Saskatchewan

Regina woman turns to art to process images from Black Lives Matter protests

As an artist, Chrystene Ells is used to going out and creating new work with her neighbours in Regina. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has kept her indoors, glued to the news, she has started a project to make and share art based on what she’s been seeing on TV and online. 

For Regina artist Chrystene Ells, the pen is mightier than the news cycle

A drawing of a girl dancing in front of federal agents with bouquets of flowers before being detained on July 23 in Portland, Ore. (Chrystene Ells)

As an artist, Chrystene Ells is used to going out and creating new work with her neighbours in Regina. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has kept her indoors, glued to the news, she has started a project to make and share art based on what she's been seeing on TV and online. 

"I started to become obsessed with the news around the protests, and then the backlash against the protests, and all these incidents I just found alarming and overwhelming," she said.

That's when a friend suggested she start a journal and write about what she was feeling.

"And I said, OK, but I don't think I'm going to write. I'm a visual person — so when I see some of these images in the news or on Twitter or elsewhere, they're seared into my brain."

So Ells picked up her pens and paper and started drawing — trying to limit herself to 20 or 30 minutes at a time, working on a small enough scale that she sometimes needs magnifying glasses to see the details.

As an American by birth, and with friends all over the United States, she has often chosen to focus on the protests and political events happening in her country of origin.

A drawing of a photographer being pepper-sprayed by a federal agent in Portland, Ore. on June 26, 2020. (Chrystene Ells)

"The first picture I did, which was so shocking to me, [was] of federal agents gassing moms in Portland.… I was just in Portland visiting friends six months ago," she said.

"And then the next day I posted another one. That was the day the bolt of lightning hit [near] the Statue of Liberty and somebody caught it on video."

The idea of lightning striking the iconic statue, she said, "was such a great metaphor for what's happening right now in the United States."

A drawing Ells did after a bolt of lighting struck near the Statue of Liberty, an event which was captured on film on July 22, 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests continued in Portland. (Chrystene Ells)

Now, she says sharing her art and hearing from other artists in turn has become a way for her to process the overwhelming pace and scope of current events. 

"It's been like group art therapy for me, because so many people are engaging with it and sharing my work, making comments and adding comments of their own," she said. "There's conversations. And there just seems to be a lot of care and support."

Ells says she is one of many artists who are looking for new, physically distanced ways to engage with issues in the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her art, which she has been posting on social media, has inspired responses from friends and strangers — everything from other pieces of visual art to poetry and commentary. 

"I think there's kind of a mini-pandemic right now of artists not knowing what to do," she said.

"Since quarantine, there's been this sense of helplessness — like the world is spinning out of control in ways we can't really grasp.… I think artists are really struggling right now with how to serve, how to be helpful, how to apply what they do."

A drawing of a journalist in protective equipment, surrounded by clouds of gas, as they cover the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland. (Chrystene Ells)

And Ells thinks anybody who is struggling to keep up with the news these days could benefit from taking a step back and engaging with it from a new, creative perspective. 

"I think everybody is, to some degree, more anxious this July than they were last July," she said.

"But these drawings I've worked on over the past couple of weeks have helped me to process all this information and not feel so overwhelmed. It brings it down to a bite-sized thing that I'm looking at."

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