The Museum of Quarantine: An exhibition of our pandemic times, Hollywood style
It is a simple yellow Post-it Note with a message written in childish scrawl: “Happy Birthday Daddy.” A second Post-it Note features a rudimentary drawing of what appears to be a princess. Both are pressed up against the curb — held there by a piece of wood.
The piece, signed, “Peter,” is among more than 75 contributions to the Museum of Quarantine on Quebec, an outdoor community gallery, and home to all manner of telling ephemera related to life in the coronavirus era, in the winding hills of the Hollywood Dell neighborhood of Los Angeles. Creative director, architect and artist Ann Morrow Johnson started it on the gray fence bordering her property.
“We’re trying to find ways to interact digitally, but having something that feels like it’s a physical presence in the real world has made a huge difference in the way I connect to people,” said Johnson, who in quarantine experienced a deep sense of despair and isolation that she began trying to alleviate by making art.
Her paintings are featured, along with all kinds of community contributions that together provide a touching, humorous and at times downright silly folk-art narrative of this surreal moment in history. (To reduce the chance of crowds and maintain social distancing at the museum, The Times has been asked not to divulge the exact location.)
Johnson catalogs each contribution to the museum on Instagram in a feed she created after launching the project in mid-April with a sign stating the museum’s name and purpose: Add art, crafts or cool found stuff to this wall, please. She included a watercolor of her own, two old relief studies and a “pup self-examination station,” which really was just a mutt-height mirror with doodles on it (and which has been the only piece to be stolen).
She also writes the equivalent of wall text for the museum’s exhibits. The caption accompanying the Instagram photo of Peter’s message reads, “Sharpie on Post-it Note. Potentially the next generation’s Banksy, the artist draws on banal materials and unexpected placement in a public space to create a strikingly heartfelt and arresting message.”
A square of pink felt, festooned with the word “soap” and stitched to a fabric head with a tidy blond bun, is captioned: “‘Soap,’ Mixed Media. Dali-style surrealism and crafting are blended here into an examination of the fact that after all the hand washing and sanitizing, human beings have all become the embodiment of soap.”
Walk by the wall in the flesh, and it resonates with the psychic buzz of community, even though you are unlikely to see anyone else perusing its intriguing offerings. Johnson said she has never witnessed another person contributing, but she has heard them, as was the case when somebody spent an exorbitant amount of time hammering a bracket to secure a heart emblazoned with the words “you are amazing.”
Johnson later discovered, to her unbridled joy, that the heart turns into a crazy LED light show for a few hours each night — erupting in white and shades of flickering pink that draw gawking passersby out for an evening stroll.
A 1,000-piece puzzle featuring a hodgepodge of celebrities below the Hollywood sign — Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie,” Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” — was mounted and hung on the wall as the contribution of neighbor Bill Atchinson and his family.
“My wife and I have no art talent, but we had this puzzle,” Atchinson said, unintentionally re-enforcing the trope that art is in the eye of the beholder.
The puzzle is missing four pieces, likely destroyed by Atchinson’s dogs, he said, but this flaw added a bit of mystery to the wall as evidenced by Johnson’s caption: “Hollywood — Puzzle & Resin. Locally relevant, and the missing pieces feel particularly apropos.”
Atchinson said he has watched the wall take shape, and it has brought great joy to the neighborhood during a difficult, socially distanced time.
“You can’t go up and hug each other right now,” he said. “But you can hug each other with that wall.”
Speaking of hugs, one of Johnson’s favorite pieces was among its first entries. It’s a lovely hand-drawn picture of halved lemons above the words “Thought you could use a squeeze.”
An address listed at the bottom of the drawing serves as the metaphorical Easter egg, directing curious museum-goers to a nearby house where they will find a basket of fresh lemons accompanied by a sign inviting visitors to pick as many as they want from the tree in the front yard.
Johnson said she is not a crier, but this early contribution, signaling the kind of lost connection she so yearned for in the early days of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s safer-at-home order, made her misty-eyed.
The neighbor behind the lemon art is Meghna Khanna, who responded to a Times interview request by email.
“During this unprecedented time, we are constantly overwhelmed with all of the negatives of COVID-19,” she said. “I want to use this time as an opportunity for more sharing, more collaboration and finding ways to bring everyone together!”
Artist-run gallery Durden and Ray has organized a sprawling show installed all over L.A. County and seen from sidewalks and streets.
She said the Museum of Quarantine has given neighbors a sense of “being together in this strange time.”
That is certainly true for artist Megan Bourgeois, who moved to the Hollywood Dell from Austin, Texas, five years ago.
Bourgeois has never met, or seen, Johnson, but she regularly contributes her brightly colored creations — interwoven circles resembling geodes or the rings on a tree — to the wall. She credits the project with igniting a personal artistic renaissance.
“I lost my artistic mojo,” Bourgeois said breathlessly over the phone during one of her regular walks through the neighborhood. “This was so inspiring to me, I almost felt like I had a reason to create art again.”
Art stores weren’t open, so she used found materials (her preferred medium anyway) including cardboard and plastic foam. By her count, she has about six pieces on the wall. She includes her Instagram handle and has nabbed a few new followers.
“It’s such a huge ray of sunshine every time I go up there to see what’s new,” she said. “It gives me something to look forward to in these dark days.”
That’s exactly what Johnson hoped for when she conceived of the Museum of Quarantine, which she has since shared with her godmother, Marley Lott, in Houston.
It turns out that this expansive, symbolic, non-hierarchal, community-minded art project is contagious. Lott took the idea and started what she has dubbed “The Plague Tree.”
She initially hung a few teddy bears from the limbs of a Japanese apricot tree in her front yard.
“I have no idea why a single woman has a bunch of teddy bears and panda bears, but I had three or four,” she said, adding that after she hung them, they looked lonely, so she added some Christmas balls.
People walking by picked up where she left off, hanging ballroom dance medals, an empty Clorox wipes bottle decorated with diamonds and pearls, a red ball cap that says “Make America Safe Again” and a dish towel embroidered with the words “Wash your hands,” among other things.
“I like that I don’t know these people,” said Lott, a retired lawyer. “It’s a remote way of communicating, but with a physical object as opposed to email or a web call.”
Back in the Hollywood Dell, Johnson recently mounted one of her watercolors, a melancholy, carefully rendered depiction of downtown Los Angeles as seen from a distance, outlined by the soft blaze of the setting sun. Houses, tucked in the hillside in the foreground of the painting, emerge from the shadows of the gloaming.
Her caption on Instagram: “View from Quarantine No. 5.”
The picture speaks of longing and loneliness but also of the great beauty of life, even when viewed from afar.
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