By Joanna Mathers
Dresses made of recycled paper bags, notes left under a closed door, artworks and letters to children far away, heart-wrenching accounts of a child's first steps. These are some of the creative responses by guests in managed isolation in New Zealand during the Covid-19 pandemic. These works have also captured the imagination of artist Ruby Jones, who is to create 28 works inspired by letters, pictures and objects.
Jones, who went viral in 2019 with her artwork depicting two women embracing – one a Muslim wearing a hijab – with the message: "This is your home and you should have been safe here," is working on a new commission for posterity. Jones' experience will mirror that of those who undertake 14 days of isolation after entering Aotearoa. She will stay in an Accor hotel at night and be located in the same studio space each day. She won't be socially isolated, however, as she interviews some of the unsung heroes of the pandemic, including hotel staff, public servants and healthcare workers.
Each day she will create a new piece, inspired by her interviews, which will be displayed on digital billboards in three locations across Auckland. After the 14 days, the works will be donated to the Auckland Museum as a visual memory of 2020: the year of the pandemic.
Ruby Jones, as shared with Joanna Mathers
What became really clear to me was that life doesn't stop in isolation. People experience enormous events within their hotel rooms.
There was one quiet little note, which began as a "thank you" for the tasty food and the comfy beds. The writer went on to explain that their sister had passed away on the ninth day of isolation. They'd come back to New Zealand to see her before she died, as she had a terminal illness. They missed her by five days.
Another note was written by the mother of a 7-month-old baby girl. The baby's father hadn't seen his daughter since she was 11 days old. The stress and struggle of getting back to New Zealand, of finally being reunited, was immense, the mother said. But it was made easier by the hotel staff, their consideration and care.
I was struck by the gratitude in these messages. Some people said they had never been treated so well in their lives; others said it was the first time they had stayed in a hotel.
They were overwhelmed by the level of care shown by the staff who kept checking in, making sure they were okay.
It's an incredible responsibility, being charged with telling these stories through my pictures. I feel really lucky to have access to them: reading through them all and creating art has - and will continue to be -extremely therapeutic. I (like all New Zealanders) have found 2020 extremely challenging. This has been a really good way to process the year.
For 14 days I will be at creating work on my iPad. This is my usual practice but I also like to jot down images in my small sketchbook, when ideas come to me.
I envisage that 50 per cent of the time [at the gallery] will be spent conducting interviews (in person and via Zoom) and the rest of the time I will be drawing.
Last year's mosque terror attack was an incredibly, overwhelmingly horrific event that came out of nowhere. It was so hard to work through. People were saying how great it was [that the work created as a response to this had been picked up internationally] but there was too much horror to process and I didn't see it the same way.
The Covid-19 crisis is different, because it is happening to all of us. I feel so grateful that I am able to meet people who have been through isolation and those who worked alongside these people, and hear their stories.
Here are some of the stories that will be inspiring Ruby Jones' pictures for the Thanks from Iso exhibition. By Joanna Mathers.
Time of change
Hotel rooms, by their nature, are liminal. They exist between opportunities: home and holiday, work and play. Sally Forest, a Kiwi returned after 10 years in Melbourne and London, used her room at Novotel Ellerslie as a space of redefinition.
Leaving a successful career and a country she'd grown to love, the room was a stepping stone towards an unmapped future.
"I had to pack up my whole life and start a new one," Forrest explains over the phone from Wellington, a few weeks post-isolation.
The former London-based events manager was in the worst possible career when Covid-19 hit.
"Events were the first thing to stop. I had my own business and I was booked up for months, my year was full. But in a heartbeat, it disappeared."
Forest worked here and there in between lockdowns (including a stint as a "face mask fit-tester" in a UK hospital), hoping to resume normal life at some not-too-distant point in the future.
But when it was announced by the UK Government that, when events resumed, the social distancing space would be so great it would essentially make large gatherings impossible, she knew her career was over. It was time to head home after a decade overseas.
In early October, Forest jumped on a Singapore Airlines flight and headed back to New Zealand. Landing in Auckland International, with its strict protocols and boarded up duty-free stores, she made her way through customs and into a parallel universe: a dystopian airport, bereft of life.
She and fellow travellers were trundled on to a bus bound for the Ellerslie Novotel, where they were greeted by military staff in uniform. The room she was allocated was comfortable and clean, a blank canvas for the emergence of a brand-new life.
Forest explains that the first seven days were dedicated to the "s*** jobs" – boring admin work that she had set aside for isolation. "For the first week it felt like I was working: I have spent a lot of time in hotel rooms alone, working behind the scenes on events."
On day seven, there was a "wobble".
"I started thinking, 'What have I done?' I'd left a whole life behind me."
She found solace in an isolation Facebook page, shared with fellow isolatees. Through this she started reading to children at bedtime via livestream.
"I knew that it would be hard for parents, with kids in isolation. So, I worked out that was something I could do to help them, at least for a few minutes each day."
She left the Novotel on October 17, two days before her birthday. Next year, she's going to train to be a midwife. It's something that resonates, helping to create moments that contain lifelong memories.
Her lessons from lockdown? How to toast bread with an iron, boil eggs in a kettle and make a plan for the future.
Lockdown and loss
The "quiet little note" is decorated with flowers and hearts. Smiley faces. Sad faces.
Thanking the hotel staff for their kindness and comfy "digs", it continues with a bombshell – the writer had made it back to New Zealand to see their sister, who was dying of a terminal illness. She had passed away on day nine.
Life, and death, proceed during lockdown. The four walls may contain the physical body, but they can't contain grief. For the writer of this note, the effort to get home in time for one last embrace was suspended in the space of a hotel room. The suspension was five days too long.
The stay was "awesome", the writer concludes. The nurses, the security staff, kind, considerate, professional. But loss runs deeper than delicious food, kindness, or a comfortable bed. Although it may occur in the cushioning embrace of a clean room, it is so much larger than the room. It follows the bereft out the door and out into the world.
21st in isolation
The extra effort, the little touches, lift life in lockdown out of mundanity. One young man, marooned in a hotel room for his biggest birthday, was gifted such small kindnesses. And they made his day bigger than the containment.
His mum had worried (as mums do) that his birthday would see him forgotten: a room number in a hotel inhabited by travellers in isolation.
She asked hotel managers for help but they already had it in hand. A platter was delivered to his room as a celebration of his day. Drinks and a video call with family, outside in the "real" world, was arranged. Mum was chuffed, so grateful that people had taken time to ensure her son would get to have his official entry into adulthood acknowledged.
A baby's first steps are notable, precious moments, wherever they are taken. On a beach, at day care, in Grandma's lounge, they matter.
One particular baby entered a New Zealand isolation hotel as a wobbling novice: crawling, standing, then falling bum-first back on to the soft hotel carpet.
Trying out the boundaries and possibilities of her tiny body - and she had plenty of time to practice. Fourteen days is an epoch in the life of a toddler, in a hotel room, with beds and chairs and walls against which to shore up her balance, it was long enough to get to grips with life standing.
By the end of the lockdown, baby was a pro. The room had become a track circuit, baby trotting around and around, until exhaustion - and sleep - overcame her.
She is unlikely to remember much of this (although video evidence is possible). But it will be embedded in her family's mythos: how she learned to walk in an isolation hotel in the midst of a global crisis.
Ruby Jones will be in residency at Allpress Studio in Auckland from Tuesday, November 24 - Monday, December 7. The public are encouraged to visit as she interviews 28 select Kiwis on their 2020 experiences, inspiring the 14 pieces of unique artwork.
Ruby Jones worked in association with Accor Hotels.