Mia is Now

On March 24, 2020, the day before Minnesota’s shelter-in-place order, Piotr Szyhalski went into his basement studio and began drawing. When he finished, he had an image of a severed head, plants sprouting from the eye sockets, with the hand-lettered phrase “Long Live Our Banks!” He posted it to Instagram.

The next day, he did the same thing. And the day after that—one drawing every morning as a pandemic and social uprising unfolded for 225 days. “It was sort of the only way I knew to find some grounding,” he says of artmaking. He tells his students this at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he has taught since the 1990s: “Your work is the way to find footing.”

But as feedback piled up on social media, he realized this project was not just for him. “I would get messages and engage in conversations with people who opened up in a very vulnerable way,” Szyhalski says. “Total strangers who would talk about a multitude of traumas: experiencing racism, or difficult experiences with parents, or loneliness, or anger at the context in which we all found ourselves. . . . And to simply say thank you for doing this.”

This spring and summer, Mia has exhibited all of the drawings, which Szyhalski labeled “COVID 19: Labor Camp Report,” an extension of the Labor Camp framework that has encompassed his multi-disciplinary art practice for years. “It really opened the project up to whole different audiences,” he says, “people who are encountering it for the first time, a year later, and find it just as urgent today.” The exhibit “made me weep,” one visitor wrote on Twitter. Another tweeted, “One of my top five exhibits. Ever.”

“I think of art as a social act,” Szyhalski says. “There’s always this other person involved, at least one other human being. The work connects or defines the space we share.” At its best, he says, art invites you into its ideas in a way that makes them yours. “It needs to resonate with you somehow, it needs to connect with something in your own life so that you relate to it. There’s this resonant frequency that allows you to say I not only know what it is, I feel it.”