Just before cutting the ceremonial ribbon surrounding his exhibit that contains the hand impressions of 200 workers who performed their essential roles during the height of the pandemic, Reading artist Bruce Becker mentioned to his audience that they may notice some of the 200 clay tiles contained a crack or two.
A few cracks were to be expected during construction, he explained Monday morning on the grounds of Reading Public Museum, adding that the damaged tiles containing the impressions of individual workers were repaired with epoxy and rendered stronger.
“I’m OK with that,” he said of the blemishes, “because to me it sort of resembles the idea that none of us is coming through 2020 and the pandemic without some sort of scarring or cracking.”
Just like the tiles, Becker said, we can emerge from this scourge stronger and more resilient.
Becker’s creation, “Touch is Essential,” will be on display in front of the museum until December..
Monday’s art installation was the culmination of 15 months of labor.
Becker, who owns The Warehouse Studios, 700 Lancaster Ave., said he was inspired from the beginning to honored essential workers. As a practical matter, he decided to limit the scope to 200 vocations within Berks County.
He brought workers — funeral director, nursing home staffers, doctors, nurses dentists, grocery workers, hair stylists, water system and so on — into his studio to provide a hand impression and also tell their story. Many of those whose hand prints are in the sculpture attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“We tried to cover as many as we could,” Becker said. “I’m sure we missed some. If you’re an essential worker out there and we don’t have you listed here, this is for you as well.”
Each numbered tile contains the name of the person’s vocation, but not the individual’s name.
To see who the print belongs to, their picture and learn their story, Becker encourages members of the public to visit the website and click check out the tiles by number.
For example, tiles 46 and 47 belong to Monique Ortega and Amanda Ash, respectively. Ash, a Spring Township resident, works as a teacher in an alternative education program above Becker’s studio. Ortega of Exeter Township is the secretary in that program
They said it feels great to be included.
“I think it’s amazing,” Ortega said, “to be a part of something that we kind of all went through during a tough time, just to see what other people are doing and how they have been impacted themselves through COVID.”
Some of those who lent a hand, so to speak, to the community art project worked through the pandemic not for wages but to help their communities.
Retired nurse educator Theresa Adams of Reiffton sewed more than 7,000 cloth masks for health care workers at Reading Hospital, which donated materials.
The Alvernia University professor emeriti said she began sewing early in 2020 as COVID patients filled hospital beds.
“I kept hearing the stories from my former nursing students about what they were dealing with and it was just heart-breaking to me and I kept thinking, ‘What can I do, what can I do,’ ” Adams said. “When a friend told me that they needed people to sew mask and I said, ‘Well I can sew.’ ”
Her sewing experience, and speed left something to be desired.
“I learned as I went along how I can do this faster and faster,” she explained. “I bought a new sewing machine. My little old brother that I started with was not a very good machine. It was okay to do little outfit here and there.
“I sewed a little bit when my kids were little, but really I didn’t do much sewing, but I can say I‘ve done a lot now.”
She’s currently making cloth ornaments for patients who are going to be in the hospital over the holidays.
The exhibit also includes the handprints of Reading Police Chief Richard Tornielli and two of other department members, Sgts. Darrin Dougherty and Mel Fegley.
The three were on hand for the unveiling.
Fegley said he appreciates that the tribute to essential workers includes police officers, especially in a time when some activists want to diminish the traditional role for police as front-line problem solvers and helpers.
State Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat, thanked Becker for using his extraordinary talent to create a piece of art that will have a lasting impact.
“As the years pass on and we learn to live through this we’re going to understand better the commitment, the sacrifice of so many,” the senator said.
She lauded Becker for attaching his project to the multi-faceted 18th Wonder Improvement Association, whose mission to promote community, unified purpose and economic development of Reading’s 18th Ward, encompassing Reading’s Millmont, Oakbrook and Wyomissing Park neighborhoods as well as the Reading Public Museum.
Becker brought the idea up to officials with the 18th Wonder Improvement Association, and they loved it. The group helped him put together a team to turn his vision into a reality.
Tanya Melendez, an 18th Wonder Association board member, participated in the project as a neighborhood hero.
During the shutdown, as a neighborhood volunteer, she and other helpers went to homes of elderly residents who lived alone in their neighborhood near the Museum and the Reading Hospital School of Health Sciences.
“(We were) checking on them, making sure they had groceries, and weren’t lonely,” Melendez explained. “At one point our kids in the neighborhood did plays in front of their homes.”
The parents in her neighborhood also organized races and other activities that allowed kids to get out the house and socialize without coming into close contact.
Museum Director and CEO John Graydon Smith said Becker called him to ask if the museum would play host to the introduction of the exhibition.
“Of course we were delighted to say ‘yes,’” Smith said. “I’m glad we were able to find enough green space to make it happen because Bruce’s vision, if you know Bruce, sometimes it grows.”
The artist seemed to admit that tendency when he described how the initial goal of honoring essential workers expanded to a second overarching goal: reflecting on loss.
Those who have survived the pandemic have suffered various forms of loss, from finances to livelihoods to loved ones, depending on individual circumstances.
“The one loss that really impacted all of us globally — 8 billion people — is the loss of touch,” Becker said. “We were all asked to stay distanced from each other. No handshakes, no hugs, no casual contact of any kind. How could I reconnect them? That was my goal.
“The hands of the essential workers — the hands you could shake to thank — are now here for you to touch, to connect with in your own way.”
Source: Berkshire mont