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For these Baltimore artists, isolation has given way to creativity

Two handmade puppets rest on Schroeder Cherry’s shoulders; they’re wearing children’s shoes. Cherry, his lips concealed by his blue surgical mask, mimes their voices.

Martha Simons poses for photographs while draped in a great egret headdress that she’s crocheted.

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Nearby, Stephen Vara, dressed in a blonde wig and Betty Grable eyelashes, mimes shooting the egret with his parasol.

The Baltimore artists had gathered for a socially-distanced Baltimore Sun photo shoot; mostly now, they toil alone, sharing their work with one another in a Facebook group called Made in Isolation.

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And boy, have they been busy during COVID-19 quarantine.

“It keeps me sane,” said Simons, who estimates she’s created 50 paintings, crocheted seven sweaters, and sewn 12 different garments since the pandemic began. She’s even installed a series of crocheted animals in her Butchers Hill neighborhood, including a mischievous octopus juggling beneath a sign that says “No Ball Playing.”

Much of that work, Simons has shared with the Facebook group. In the absence of human interaction, “It just made me feel less alone,” she said. Community members provide encouragement, feedback and shared DIY techniques.

The group was started in March by Baltimore photographer Christy Zuccarini. Though she hadn’t been what she calls “an everyday maker” for years, she began producing work regularly to cope with the uncertainty of life under lockdown. Her recent work includes irreverent Baroque still life photos (pasta paired with sex toys) and portraits of a friend wearing a gas mask.

Zuccarini, who got her master’s degree in community art from the Maryland Institute College of Art, figured that others were similarly channeling their COVID-19 anxieties into creative pursuits. So she started Made in Isolation, a website and accompanying Facebook group, where artists of various stripes can share what they’re working on.

The group has since grown to over 1,000 members from Baltimore and around the world, many of them feverishly prolific.

Recent postings on the Facebook group include photos of homemade bagels, pickles and a blue and white baby blanket. One artist shared an elaborate, macabre-looking face mask designed out of zippers and resembling a bird’s beak. Others have shared their struggles: a stack of blank notebooks and fears of failure. Members encourage one another to see the artfulness in atypical creations — even something as simple as dinner.

For creators like Cherry, the puppeteer, the group has provided a platform to share work in the absence of gallery shows and other venues. Singers have posted videos of choral performances. Cherry began filming his puppet performances, which are usually live, for the first time. In recent episodes, “Khordell,” a no-nonsense marionette Cherry created after lockdown, gives public service announcements on the importance of social distancing.

Cherry has also created work inspired by the rapid changes of the past few months: a series of portraits of people wearing masks, as well as collages based around the Black Lives Matter movement. One piece features a Black boy holding a sign asking “@ What age do I go from cute to criminal?”

While some members are based as far as Austria (or even Australia), Cherry said, the group “strikes me as a particular Baltimore community.” There are “a lot of people in this city who are just making things — and that’s good to see online.”

Initially intended for working artists, the project has evolved to include non-professionals as well. Zuccarini says the group — and extra time — have also encouraged some to return to crafting and art making for the first time in decades.

Once the pandemic hit, Vara, another group member, found himself returning to drag performing after years away from it. While many women have let their lipstick collect dust during COVID-19, he’s regained his skill for applying eyeliner and fake eyelashes.

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On the group’s page, he’s shared Andy Warhol-style snapshots of himself dressed as his drag alter ego, Sienna Funnypages. Her stare looks off into the distance demurely.

“It’s a pastime,” Vara said. “It makes me shave every couple of days, otherwise I would have some scraggly COVID beard.”

One thing that has yet to come back? The ability to wear heels. “Back in the day I could run in them,” he said.

For now, Sienna Funny Pages sticks to flats.

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