Signs of the Times: Messages left behind during a pandemic
By LaReeca Rucker
At the beginning of the fall semester, we adopted a new theme for students enrolled in Oxford Stories journalism classes. This year, they were asked to write about Oxford’s growing arts community, inspired by the new mural on University Avenue, and inquire about whether or not an arts district would be a good addition for that area.
This led to a number of stories about what arts district leaders in other cities were doing and about the importance of public art. In one story titled How Public Art is Changing Oxford and Other U.S. Towns, some shared that public art, like the new mural, can “probe questions about society, act as a memorial, or respond to the environment.”
Others said public art plays a role in our country’s history and culture, reflecting our society and enhancing meaning in civic spaces. “Art builds and humanizes an environment. It creates past, present, and future with ideas for society.”
After spring break, our news coverage entirely shifted, moving away from art and artists to covering the COVID-19 pandemic as it unfolded, but there was still a connection between the two ideas.
After noticing an electronic billboard outside a local pharmacy that read “Wash Your Hands,” I began to think about all of the signs that must be displayed around town on every business door offering information to customers about what was happening, and I wondered what those signs of the pandemic would tell us if we collectively viewed them.
I decided to drive around Oxford one day (while practicing social distancing) and photograph those messages affixed to business doors that had been left behind for customers in the sudden ghost town.
Each of them tell part of the story.
They indicate that residents want to protect and serve each other.
They acknowledge that we are living in “extraordinary times” and a “rapidly changing environment.”
They speak of love and support for fellow citizens and they encourage them to “stay strong” and “stay safe.”
“We are all in this together” one reads.
Others thank citizens for their patience as we “navigate these trying” and “uncertain” times.
“God bless and protect you all,” one said.
“We are better together,” read the message on an Oxford Middle School sign.
“We will miss seeing your faces in our store, and we will continue praying for the community,” another read.
As I viewed these signs and their messages, I began to see them as another unintentional form of public art that probed questions about society, acted as a memorial, and was a response to the environment.
They also played a role in our history and culture, reflecting our society, enhancing meaning in civic spaces, and they humanized an environment.
They were handwritten signs about love and loss – if only temporarily.
Today, it seems that we are at a crossroads in our country and culture. What we pay attention to is largely dictated by whether not it has “gone viral,” so it’s interesting that a virus may be making us consider whether or not we want our world to continue on its current trajectory.
Since the pandemic began, I have seen families retrospectively return to what some of us may view as a simpler time.
They are spending more time together, eating meals together, planting gardens together to grow their own food like our grandparents did.
Seeing this happen is almost bittersweet because many of us can remember what it felt like to move through life at a slower pace, and now that we have experienced a glimpse of that again, we may not want to fast-forward things.
Pollution levels seem to be changing as the smog has lifted in some major cities because our daily behavior has changed. People are spending more time in nature and sharing photographs of beautiful birds, flowers and creeks with waterfalls.
They are thinking of creative ways to entertain the neighborhood children, from a distance, and their dreams may have changed. Extravagant, material ambitions may now be replaced with the dream of reuniting with extended family at a holiday gathering.
While terrible things are often unpredictable and unwelcome, they also present opportunities for us to rethink life. As we move toward the future, we may want to reclaim some of the beautiful things we have left behind when we had less connectivity and more connection.
These warning signs have been there for a while.
Perhaps, only now are we beginning to see them.
— LaReeca Rucker