Paper dolls depict the human toll of COVID-19 in 'It Is What It Is'

Andy Downing
Detail photo of "It It What It Is" at (Not) Sheep Gallery

Growing up, Sue Cavanaugh used to look forward to the newMcCall’s arriving in the mailbox each month, because each issue of the magazine included two full pages of new clothes for her paper doll, Betsy McCall. “It would probably be such a boring thing for kids today,” Cavanaugh said. “But once a month it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Betsy is going to have new clothes!’”

For a new installation now on view at (Not) Sheep Gallery in the Short North, Cavanaugh has transformed this onetime symbol of childhood innocence into something more devastating, crafting more than 5,000 paper dolls to symbolize the number of Ohioans who have died from the coronavirus this year, a number that, as of publication, stood at 5,067.

Cavanaugh cut 21 dolls from each sheet of paper, adorned them in clothes and penciled on eyes and a nose (but no mouth since the dead can no longer speak for themselves, the artist said). A majority of the dolls were then tacked to the gallery wall in a large-scale mural, with the remainder populating 100-count plastic bags that hang next to the installation; Cavanaugh intends to add to the total each week as the death toll continues to rise. The mural, which stands 11 feet wide and 11 feet, six inches tall, spells out a phrase President Donald Trump uttered when asked about the COVID death toll during a late summer interview on “Axios on HBO”: “It is what it is.”

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“I saw that Trump said this about the COVID deaths, and I found it so startling, and it seemed so dismissive, but it was also something I could visualize,” said Cavanaugh, who created the letters using paper dolls of color, which had the dual purpose of highlighting how the virus has disproportionately impacting minority communities. “I wanted to make a point that this is real. This is affecting lots of people. There are so many families suffering because of this pandemic. I realize that with my political views I’m probably often preaching to those who agree with me, but if I could reach even one person who didn’t, it would make me so happy.”

“It Is What It Is” continues a more recent trend toward politically and socially charged artwork, which Cavanaugh attributed in part to aging. “Perhaps as I get older, I get more concerned about the country and the world, and I want to have a positive impact,” said Cavanaugh, who in recent years has also crafted pieces that wrestle with issues such as global warming and the prevalence of plastic waste. “One does what they can, I guess, and one can hope that by saying something in an artistic way, one might be able to reach someone who can’t be reached by other means.”

To amplify this idea, Cavanaugh penned an artist’s statement that accompanies the (Not) Sheep exhibit and serves as both a call to action and a reminder of the personal responsibility each individual has to help protect the greater community in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

“The final paragraph in that statement says, ‘If you were told that by wearing a mask, socially distancing and washing your hands frequently that you could save the life of your mother, child or close friend who would otherwise die this year, would you do it?’” Cavanaugh said. “I know people who don’t want to wear masks, who think the virus is a bit of a hoax, and I’m like, my gosh, if I could save the life of just one person by wearing a mask, I would do it, and I am doing it.”

If more people would do the same, perhaps Cavanaugh could finally set aside her scissors.

"It It What It Is" at (Not) Sheep Gallery