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Local Artists Find Healing And Community In Mass Producing Masks

Some San Diego artists are finding solace in making face masks in the hundreds as official personal protective gear recommendations change

San Diego-based artist Rizzhel Javier's handmade face coverings are pictured ...

Credit: Rizzhel Javier

Above: San Diego-based artist Rizzhel Javier's handmade face coverings are pictured in an April 2020 photo.

By now, you surely know someone who has posted a picture of their sewing machine, busily creating stacks of masks to donate or pass out to friends. Homemade face covers aren't recommended in clinical or hospital settings, but with more people looking to cover their faces, a collective crafting movement has taken over the country.

In San Diego, many artists are taking on the challenge, including Catalina Bellizzi-Itiola (known as Cataphant) and Rizzhel Javier. Both women are finding their own unique sense of calm and resourcefulness in the practice, and both are sharing time and skills to protect their community and heal themselves.

Rizzhel Javier's 'Distant Together' Initiative

For multimedia and mixed-media artist and educator Rizzhel Javier, making masks was "a solution that felt concrete."

Photo credit: Ale Uzarraga

Rizzhel Javier is pictured in an undated photo teaching fiber arts and sewing to youth.

Javier spent the early days of the quarantine pivoting her CSU San Marcos video art courses to remote learning, in addition to a dark room photography class at Southwestern College she teaches through the Aja Project. That intentionally non-digital class was less poised to go remote, but Javier packaged up dark room supplies, cyanotype chemicals and more to send as kits to her students so they can continue the tactile learning at home.

This mindset (not to mention her makeshift shipping center) came in handy with another way of reaching out to the community.

After an anxiety attack one morning, Javier turned to her sewing machine. "That afternoon, I found myself at Joann's," she said. "When I came home and started sewing, I saw the potential. I could use my energy to be unhappy and have anxiety all day, or I could reroute that energy into something more useful and more positive."

When she saw that Palomar Health sought donations of homemade masks (for health workers in non-patient areas), she settled on the fastest pattern, because she knew that she'd be making large quantities. Javier documented her sewing on social media, and the DMs started flowing with requests from friends and family, from people out of state expressing a need for masks. She found connections with other mask makers in sharing resources and supplies.

She knows others out there are also seeking community, so she launched a brand new phone-in project, "Distant Together"— along the lines of her 2019 initiative "Gentrification has a Name." There's a phone number where people can record voicemails and send texts, pictures or videos, telling their stories about this period in time. Javier recently started including a slip of paper with instructions to connect with "Distant Together" in each mask she sewed and mailed out.

"I don't know who all these masks are going to, but I'd like to know them. I hope they're doing okay," she said, and she added that she hopes they share their stories. Share your own: 858-287-7184 or on Instagram at @distant.together.

Photo credit: Rizzhel Javier

Handmade face coverings are pictured in this April 2020 photo.

Cataphant: 'I was grieving'

Artist Catalina Bellizzi-Itiola (otherwise known as Cataphant) has had a difficult winter. Days before her solo show was set to open at Weird Hues Gallery in February, her father's long-term illness took a dire turn. She postponed the show (before postponing shows was second nature to us) and traveled home to be with her father for his final days.

Before that, she was in an intensive outpatient program for post-traumatic stress disorder, and dealing with a concrete diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She’s since focused her mixed-media art — lately featuring etchings in layers of pen, oil pastels and paint, "and layering some more" — on the origins of PTSD and how to properly treat it.

Photo credit: Cataphant

Cataphant's "Unfolding 2019," oil and pastel on wood.

When the coronavirus pandemic restricted any hopes she had of rescheduling her Weird Hues show, Bellizzi-Itiola, still grieving for her father, managed to find perspective. She speaks frankly about her illness and how the periods of hypomania have helped her — properly managed by a therapist — and often result in extreme productivity for her. And in a global health crisis, Bellizzi-Itiola has channeled that productivity to mask making.

"It's nice to know that part of my mental illness has actually been able to benefit other people," she said. "You don't often experience that when you're struggling so much."

Photo credit: Cataphant

“Folded, 2019," mixed media on canvas.

In the first week of quarantine, her own anxiety led her to make a quick mask for herself, crudely hand-sewing a torn towel to ribbon. Then she worked on improving her supplies and technique and started making masks for others, borrowing a sewing machine and eventually making hundreds a day. With her support network, she focuses on structuring her day to avoid overworking, including what she referred to as "a slow breakfast."

The busy, repetitive task leaves little space for her art practice, but for Bellizzi-Itiola, art can wait. "[Mask making] is not the same as art making; it's doing the same thing over and over again," she said. "I just need to do this because people are gonna die."

Join the conversation: Making masks? Have you found a great pattern? Tell us about it in our KPBS/Arts Facebook group.

Photo credit: Cataphant

Cataphant's handmade face coverings are pictured in this April 2020 photo.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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