People thought the world of our first art contest

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Here are some postcards from the three-week journey that was the Chatham News + Record’s first art contest, designed to find the iconic image to define the era of COVID-19:

“From Russia with love”

If you could read a little Russian on certain news and social networks sites based in Siberia — about the pandemic and your hometown newspaper — then you can see how the paper’s very first art contest brought the world a little bit closer.

As the pandemic led to lockdowns in Russia, borders closed and many people “enjoyed long needed time with families, binging on TV shows or catching up on reading,” said Ekaterina Karavaeva, project coordinator for the site, which she calls “more of a social network than a news site.”

Her social network site, Так-так-так, новости и заметки, specializes in investigative reporting. Its full name in Russian translates disarmingly to “Well, well, well, news and notes.”

“Life was slowly losing its color,” she said. “That’s why we were thrilled to contribute to the amazing idea of an art contest that Chatham News + Record came up with. With all the tools and gadgets, people still have a need for self-expression, and the contest was exactly the thing for it.”

Karavaeva, who goes by “Kate,” lives in Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg. She knows a little about North Carolina.

Once on a news media tour of the U.S. that took her to the Charlotte Observer newsroom, a reporter asked Karavaeva how she walks her dog in a Siberian winter when it’s 20 below zero. “Fast,” she replied.

“I salute every participant for their bravery to bring their heartfelt creations to public judgment,” Karavaeva said. “May the worthy one win, and may more contests unite people all over the world in overcoming global challenges.”

“A kid’s message from China”

The Russian news site’s introduction to the art contest mentions an image of “a formidable fist of a doctor who conquers a disease.”

That was the drawing of Ruby Wang, a 13-year-old middle school student from Wuhan, China, where she was locked down with her family for 76 days at the peak of the pandemic.

Wang has enjoyed seeing the other works of art that children have produced during this time.

“By looking at the paintings of kids on the other side of the globe facing the same problems, I felt we are all the same beings searching for meanings of life.”

Ruby has been back at school for three weeks and there’s pressure to make up for lost time.

It’s a boarding school where the kids get up about 6:30 a.m. and sit in the classroom all day until evening, with at least four exams every week.

Long gone are the art and music classes, even P.E. The focus is on three parts of the zhongkao (JONG-cow) standardized exam — Chinese, English and math — that will determine whether Ruby can attend an honors program in senior high school.

For Chinese kids who aspire to go to a top university, “the competition is beyond intense,” said Ruby’s mother, Lei Jiao, an English instructor at Wuhan University of Technology.

Ruby got a break to come home last weekend, when she and her mom talked about the Chatham News + Record’s art contest. Jiao said they could agree on one thing:

“Artworks can transcend language and culture, express emotions and affections shared by all human races and are the ultimate carriers of beauty and strength, especially in difficult times.”

“Here is an interesting project”

The first sign that the art contest idea was catching on came in a LinkedIn post from the executive director of the Greater Columbus (Ohio) Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Pat McAloon:

“Here is an interesting project from University of Kentucky Professor Buck Ryan, Duke University visiting scholar Professor Siqi Zhang and Chatham County, North Carolina’s Chatham News + Record: An art contest to commemorate this moment in history, as was done in Hubei, China.”

Zhang, the president of the North Carolina Chinese Scholars Sino-US Exchange Association, helped to promote the art contest and enlisted a member of the NCCSEA as a judge.

Hubei is the name of the province where Wuhan is its capital city. China Three Gorges University, based in Yichang, also in Hubei Province, is home to Tian Yazhou, 51, a teacher in the School of Art.

Tian’s somber “2020 Valentine’s Day” acrylic artwork, featured in the July 30 article introducing the contest, depicted what he said was “ordinary Chinese people’s anxiety and helplessness in responding to the government’s call to isolate themselves at home.”

“Art in our hometown”

Low bridge, everybody down, looks like the art contest idea is coming to my hometown of Lockport, New York, on the Erie Barge Canal.

“Times of uncertainty and tragedy seem to spark creativity and art,” said Ellen Martin, a member of the Lockport Public Arts Council. “Inspired by Wuhan and Chatham County, we love the idea of documenting and sharing this art in our hometown.”

“Teddy bear as hospital patient”

As one of the contest’s judges, I became intrigued by the artistic flourishes of a 7-year-old, Alice Zheng, of Chapel Hill.

I wanted to know more about her thinking, particularly about why she chose to depict a teddy bear wearing a mask as a hospital patient.

The image transported me back to March 15 when, thanks to Lei Jiao, I first saw a viral image from a Chinese newspaper contest. The image put Wuhan, depicted as the city’s signature dish of hot dry noodles, in a similar hospital setting.

There was just something about the original artwork by a 26-year-old illustrator, Chen Yuting, thinking out of the food box of her lockdown, that generated 270,000 “likes” and nearly 20,000 comments on Weibo, which resembles Twitter, as of Feb. 1.

“I used different specialty foods to represent different areas,” said Chen, who is from Tianjin more than 600 miles northeast of Wuhan, in an online interview posted Feb. 6 on the All-China Women’s Federation website.

To represent her own Tianjin Municipality, she drew deep-fried dough sticks rolled in a thin pancake, for Shandong Province scallions, for Sichuan Province hotpot and for Hunan Province sticky tofu.

Her artwork inspired the food contest category for the News + Record art contest. So when Alice replaced hot dry noodles with a teddy bear, I wanted to know why.

“For the teddy bear, the viral artwork from China showing Wuhan noodle inspired me,” Alice said. “Actually I was going to draw a dog, but it turns out like a bear.”

Ah, the whims of the muse!

Once the teddy bear emerged, Alice doubled-down on its meaning.

“Bears can get sick fast because they eat with dirty hands,” Alice said, explaining in an aside, “they don’t know how to wash hands.”

We asked each of the contestants to provide a narrative along with their artwork. Here is what Alice wrote:

“The always happy bear was hospitalized because of COVID-19. Our family went to the hospital to visit him. There weren’t flowers and hugs. We had to wear masks and stood outside of the window to say hi to my loved little bear. Inside of the window, there is only the little bear and his nice doctor. We were sad but had to pretend to be happy. Little bear, cheer up! I miss you, and hope you are getting better as soon as possible!”

That last wish is something else that united Chen and Alice.

According to the online interview, “Chen hopes the epidemic will be eradicated soon and everything will be fine,” Alice said. “I hope the virus will disappear soon and the sick people or animals are getting better quickly.”

The art contest was designed to inspire an iconic image for Chatham County in this historic moment. Along the way, NCCSEA president Siqi Zhang and I hoped for a little good will from cross-cultural understanding.

“The world before us is a postcard,” author Mary E. Pearson wrote, “and I imagine the story we are writing on it.”

Congratulations to all the artists who contributed entries in the three categories of our art contest — food, heroes, love — you wrote quite a story.

To learn about the winners of the contest, click here.

Buck Ryan, director of the Citizen Kentucky Project on civic engagement, is a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. He is conducting a case study of the Chatham News + Record, which he views as a model of success for community newspapers here and abroad.

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