The scream lasted 53 seconds. The art might last for 53 years or more.
Along a brick walkway on Polk Place’s east side, postcards decorated in art and words dangled from blue yarn stretched between white coat racks.
As people stopped to look at the cards — expressions of Carolina staff, faculty and students in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic — Kathryn Wagner, associate director of Arts Everywhere, continued fastening more to the line with clothespins. Wind occasionally billowed the cards.
“I Was Here: Postcards From the Pandemic,” featuring nearly 500 cards, was part of Arts Everywhere Day on April 8. Many who came by had submitted a card or two during March workshops across campus. The stream of passersby — staff, faculty, students, parents with prospective students, parents with strollers — grew as classes changed around noon. They occasionally leaned in to get a closer look and talked quietly.
The quiet appreciation of the cards’ stories would soon be interrupted by the cathartic, united “Big Scream” of more than 200 people gathering 200 feet away.
Wagner paused to assess the exhibit. “It’s moving to see these postcards, to spend time with folks and to hear their stories,” she said. “It’s humbling. I’m thankful people could process their time during the pandemic.”
The cards’ unique messages or art included:
- “B R E A T H E”
- “It’s okay.”
- A vaccination card for Rameses, showing two doses, a booster and birthdate of “12/11/1789.”
- Variations on a mask theme, complete with ear loops.
- Art of all kinds and styles showing self-portraits, campfires, puppies, family, wine glasses and more.
- Words expressing feelings of self-worth and hope, and experiences such as a pet’s death.
Each poignantly told individual stories from a pandemic that still wears on.
University Archivist Nick Graham was there to scout the postcards. University Archives will preserve the postcards in the Carolina COVID-19 Archive, available to the public and for uses consistent with the mission of the University Libraries — exhibitions, public programs, documentaries, radio broadcasts and publications.
Mary Leatham-Jensen, research specialist and lab manager at genetics associate professor Dan McKay’s lab, searched for the two postcards that she submitted and surveyed what others did. “They show the emotion of the last couple of years,” she said. “There’s a lot of beauty in these.”
Ashlesha Chaubal, a postdoctoral researcher in biology professor Bob Duronio’s lab, found her card with its mandala covered in blurred shades of orange and purple. She made it by placing colored tissue paper over the geometric design, then applying water so the colors seeped out. She said that it represents the idea that “If life was monochromatic, it would be dull.”
Elliot Meinert, a junior from Ireland, paused on his way to participate in the UNC Electronic Music Club’s Arts Everywhere event. He was savoring the postcards, which reminded him of being on COVID-19 lockdown at his home.
The Big Scream
Meanwhile, by Polk Place’s north-end steps, a crowd readied to scream out their feelings. The Tears for Fears song “Shout” called on them to “let it all out.” Kathy Williams, teaching associate professor in the dramatic art department, stood at the left of the steps. A gold-hued gong hung in a wooden frame near her. Volunteer listeners lined up, ready for support if tears or emotions came up.
A few minutes after noon, four students — Jamar Jones, AhDream Smith, Sanjana Taskar and Omolade Wey from the dramatic art department’s Professional Actor Training Program — bounded up the steps and introduced themselves as the group’s scream guides.
Jones picked up a microphone and escalated an already upbeat vibe. He told the crowd that the guides would walk through different stages of release. “You might see a neighbor letting out an ‘ARRRGH’ guttural, primal scream,” he said before adding that a softer “uuuhhh” would be fine, too, to do “in the moment exactly what you need it to be.”
Taskar bounced up, encouraging everyone to protect their voices. “We’re not letting anyone leave here with a sore throat.” She demonstrated a soothing, slow “aaahhh,” then said, “If all you can muster is an ‘aaahhh,’ that’s fine.” She had everyone pretend that a puppeteer’s string ran through their bodies and out the center of their heads. “The string’s being pulled up, bend the knees and practice with my friends here.” They let out an undulating roller-coaster “whooooOOOOOOoooooo” then one more “with feeling.”
“That’s how you scream healthy.”
After some short practice screams, Smith introduced spoken-word screams. “Maybe you need words, like some people might prefer to scream, ‘Fudge! Fudge!’ or ‘Shiitake mushroom!’ Whatever word comes up in your spirit, just let it out.” The crowd responded with two enthusiastic word-jumbled screams. “Excellent,” Smith said. “Y’all are professionals.”
Wey completed the warm-up with an exercise to “laugh at the absurdity of it all, the fact that we’re all still here.” She counted 3, 2, 1. The crowd erupted like a sitcom audience gone over the edge. For 15 seconds, they howled and laughed maniacally.
Then, it was time for the main event.
Taskar said that screaming for a long time will feel silly “but believe in it and us. We are going to take a deep breath, then scream and when you run out of breath, scream again.” After a countdown, the screamers let it all out. They punched the air, bent over, ran in place. For 53 seconds the scream flowed until waning.
“I hope that felt good because it felt good to lead it,” said Taskar.
A communal hum followed, which Wey described as a form of calming and for relaxing vocal cords. “We will find our space and leave it whenever we feel ready,” she said. They hummed almost inaudibly as Williams struck the gong six times, pausing a few seconds between each tone.
Then Jones encouraged everyone to “hum the rest of your day away. So glad you could join us.”