For months, Marla Callistein had been planning to drive to the University of Missouri to attend her son Dylan's senior art show. Dylan is a graphic design major, and the art show represented the culmination of his past four years of work.
"I would honestly put it right up next to graduation in terms of how much I was looking forward to it," he said.
But, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the show was canceled, classes were moved online and Dylan drove back to join his family in Deerfield, Ill., and finish out the semester at home.
Marla said she knew how much that art show meant to her son. She wanted to do something to surprise her son, to help make up for the anti-climactic end to his senior year.
"I was just thinking, what can we do to raise this kid's spirits?" she said.
So Marla, along with her husband and daughter, devised a plan to transform their front yard into an art gallery of Dylan's work.
A front yard becomes an art gallery
On Saturday, April 18 — the day the art show had been scheduled for — Marla asked one of Dylan's friends to invite him on a morning walk so the family could assemble the gallery.
"People around town had loaned me easels ... some people even gave me frames" she said. "And I got my hands on as much of his artwork as I could without him knowing."
When Dylan returned from his walk, he said it looked like the front yard was set up for some sort of yard sale — but as he got closer, he realized it was his own artwork.
"It really came as a shock for me," he said. "I was super caught off guard, but it was a really warm and bubbly feeling realizing this all came together for me in lieu of the anticipated senior show."
Marla said around 75 people ended up walking through the gallery that day, and another 30 or so people drove by in cars. Some of the people who attended were close family friends; others stumbled upon the gallery by chance, like a neighbor who saw the show from his window. Marla said the neighbors' mom thanked her after her son ended up spending time outside chatting with Dylan and others for nearly an hour.
"She said, 'I haven't been able to get my son out of the house in a month.'"
Art creates community connection
Dylan said the front yard art gallery evolved into something beyond just giving him closure for his senior year. It also became a way for his neighborhood community to connect during a time of social isolation.
"The fact that people were able to get genuinely excited and wanted to get outside to be a part of this shows that it was bigger than just me."
Marla said finding these new ways to connect with people in her life has helped her regain a sense of purpose during unpredictable times.
"It feels like my purpose has been shaken a little bit," she said. "This was my effort to make my son feel happy. And in turn, it made other people feel good. And that's kind of what it's all about."
And while Dylan had a very different kind of senior art show than he'd expected, he said the pandemic has helped him think differently about his art.
"Two months ago, everything I was making was a portfolio piece ... now knowing that there's no expectations, I've been able to break past that type of work and really work on the things I'm passionate about, knowing that in one way or another, it's leading to my artistic growth even if it's not going to be the piece that gets me a job offer," he said.
Katherine Nagasawa is WBEZ's audience engagement producer. Follow her @Kat_Nagasawa.
Copyright 2020 WBEZ Chicago. To see more, visit WBEZ Chicago.
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