A new project by Artspace New Haven gives artists the opportunity to demonstrate their solidarity with health care workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

In an initiative christened “Project Zoomie,” multitalented and variegated artists created a Dropbox of Zoom backgrounds for health care workers to use during work-related meetings and virtual cocktail parties.

“Artists wanted to help and they wanted to be part of the relief effort,” said Sarah Fritchey, a curator at Artspace. “[Zoomie backgrounds] are very small gestures that provide a moment of comfort or joy that wouldn’t otherwise be there.”

When the pandemic began escalating in the United States, Fritchey was struck by how much time her partner, who works at Yale-New Haven Hospital in the pediatrics department, was spending in Zoom meetings. Although he usually keeps his domestic and work life separate, her partner spent one entire weekend in March on conference calls, drafting plans to safely take in and treat sick patients. As the pandemic progressed, virtual cocktail nights after stressful workdays became part of many health care workers’ routines.

According to Fritchey, artists and health care workers are being asked to think in new ways during the crisis and have more in common than they might initially assume. Fritchey came up with Project Zoomie in an attempt to add zest to these virtual gatherings, sending out a call to artists to submit images of their art. Since this initial call, Artspace has continued adding to its 45-background collection.

The “Zoomies,” as Fritchey calls them, have been a tremendous success among local health care workers. They don the Zoomies like clothing, Fritchey said, switching backgrounds with their moods or the weather. Many health care workers have found a favorite background. Fritchey has noticed that certain backgrounds consistently ignite conversation.

Artist Aude Jomini’s contributions to the project — a looping video and a still from the video — are titled “I Am,” and depict a futuristic-looking tiger’s head. Fritchey said the works have provoked several conversations about the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King.” Jomini’s tiger background is a personal favorite of Fritchey’s partner.

One highly sought-after background is an impressionist depiction of a French vineyard, painted by Frank Bruckmann. Fritchey described the lush painting, “Provence,” as “bucolic” and “traditional.” Bruckmann painted the scene a year ago while living in France with his family, and said he submitted it as a Zoomie with the hopes it would bring a sense of calm to those using it.

A few days ago, as Bruckmann was walking his dog through his neighborhood, he was stopped by another pedestrian. She recognized him, and said she used his Zoom background a week ago. When he did not understand, she described his painting’s quaint countryside 12th-century chapel. Delighted, he realized she was referring to his Zoomie.

Interactions like Bruckmann’s are a reason why Fritchey is invested in the project. “You might be working in the New Haven Hospital and realize that this artist lives 20 minutes away from you,” she said.

Althea Rau, the artist-in-residence at Artspace, contributed two Zoomies called “Halo” and “Floating” which appear to frame the user in a halo. She said they are inspired by paintings in the Mogao Caves, a system of 500 temples in Dunhuang, China. Halos are seen in many of the Mogao Cave paintings, Rau said, often surrounding floating or flying dancers.

Rau’s artwork requires social interaction and engagement, often involving underserved populations. Sometimes this takes the form of dance, public space activation, ritual or communal singing. These attributes of her art make it difficult for her to make and disseminate work amid social distancing measures. Rau said efforts like Project Zoomie help artists who want to be involved but don’t know how to be of use.

“Being able to be involved and offer comfort is a good way of alleviating some of that stress that comes with not being able to work,” Rau said.

When submitting a piece for Project Zoomie, Margaret Roleke wanted to choose a piece viewers could study closely. She settled on a picture of a segment of a relief she made in 2013 called “Tink’s Army.” “Tink’s Army” is a child’s Tinker Bell blanket stretched over a round canvas, covered with tiny toy soldiers. What was originally commentary on war and violence has become something to distract exhausted health care workers. “It’s fun, it’s distracting, there’s a lot to look at,” Roleke said. “It makes you wonder what you’re seeing.” 

Noe Jimenez, a longtime Artspace collaborator and volunteer, contributed a more current work. When Fritchey called him and described Project Zoomie, he decided his in-progress piece “Moon Makers” fit perfectly with the project’s mission. His two Zoomies, titled “Slice of Heaven 1” and “Slice of Heaven 2,” immortalize the work, which has progressed significantly since Jimenez made the Zoomies, in its early stages.

“Moon Makers is about creating your own reality and creating your own sense of purpose through finding strength in yourself,” Jimenez said. Though many things have come to a halt in the world right now, Jimenez wanted to show that artists are still in the studio, making art.

According to Fritchey, Project Zoomie is expanding all the time. Artspace will continue accepting submissions, and is working to make the backgrounds available to all health care workers — not only those with access to the Project Zoomie Dropbox. She is hopeful others will take up the project in cities outside of New Haven, collecting backgrounds from artists across the U.S.

Project Zoomie’s current submission deadline is May 31 at 12 a.m. EDT.



Annie Radillo | annie.radillo@yale.edu

Annie Radillo covers museums and visual art. She is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in English.