, I was just like, “let me use the scraps that I have.”
LPZ: I think it’s really amazing that you’re just using fabric from your Mashacare series, too, which is already about Utopia and care and health and supporting the community. It’s very meta in this really beautiful way. So these aren’t N95 masks, so how are they safe or useful for doctors?
MS: Right. Some N95 masks have a filter but some don’t, and so at the moment, I’m just working with a pattern that is basically an N95 mask minus the filter. What the hospitals are doing at the moment is they’re delegating the N95 masks for cases that are more critical, or for surgeries, whereas other patients—whether it’s outpatient, children, nurses who are working every day, more than most people, they don’t have masks at all. So these are at least providing some kind of protection.
LPZ: You also mentioned that they’re washable as well?
MS: Yeah, so that’s the other thing: a lot of the N95 masks right now, doctors are wearing them for 8 hours and have to throw them out. It’s also unsustainable and unfortunately, that makes the supply run out quicker. So these are sustainable in that at least they can be washed.
LPZ: So people in their studios that might have a sewing machine, have some fabric, can you walk us through how to get involved and help you out and join this effort?
MS: I ended up deciding to make a very clearly laid out PDF. Anybody with a sewing machine can follow this PDF. It’s free and people can share it. The PDF includes photos, so it’s really simplified. There are images along with instructions as well as a pattern for the mask at the end.
But most importantly, what I’ve been sharing with people is that you don’t necessarily have to sew. The other option I’ve been providing people, if they want to really jump in and help, is not only donating fabric, but they can trace the pattern that is attached on this PDF, or cut out the pattern and attach it to fabric and just cut fabric and supply it to me.
LPZ: So literally just dropping off at your studio, or what do you recommend?
MS: I’ve actually partnered up with LACA—Los Angeles Contemporary Archive. They’re based in Chinatown. They’re helping me, which is really incredible. They’re offering curbside pickup, so you just DM LACA on Instagram and give them your address. They’re going to keep all the social distancing protocols. Just leave material on your doorstep and they will go ahead and pick it up and then deliver it to me. And then once the masks are completed, likewise LACA will be distributing the masks to hospitals and different communities throughout.
LPZ: So if people are making some they can do the same thing, DM or get in touch with LACA, have the finished masks picked up and they’ll complete that distribution chain?
MS: Exactly. In terms of materials that we need, it has to be unused 100% cotton, so long as it’s unused it’s good to go. The way I describe it to people is that it has to be sort of a bedsheet material. You can test it out by lifting it up to your face and seeing how breathable it is. A t-shirt is, unfortunately, a little too loose and too many particles can get through a t-shirt material. Additionally, I should say we’re also taking ribbons, elastic bands—elastic bands have disappeared, so if anyone has any elastic sitting around, that’s super useful.
LPZ: Okay so shifting a little bit—obviously, this is changing your production in the studio at the moment. Are you thinking about how this might change what you’re making for your own work going forward?
MS: That’s been a really difficult question for me right now. To give people some background, Lindsay had mentioned Mashacare, that’s a body of work where I envisioned a universal healthcare set on a floating city in the future, this Utopia. The work is very in-person: it’s an installation, it’s textile, it’s also presented as clothing in a fashion show. And so my work requires IRL engagement, real people. And so for me, working in that mode, it’s been very difficult to think about what the work is going to look like moving ahead, past this, while everything goes virtual. So I think at the moment I’m just processing, and hoping, and looking forward to a time when we can share space together again.
LPZ: I know, I know. Absolutely. Do you have any words for the art community right now? You’re doing so much for the medical community, but can you speak to what you think as an artist you need, or our community needs, and how we can best come together?
MS: This is an area that I think I stumble upon also. Prior to the pandemic really exploding the way it is now, I was creating t-shirts for Bernie Sanders, so I was already engaged at this level. I think it’s not just the art community anymore, it’s the working class that has to come together, and how does the art community involve itself in that? Not to say that the needs of the art community aren’t important, not to completely disregard that, they are important, especially with freelancers. To think a month from now, I don’t know what my income is going to be, along with many other people, which is again why I return to the fact that it’s the working class struggle. At this point, I do think that what our community can offer is mobilizing our unique skills. Because we do have unique skills.
I’ve always been inspired by the Russian Revolution and the Constructivists. For people watching this who don’t know, my family is from Russia originally, and so I am very interested in working within this legacy.
At the point of the Russian Revolution, the Constructivist artists… that was their goal. The textile artists were designing textiles, thinking about how they would dress people in the Soviet Union. Likewise, posters, educational posters were created. Even Mayakovsky’s poetry was printed in beautiful books designed by artists that would basically help the illiterate population learn. I think this just comes down to my core belief that it is not just the art community, and at this point, I do really think that we should be expanding beyond just our community, which can be insulated.
LPZ: Absolutely, absolutely, yeah. New supports are being invented every day right now. As someone who tries to get in on building some of those structures, it’s really exciting to see how it’s evolving.
I feel like the masks have been a place of grounding for you—but have there been any other things you’ve been doing, or thinking about, or even just sitting quietly— how have you been finding self-care for yourself during this time?
MS: I think that’s something I’m trying to figure out daily.
LPZ: It’s a moving target.
MS: It is, it is. For the most part, the one thing I found to help me personally when I find myself feeling kind of grim or upset about the current situation—I look at Cher’s Twitter account. It’s small, she posts political content but it’s quite funny also. Yesterday she posted about her 94-year-old mother and their phone conversations. It’s pure entertainment. And then, of course, I’m reading, I’m cooking. I have a little bit more time on my hands.
LPZ: What are you cooking? I saw that you are using up a lot of cabbage because no one wanted cabbage at the store?
MS: I was joking with my mother about that—how the food that my ancestors survived on in the Russian winter is what’s available. I was cooking a cabbage stew with potatoes, cabbage, tomato paste, carrots, garlic, and cook it all together. Really delicious.