Student artwork is projected onto the wall at Marshall McLuhan Secondary School in Toronto. Photo courtesy Kelvin Sealey

Art project unmasks students’ talents

By 
  • November 6, 2021

Hundreds of student-designed masks, photos, drawings and poems were on display through a series of digital projections across Toronto in late October to celebrate art and building community in a time of COVID-19.

Students, teachers and school administrators gathered outside for the evening art exhibitions at four sites in late October, including Msgr. Percy Johnson Catholic Secondary School, Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School, George Webster Elementary School and the grand finale at the Malting Silos on the Toronto waterfront. Spearheaded by educator and artist Kelvin Sealey, principal at CaST (City-as-School Toronto), the city-funded project called Mask4Aid received submissions from 15 Toronto schools.

At the beginning of the pandemic, for many, masks felt like an unusual addition to the daily wardrobe as they concealed parts of the face normally exposed. Through this art instalment, Sealey curates a reclaiming of the masks as tools for students’ individual expression during the time of virtual learning and social seclusion.

The projection of this pandemic art marks students’ re-emergence into in-person school life this fall, and the resumption of social interaction, albeit with masks still very much a part of everyday life.

For many, Sealey says taking in the exhibition was a moving experience that shone a “light in the darkness” of the COVID era.

“Several people said to me while they were viewing the art that they didn’t realize, and neither did I, that there was going to be so much emotion embedded in these shows, both through the poetry and through the art,” said Sealey. “You could literally feel what the students were feeling as they were making their art.

“When art is used as a tool to express one’s creativity and one’s identity in the midst of a collective that is a classroom, a school, a city, what you wind up seeing is a map of identity that tracks across the city.”

Jody Conley, senior art teacher at Marshal McLuhan, says projecting art on the school building was a powerful experience for students and staff. Under the theme of creating art around the five objects that got them through the pandemic, Conley received submissions in many different forms. A student’s ode to their mother working in health care was one of the standout submissions from the school.

Conley says students are still making art and remain very engaged in the mask project, which she hopes is a sign that the Mask4Aid initiative could continue well into the future.

“There are students that are still creating under the theme of the importance of the mask,” said Conley. “A lot of older people are saying it’s tough wearing them but for these kids, it’s just a part of who they are now, and they see it in art.”

When the call went out to the boards in September, teachers began contacting Sealey to say their schools were interested in being a projection site for the project. After Sealey received a permit to integrate the Malting Silos as a site for the installation, he amalgamated the art from four downtown schools for one all-inclusive projection evening which concluded the exhibition on Oct. 22.

One of the progressive things to have come from the pandemic, Sealey says, is the increase and greater investment in public art projects, which create opportunities to connect and engage around art. Mask4Aid was funded through the city’s ArtworxTO: Toronto’s Year of Public Art 2021-2022 program, a year-long celebration of Toronto’s public art to support artists and projects that reflect Toronto’s diversity and create opportunities for greater public engagement.

Making art more accessible to a demographically and economically diverse audience is a trend Sealey hopes will continue.

“This has nothing to do with commerce, but only to do with enjoyment, it’s to do with culture, it’s to do with expression, it’s to do with identity,” said Sealey. “For Toronto to recognize that, as multicultural a city as it is and continues to be, I think it’s showing a degree of wisdom. To let young people express themselves and learn about others through art is I think a very good direction in which to take the city.”

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