written by AnaKacia Shifflet | photos by Stephanie Graston
In many ways it has felt as if this past year flew by without actually happening. In other ways it was never-ending, while demanding constant change. Life was in limbo, not quite a dream and not quite reality, looking back while trying to face forward. I survived COVID, an odd experience. I was also part of a new “club” called COVID “long haulers”, something I did not expect or willingly sign up for.
As a wife, a mother, a business owner, and a member of society who stayed in, canceled events, and socially distanced, I was left asking, “what will our lives look like now?”, “did I do the right things?”, “was there anything more I could have done?” There are no easy answers to any of these questions, and I still got COVID. As our kids took on e-learning and virtual classes that I struggled to facilitate, I was frustrated. I am not a teacher; I am a designer! Overall, this past year has stretched us and tried us in ways we never thought possible, and now we are at a crossroads, looking ahead but not sure where to step.
I made it my goal in 2019 to push my boundaries in every aspect of my life. If there was something I dreaded, I did it. If it was something hard, I did it two, three, four times over. I challenged myself to face fears and conquer obstacles. Coming into 2020, I was determined to make it everything I wanted it to be. I had goals and resolutions galore going into the New Year! It was going to be the most incredible year until the world shut down and slammed a door in my face, literally. It was like a punch in the gut knocking the wind out of me.
My weeks were a blur. All I remember from that time was having a neverending headache and a sense of extreme exhaustion. Like many, I was desperately trying to navigate the situation with my clients, my family, and myself. It was all too much, and to call it all “unexpected” would be an injustice. Each day just kept getting worse. There were more cancelations, more closures, more heartbreaking horrible news about what was happening all over the world and close to home.
I was an emotional mess, recovering from a serious respiratory infection that hit a few weeks before. My nights were filled with anxiety, depression, sadness, weird vivid dreams, and pain continuing into the day. I felt it in my bones. Simple tasks seemed to hurt my heart, lungs, and my chest. It would take eight long months before I was officially diagnosed with Post-COVID Syndrome, or “Long Haul COVID.”
I was struggling to navigate through this dark place and needed to clear a path through the negativity; I needed to release it somehow.
“I just need to throw something,” I told my husband at the time. “I want to throw paint!” In fact, I want to throw paint at something I have made and not just any paint, and not just anything I have made. “I want to throw black paint, and I wanted to throw that black paint on a beautiful white dress!” I said with conviction and a sense of mission. Knowing that so many friends, clients, and business owners were going through the same emotional turmoil added to my own pain for lost people, dreams, and daily opportunities we used to take for granted.
I came up with a plan, but I wanted it to have meaning, and I wanted it to have a purpose. I would make a gown from scratch — a new design — and document the process. Then, I would destroy it.
So, I did it. I placed the finished dress on a mannequin and walked up to it throwing that black paint. Every toss of black paint felt like that punch in the gut all over again. Then, I poured gold paint, representing our hearts, our spirits trying to be strong. I continued with different colors of blue over the mannequin’s head. I allowed myself to feel all the emotions COVID has caused. I cried while I tossed, poured, and sprayed my creation with paint. It felt incredible, a huge release. The dress turned out to be inspiring and I found I loved it! Instead of hating it, I absolutely loved it! I had created true art and beauty from the depths of my wounded soul.
We all know things did not go back to normal after the initial shutdown. It continued with a new reality that included masks and social distancing. Most of my clients moved their weddings to late 2021 or 2022, and a few decided to elope or get married on a mountain top. We started picking up the pieces, trying to find work to do what we could to pay the bills. We saw a glimmer of hope in the late spring and early summer, but another storm started brewing after the death George Floyd. A storm that was already here; simmering for quite some time, boiled over with a vengeance as people took to the streets to express their anger.
Living in a rural community, it is easy to think that some of these problems do not exist. We are in our own world, our own bubble, and have our own point of view. It is human nature to think that if we do not see it, it must not really exist — but racism does exist. To heal and move forward as a nation and as a society, we have to learn these hard lessons. For better or for worse, we are all in this life together.
Each of us needs to really listen to other perspectives, other points of view. We must. From COVID to the summer of Black Lives Matter protests, from the election chaos to the crushing wildfires and the surge of gun violence we are now experiencing – all of these challenges require us to come together. We affect each other so much. Our words and actions matter. To grow we have to learn, and to learn we have to listen and reflect on our biases in order to help change the future.
This combination of personal and societal experience led to my second painted dress project, a set of gowns to represent different cultures and people of 2020. Using old and dismissed gowns, I reconstructed them into something classic and new. We found models willing to be covered in paint. I had a plan, but I left many details to chance. There was no method or reason for the way I threw paint on these dresses or even the thicknesses and types of paint. In true COVID fashion, nothing made sense; it was just one big mess. However, I chose black paint first like my initial dress, to symbolize the gut-wrenching dark reality of COVID shutdowns, lost business, lost work, and lost lives.
The true reality of what COVID felt like, an absence of light. Again, I chose gold paint to symbolize the heart, trying to be strong for each other, the good part of us, and trying to help in our own ways. I proceeded to add copper and then silver to two other models. These symbolized additional strengths of the heart. The black hands, handprints, and black paint put on each other is the dark mark, our bleak actions towards one another. In many cases, this black mark may not have been intentional, but it is the reality of our actions. Lastly, I let the models have fun painting each other. Just having fun with it. Different colors bring joy and happiness in unexpected places, turning something void and lifeless into something beautiful and unifying. Truly starting anew.
The effects of the last year are still with us. Perhaps the best takeaway is that we can choose to make the best of this experience, to learn these hard lessons, and move forward to a brighter and better future. It is our decision.
(Editor’s note: AnaKacia documented her original painted dress experience on YouTube)