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Making the Most in a Pandemic

By Meredith (Stoops) Doyle

Alejandro Gomez loves to make things. No surprise, then, that the engineering-turned-art major was ready for a change by the time January 2020 rolled around: during the previous two semesters, Gomez had patiently and generously taught mini Art classes for Atchison youth with his classmates as part of the “senior sequence” of courses that all art majors take. In the third and final course of the sequence, however, seniors hand on the teaching collaborative to the next generation of art majors, which gives them a semester to pursue an art service-learning project of their choosing. Gomez was ready to switch his efforts from teaching in the community to making things for the community: “I was really looking forward to being able to make something for someone,” he shared.

The Raven artist worked with the Center for Service-Learning to identify potential community partners for the project. While he was open to making something for just about any non-profit, he took particular interest in organizations that served individuals with disabilities because of his own experiences as a camp counselor at Easterseals Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Village in Empire, Colo. After some initial inquiries, Gomez established a partnership with Tom Racunas, Lead Consultant for Special Needs Ministry of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, a region which covers the northeastern corner of the state, including Atchison.  Racunas had always felt rather empty-handed when he would go to events and receive a donation to the Special Needs Ministry. “I’m there and I receive a nice check and I give a thank you but I’m not giving them anything lasting,” he reflected. He wanted to be able to offer a sign of his appreciation, and Gomez was just the person to help him with that.

The two men began emailing back and forth about creating small sculptures that could be given as thank you gifts. “We tried to design it to reflect the spirit of the ministry,” Racunas said. After some initial conversations, Gomez began sending drafts to Racunas who would review them and then reply with notes on his desired changes. The young artist approached the project as though it were a commission by a client and maintained what he called a “constant conversation” with Racunas. This helpful and exciting experience was not without its challenges. For example, Gomez recalled investing time and energy into one particular rendition that was soon after set aside when the decision was made to rework the original design. Perhaps surprisingly, this is exactly the kind of thing that Bryan Park, Chair of the Art Department and professor for the course, hopes will happen. It is “the real-life moment of it not going the way [the students] thought it would” that makes the service-learning projects so worthwhile, he commented. It seems that Park, who is himself a sculptor, successfully passed this mentality along to his student: “The goal of the Art Department is to produce professional artists,” Gomez said. “I think I got a good taste of what the real world might be like in terms of making art for people.” Racunas agrees, describing the process as “a nice collaborative effort.”

Once the design was finalized, Gomez would have been all ready to start doing what he loves best: making things. But COVID-19 had reached the Midwest, and Benedictine College had to radically change its practices to comply with local and state regulations, including restricting access to most buildings. Rather overnight, the young artist found himself without tools, materials, a studio, or in-person guidance for the very hands-on task. Initially, it was just going to be for a week, a delay that Gomez could have accommodated. But soon after, Benedictine announced the suspension of in-person classes for the rest of the semester and Gomez was unsure how to proceed. “At first, I was so hopeless,” he shared, recalling his thoughts about the project at the outset of the pandemic. But the Raven soon took heart: “I started hunkering down and I’m like ‘I’m just gonna do it’” he said. Not long after, he caught a break when he was granted permission to briefly enter Bishop Fink Hall, which houses the Art Department. Reunited with his tools, he felt even more determined. He set up a small studio space in his basement and set to work. In the end, Gomez successfully made more than a dozen sculptures from the mold he created. He enlisted two fellow art majors – Megan McFadden and Ranae Peterson – to help with painting the pieces and by mid-May they were finished.

The first noticeable feature of the sculpture is a vibrant flame, which represents the Holy Spirit, Racunas said. It is also a reference to the 2019 Archdiocesan convocation on evangelization: “Enflame our Hearts, Homes, and Communities.”  Inside the flame is a circle that displays the Archdiocesan coat of arms on one side and the logo of the Special Needs Ministry on the other. An interesting side note: the ministry’s logo is the fruit of yet another service-learning partnership with Benedictine College. Earlier in the 2019-2020 academic year, Ravens Elizabeth Dutton, Anna Restuccia, and Trevor Svoboda designed it for the program in Professor Jay Wallace’s Graphic Design III and IV courses.

Racunas was delighted with the result: “I am so grateful to Alejandro [Gomez] for his great work on the sculpture… I look forward to presenting them to donors.” For Gomez, the experience of adapting and improvising due to the pandemic left him with an increased sense of self-confidence: “I can do this with minimal things… and then produce a product,” he reflected. This, he said, encourages him to continue his work as an artist, knowing that he can keep making things, even with limited resources. By his example, he has made art more accessible to others, which Park identifies as one of the key roles of an artist: “Without artists in society, people forget that they too can be artists,” he said. Despite restrictive and unfavorable circumstances, Gomez was still able to be an artist, an accomplishment that serves to inspire us all.