It’s February 2020 and junior Colleen Mars is in Florence, Italy. The studio arts major with a minor in administration of justice had been there for just shy of a month to study at the Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute through Pitt’s study abroad program.
On Feb. 28, Mars received an unexpected email: The University was asking study abroad students to fly home due something called a novel coronavirus.
Mars weighed her options. She could stay in the country without certainty if or when she’d be able to enter the United States again, or she could leave Italy and head home to Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Twelve days later, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic. That sealed it for Mars: She was the first student to leave the program, as the country became the epicenter for COVID-19. (All students eventually made it home safe.)
The trajectory of Mars’ next few months will feel familiar to a lot of Pitt students. She was back in her childhood home, making cookies with her mom in between virtual classes. She was also processing the collective trauma of what was happening with the rest of the world. Finding the energy to open up her artistic side felt nearly impossible as she settled back into a spring term that nobody could have expected.
Living six time zones away from her instructors in Italy and taking synchronous courses presented an additional challenge. Mars was enrolled in courses like ceramics and fashion photography—but she was without a kiln or access to well-dressed models to photograph. Instead, she improvised and dabbled in modeling clay and self-portraiture.
After starting and falling out of love with a few projects, Mars came across a TikTok video that lit the creative spark once again. The video, which used brightly colored paint pens, gave her the inspiration to design “Things That Scare Me,” a 21-piece collection of 4x4 canvases depicting bold cartoon scenes that ran directly from her biggest anxieties.
Mars opened up a black marker first and told herself, “I’m going to draw something.” She worked one canvas at a time. She continued to add to the collection as new scenes came to her. As she created, she developed rules for herself, like using each color in every square, that allowed her to escape for a bit and dive into a world that felt less restrictive and scary.
“Things that Scare Me” and two of her other pieces are displayed in the virtual exhibit, A Common Thread, which showcases the work of senior studio arts students.
Lenore Thomas, associate professor and chair of the studio arts department, worked with Mars during her capstone class and reflected on her creative process: “She brings a lot of complicated emotions to her work. Her piece, ‘Things that Scare Me,’ is reflective of the way she chose to start working through the pandemic in her artwork.” Thomas, who met Mars for the first time this term, reflected on the joy of working with graduating seniors who are “full of anticipation for the next stages in their life” and described Mars as “smart, witty and responsible.”
She added, “Like all the students in the show, Colleen stayed true to her voice as an artist, and that is something we are proud to see in the studio arts department.”
Mars also submitted “Things that Scare Me” to the Hindsight 20/20 competition, where it won the drawing category, as a way to share how she was feeling with the Pitt community.
Hindsight 2020 is a joint University effort sponsored by New Student Programs, the Office of Residence Life, the Center for Creativity, the Outside Classroom Curriculum within the Career Center, the Student Alumni Association and the University Honors College.
Julia Qian, program coordinator for new student programs and coordinator of the competition, said that the project aims to let members of the Pitt community express their pandemic reflections through spoken word, painting, music, DIY projects, poetry and more.
Up next, headed west
After graduation, Mars will head home to resume her role as lead art camp instructor at a local ceramics studio, where she has worked with children ages 6-12 for the past three summers. After that, having completed a photography internship with the Carnegie Science Center, she will take her freelance photography out west. There, she hopes to start her own school supplies and stationery brand.