All sorts of terms – social distancing, super spreader, boosters, shelter-in-place -- have become common as the general population continues its battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who could ever imagine they would become intertwined with terminology that has been familiar in the Midwest for generations, such as appliqué, backstitch, crosshatch and grid method?

It’s what happened in the last year when art met science and something as familiar in this part of the world as barn quilting became a tool to help battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Vermillion Cultural Association, in partnership with Creative Care, LLC was awarded $75,000 in the fall of 2021 to harness the power of the arts to build confidence in COVID-19 vaccine. The CDC Foundation awarded grants to a total of 30 organizations across the country that created work that inspired people to get vaccinated by providing accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccines in creative, engaging ways.

The Vermillion Cultural Association and Creative Care, LLC hosted a capstone talk about the Barn Quilt Project: South Dakota Strong on Saturday, April 30, in the Coyote Twin Theatre in Vermillion to discuss the project’s origins, successes, and lessons.

VCA/Creative Care’s project – the Barn Quilt Project: South Dakota Strong – is the sole South Dakota grantee, and it represented South Dakota at the national level as well as increasing arts outreach in both East and West River portions of the state.

During April 30’s program in the Coyote Twin Theatre, local people got a chance to learn more about the project from artists who participated in it. They also had a chance to view samples of quilt pattern art created by South Dakotans who were met by a team of artists who were part of the Barn Quilt Project. That art was on display in the Vermillion Cultural Association’s gallery.

Arts and culture are crucial tools in public health communication, and the VCA/Creative Care team employed artists in service to the cause of community health and safety. The Barn Quilt Project: South Dakota Strong, reached nine communities across South Dakota beginning in late 2021. Folks who attended the art events created a barn quilt design from decorative art materials and wrote about their experiences of the pandemic.

“We’re here today to share the story of The Barn Quilt Project: South Dakota Strong,” said Shannon Cole, executive director of the Vermillion Cultural Association, one of the organizations that helped lead this project.

That story includes the project’s origin and goals, the realities on the ground, the lessons learned by the participating artists and the importance of community art and making things together.

The team of participating artists was made up of Cole, Ari Albright, director and founder of Creative Care, LLC, Susan Heggestad, a local artist and president of the Vermillion Cultural Association Board of Directors, Alayna Drabek of Belle Fourche, Rebecca Froelich a 2017 graduate of USD, Lindsey Seier, a 2021 graduate of USD, Madie Skillman, a current USD student, Heather Steffen, a 2013 graduate of USD and Rosemary Buchmann of Sanford Arts, Vermillion.

Cole noted that Ari could be compared to one of the first pieces of cloth one uses to begin creating a quilt.

“Creative Care is Ari’s art making business where she has an arts and health slant to provide a meaningful arts program in a health care setting, both for health care workers and for patients,” she said. “Those arts experiences are to help your overall wellness and sense of health and well-being.”

Ari also does arts engagement training for staff and other artists and she wants to make sure that artists know that there is work for them and that they can be paid a livable wage for their artwork.

She saw the request for proposal from the CDC Foundation in October 2021.

“They were looking to use art to inspire what they called ‘vaccine confidence.’ Remember, October 2021 was post-Delta, pre-Omicron,” Shannon said. “Some folks had been vaccinated, but we hadn’t reached that nationwide 70% goal the administration had set and there was still a lot of misinformation being circulated about vaccines and we hadn’t hit the absolute, most contagious version of the virus yet.

“There was still a lot of uncertainty and fear and kids who couldn’t get vaccinated yet,” she said. Ari, after seeing the CDC request for proposal to engage folks to have a health conversation, reached out to Susan Heggestad and asked if the Vermillion Cultural Association would like to be the fiscal agent to help sponsor the grant.

The association agreed and it and Creative Care applied together to create an arts and community health project “that isn’t just on an individual level, but takes it statewide and makes sure that we have a message about community wellness and not just individual wellness,” Shannon said.

The cultural association and Creative Care were named grant recipients and were awarded $75,000 to use arts and cultural organizations to build vaccine confidence for COVID-19.

“We were one of 181 applicants,” she said, “and only one of 30 awarded nationwide. Each of these 30 organizations has a different idea of what they were going to do with this money … We chose barn quilts.”

The goal of the South Dakota project was to create art events that would help inspire acceptance of the vaccines, to counter disinformation and begin conversations about vaccinations.

“Quilting is a very important part of South Dakota history,” Shannon said while describing why the art form of barn quilts was chosen for this project. “It’s an art form that is cross-cultural. Both the native communities in South Dakota and the European immigrants use quilting to represent important markers of their life, to bring community together, to bring women together to talk and discuss and to make.

“Quilts themselves became representations of communities,” she added, “or culture across the landscape in South Dakota with barn quilts – little colorful displays that say, ‘someone is here and someone cares about this place.’ We thought, ‘we like that, and we want to say someone cares about this space and someone cares about this community together and let’s make some barn quilts.’”

Ari chose nine communities in three regions of South Dakota for the artists to visit – Lemmon, Buffalo, Belle Fourche, Hot Springs, Martin, Pine Ridge, Chamberlain, Watertown and Vermillion.

“They were chosen, in part, because of their low vaccination rates,” Shannon said. “In October 2021, the first dose of vaccine had been delivered to a lower percentage of the population in these places. We marked them as a good place to start these conversations and there were some personal reasons, too, as to why to get on the road to go there.”

The first set of tours were held in early February 2022.

“We really got the sense, as we were underway and got on the road, that we were just in time,” Shannon said. “... that we had gotten in the field just in a critical time to help people who had not yet been vaccinated really pick that up because covid was getting worse and we really needed to combat that.”

Ari told the audience that she is an arts and health instructor at the University of South Dakota and the team of artists that participated in the barn quilt project are facilitators that she has worked with in health care and in educational training settings.

“On a personal note, this project was inspired by my experiences and I think everyone has a variety of experiences with the pandemic,” she said. “As an educator, all of my students were gone and working remotely and so we had to adjust and respond. As an artist on the South Dakota Arts Council roster, all of my residencies were canceled. As the program coordinator at Sanford Vermillion Medical Center, internships were sent home.”

Ari said the basic question she tried to ask in this unique, barn quilt project outreach is “how did you do? How is it going? What happened to you? And that was the premise.”

She said she was surprised that most people were excited to be a part of an art exhibition.

“They had not seen themselves as a creator and so we hooked that in as part of our talking points whenever we had a session,” Ari said. “But I’m also a South Dakotan and we come with a little grit and I think it was really valuable to be culturally sensitive as we’re moving around through ranch communities, farmlands, university towns, etc.”

The team experienced what she describes as “stranger danger” during their initial visits to West River communities.

“That’s something we had to overcome which meant that as project lead, I had some of the strongest conversations I’ve ever had,” Ari said, “with people who are willing to express their experiences and their opinions. It’s not that we convinced anybody one way or the other, but we did create a space for that.”

She said she and the team responded to what they learned on the road and started to go to people instead of having them come to their events. They visited veterans’ homes, domestic shelters, schools, community settings – 27 in all – and they traveled 2,000 miles.

“In addition to five quilt patterns that people could work from or just roll off and do their own thing, we also had five writing prompts that we developed … about the pandemic and also leaning in a positive manner,” Ari said.

“In all, we interacted with 532 people in a very short period of time,” she said.

Ari measures the success of the Barn Quilt Project with vaccination data. In October 2021, the number of people who had received one COVID-19 vaccine dose was 23% in Lemmon, 16% in Buffalo, 29% in Belle Fourche, 44% in Hot Springs, 51% in Martin, 65% in Pine Ridge, 40% in Chamberlain, 39% in Watertown and 59% in Vermillion.

By April of this year, vaccination percentages had increased to 36% in Lemmon, 21% in Buffalo, 49% in Belle Fourche, 71% in Hot Springs, 90% in Martin, 78% in Pine Ridge, 80% in Chamberlain, 66% in Watertown and 80% in Vermillion.

“We didn’t even know about this until a few days ago,” she said. “It’s quite a shift.”

Susan describes Shannon and Ari as the backbone of the Barn Quilt Project.

“This is a really wonderful way to celebrate community and to support each other,” she said. “It’s profoundly moving to be part of this.”

Susan said she has worked with Ari in the field of arts and health care.

“My experience in arts and health changed my life considerably,” she said, “and armed me with additional, really wonderful information about the power of the arts to change lives. You’ve heard quite a bit about that role of art in supporting wellness and mental health.

“My personal belief is that the arts are all about who we are as people,” Susan added. “They are central to our humanity. The Vermillion Cultural Association has been in existence for a handful of years and Vermillion is rich with cultural organizations and artists and creators of all types.”

She talked about the local cultural association’s initial project: saving Vermillion’s downtown movie theatres.

“That has blossomed to much more … we are a non-profit arts and culture organization,” Susan said, “and in the last year-and-a half, our organization did some big thinking, some initial goals for ourselves and that was to streamline a little bit what we are day-to-day down to four primary pillars.”

Those pillars include continuing to run the movie theatres, operating the art gallery next door, and supporting the music and food cultures in Vermillion.

Susan said the Vermillion Cultural Association board knew it could also fulfill the role of lifting up and supporting the barn quilt project.

“When Ari came to me, I was very honored and touched; I didn’t question for one second whether this was a great idea,” she said. “Her impeccable professionalism and her idea – I knew this would be great for our organization as well as for our community to help people see what the potential is.

“This idea of supporting wellness and the vaccine confidence is one thing, but for me personally, I was very excited about modeling a way we could support one another, celebrate the things we all had in common and really boost this great, fantastic idea that she (Ari) probably wouldn’t have been able to tackle without an organization like ours,” Susan said.

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