Want to promote mask-wearing in Northeast Indiana during COVID-19? Here’s an art project for you

Think bouquets of flowers. Underwear. Water bottles. And musical instruments.

While many organizations around Fort Wayne are encouraging residents to make masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, Northeast Indiana Public Radio station, 89.1 WBOI, is launching a new mask-making initiative with a twist. Put your creativity to the test, crafting a funky, artistic, or unusual mask—not necessarily to wear in public, but to raise awareness about the importance of masking, in general. 

While wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has been questioned by some, a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that masking may be the central variable that determines the spread of the virus.

The CDC and Allen County Department of Health highly recommend masking in public, too.

Yet, as Northeast Indiana reopens after quarantine, many residents are returning to business as usual, mask-free.

This trend has concerned WBOI’s Arts & Culture Reporter Julia Meek who saw an opportunity to normalize masking in an unconventional way. Watching people around the world make fun, creative—and hilarious masks—to uplift spirits during the pandemic, Meek had a moment of “art-spiration.”

What if there was a way to help Northeast Indiana get in on the game and prevent COVID-19 cases and deaths, which continue to rise in Allen County?

“If you want to raise awareness about a serious subject, a good way to do that is to make it fun,” Meek says.

From July 4 through September 7, WBOI's Make Me a Mask campaign is encouraging residents of all ages to make a mask of any material that covers their nose and mouth. Then email a picture of themselves wearing it to [email protected] along with their name, age, and contact information.

Each week, a panel of judges will determine two winners to receive prizes: One adult and one youth (ages 16 and younger). The Make Me a Mask campaign is sponsored by Riembold and Anderson, a financial advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services Inc.

Along with prizes, the images of residents wearing masks will be used by WBOI and its partners to advocate for mask-wearing online and around Fort Wayne. The station is partnering with downtown-area businesses and organizations, including the Clyde Theatre and Creative Women of the World, to showcase mask photos using bright-light reader boards and storefronts.

Coming alongside Meek, WBOI's Programming and Operations Director Katy Anderson and Special Events Planner Lea Denny are leading the station’s Make Me a Mask campaign. In addition to sharing a critical message about public health, the project is intended to offer people of all ages a fun way to get creative this summer, Anderson points out.

“We know this is a time when our arts and culture community is struggling, and there’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “One of the things I’ve loved about Fort Wayne over the years has been its public art displays and collaborations. This is a good opportunity to bring the community together and make some cool art.”

From left to right, Anderson, Meek, and Denny, are leading WBOI's Make Me a Mask campaign.

For listeners to Meek’s popular and nationally syndicated radio shows, it should come as no surprise that she is the mastermind behind the creative project.

Passionate about the universal language of music, Meek has long appreciated masking’s role in theatre, religion, and folklore.

“Masks, masking, and mask making have been an interest of mine since I was a wee little kid,” she says. “I’ve studied masks and collected them. Masking is a powerful form of non-verbal communication.”

Masks have long played a role in theatre, religion, and folklore.

But not everyone is as eager as Meek to support masking during the pandemic.

While mandated mask-wearing could allow the economy to reopen safely and inclusively, it has been met with strong pushback in the U.S.—even to the point of forcing AMC Theatres to reverse its policy on in-house mask-wearing.

This response is no surprise to Meek, who knows from lived experience the challenges of getting people to comply with a perceived limitation on their personal freedoms—even if that limit is for their own good. She remembers when the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” policy was adopted at area restaurants in the 1960s, and later in 1985, when wearing a seatbelt was mandated by law. Both policies were met with public outcry and dismissal before ultimately earning mass approval.

As COVID-19 and future strands of the virus threaten to stick around for some time, Meek is optimistic residents will be more open to masking, too.

“Wearing a mask is one little thing we can all do to make a big difference," she says.

Along with promoting public health and local art, the mask-making campaign is a sign of WBOI’s continued investment in the Fort Wayne community. Since the pandemic hit, the station has been evolving to keep its staff safe on the job and translate its programs into Burmese and Spanish languages via a grant from the Foellinger Foundation.

This is critical to ensure more diverse populations have access to important information related to the virus, Anderson says.

But as times are busier than ever and readership is up on WBOI's website, public radio funders are feeling the pinch of the pandemic, too. Many are uncertain about their giving capacity for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021. On top of that, WBOI’s biggest fundraiser, its annual Picked by the Pros Wine Pairing Dinner in June, had to be postponed until October, Denny says.

Regardless, the station still has its sights set on renovating and moving into a downtown building on Jefferson Boulevard. They have high hopes for the Make Me a Mask campaign's presence downtown, too.

Denny feels that if Northeast Indiana residents aren’t convinced they need to wear masks for themselves, they might at least see value in doing it for others.

After all, Fort Wayne tends to be a selfless community, and masking during a pandemic is a selfless act.

“Our city is really good at caring about others,” Denny says. “There’s a walk almost every weekend in the summer to promote cancer awareness. Now, people are dying from COVID-19, too. So we’re encouraging Fort Wayne to think about masking as a selfless act. It’s really not for ourselves; it’s for somebody else.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.