Bearing witness

Derick Melander commemorates COVID-19 in sculpture

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 11/17/21

CALLICOON CENTER, NY — How do you pay witness to something as massive as the pandemic?

The books are starting to come out, there are videos, films, news footage.

And now there’s …

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Bearing witness

Derick Melander commemorates COVID-19 in sculpture

Posted

CALLICOON CENTER, NY — How do you pay witness to something as massive as the pandemic?

The books are starting to come out, there are videos, films, news footage.

And now there’s “The Witness,” sculpted from secondhand clothes by Callicoon Center artist Derick Melander.

The title “refers to the collective act of living through COVID-19,” he said.

The work—large, solid, colors shading from dark to light—asks people what they witnessed since March 2020.

It is sculpted from clothing donated during the pandemic. It forces you to wonder how many stories, how many deaths, are represented there.

Landing in Sullivan County

Melander grew up near Saratoga Springs, and it was “very much like it is here in Sullivan County,” he said. Art was in his genes; his father was an artist, so was a grandmother. Likely no one was surprised when he in turn went to school for art.

But for a while, the post-school work life took a slightly different turn. “After school, I started an arts organization. We took matters into our own hands and started producing shows.”

Eventually, he focused on his own work and settled into his Queens neighborhood, surrounded by friends and community.

A friend had him and his husband up to Sullivan County for the weekend. Repeatedly. “It became every weekend.” And one day they were sitting around and Derick said, “‘Don’t we want to do this all the time?’”

And so they landed here, eventually moving up full-time.

Which, in a way, led to “The Witness.”

Memorialized in cloth

Melander’s sculptures are made out of used clothing, carefully folded, organized and stacked, the colors and textures working together to get his point across.

“The sculptures are often quite large, even monumental...sorted in some way that informs the work,” he said. “I create a visual rule or system. It ends up being quite striking.”

First people see the color strategy, but “they don’t know what it is. They get 10 feet closer and say, ‘Is that cloth?’”

Secondhand clothes are not just ordinary cloth, though. It’s fabric with history. Who owned it? Was it just discarded? What did the garment mean to the owner? Did it belong to someone who died?

“People often have an emotional, visceral experience when they realize it’s clothing,” Melander said.

He uses clothing that is unwearable due to condition or style. “Every style comes into play,” he said. “You can’t tell when they’re inside the stack.”

Witnessing the pandemic

“The Witness” was born as he watched the toll taken on his old Queens neighborhood  during the pandemic. “I felt really disconnected from my neighbors, who were going through a crisis,” he said. “I felt terrible about not being there to help.”

He wanted to do something, and “I express myself best visually through art.” The images stuck: a camera recording an older couple kissing goodbye at the hospital door, the husband going in, the wife leaving, because she was not allowed to be with him. What happened to them? Did he survive? So many didn’t.

“I wanted to make a memorial from cloth of those who died,” Melander said. Funding came from, in part, the Queens Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

And then the work began.

The designing, building the stand, promotion, the grants, the planning, the permits and figuring out how to get 3,000 pounds of cloth from New York City to the Catskills.

Always, he asked questions: “How are you? How have the last 18 months been for you?”

“It was emotionally draining to work on,” he said. “It was devastating.”

Finding a venue for the exhibit wasn’t easy either. “Witness” finally settled for its first installation in Queens, in a public plaza in Jackson Heights, with people walking past, stopping to look, getting closer. Realizing what they see.

“It’s made from cloth from all of us,” Melander said. “All of it carries a trace of the donor.”

There was no way to separate the owners of the clothes; all he knew was that it was donated during the pandemic. Much like the news snippets of people’s pandemic stories; not all are followed up and we don’t know the end. “Maybe it’s better that way,” he said. “That we’re all mixed, the dead and the living together.”

“The Witness” will be installed again. Visit https://derickmelander.com/ for more information.

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