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The Whole Spiel

Action. Emotional Connection. Humor. Community. 

June 10, 2020

The Capital Jewish Museum has started asking Jewish Washingtonians to help us with Covid Collecting of digital items during this pandemic. These Jewish Washingtonians are creating art in the age of Covid. I interviewed the founders of Viral Art to learn more.   

The Viral Art Project is an all-volunteer project launched by Ben Ostrower of Wide Eye, and artist Mark Kelner and curator Zachary Paul Levine. They partnered with the Artist + Activist Relief Fund, created by The Soze Foundation, to support artists and activists whose work has been impacted by COVID-19.   

Mark Kelner is a visual artist based in DC (raised in Rockville) who also has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, and in Europe.  Conceived in Moscow, but born in the USA, he literally considers himself a “Jackson-Vanick Baby” and has made a piece of that title which expressive his culturally duality. 

-Ben Ostrower is a graphic designer and owns a branding company. He moved to DC to increase his design work on progressive issues, and ended up branding the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2014. Now, most of his clients are non-profits supporting progressive causes. 

-Zachary Paul Levine is principal of Throughline Collaborative, which provides museum and artist consulting, grew up in DC, was previously Curator for Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, and is helping the Capital Jewish Museum with our exhibition development. 

The Viral Art project took them three days to develop. The trio literally had a conversation, tried a few ideas, and launched the platform for anyone to add to. They wanted to respond to the fact that the pandemic has impacted artists, quickly and severely, by mobilizing them to respond to the coronavirus emergency. Ben is motivated by responding to crisis through creativity, and found this to be a great outlet for himself, and wanted to share it, help other people feel creative, busy. “Designers are home, they are out of work, and looking for purpose”.   

Artwork has been streaming in from around the world. From DC, to Kuwait, and everywhere in between. It began with just playing around with various eras of propaganda and political campaign posters. While posters are meant to be printed, right now this project is entirely digital. For Mark, this project is “like the grass roots effort to help get PPE to those that need them most, it is a very Jewish idea [to act]. When you see something needs to be solved... this process of getting out the message about COVID is also very democratic… famous designers are right next to high school students’ work.” Ben agrees, “When I look in the mirror, as a Jew, this is very much part of a family legacy, to do something… people that are never ok with the way things are”. 

As an artist, Mark knows a lot of people that work in trades: woodworkers, metalsmiths, glass blowers, etc.  “My wife is an OBGYN at a local hospital and after a shift, she asked me if I knew anyone that might have some n95 masks, because “we need all of them. We are going to run out.’”  Mark began regular drives around the Beltway in search of PPE.  Dr. Litvak-Kelner has since become the regional founder for the national effort GETUSPPEDC.  In addition to his art making, Mark’s secondary role is that of coordinator — picking up and delivering PPE to DC hospitals and clinics in need. 

Zachary sees this project and the posters historically. They recall American propaganda posters of the Great Depression and World War II when the federal government engaged artists and graphic designers to create a national, visual culture promoting New Deal programs, conservation, war bonds, and patriotism. 

Ben has never been very religious, it is more about family connections for him. During the DC shelter in place in March, he has found more time to celebrate Shabbat- to pace the week, and connect with family virtually. He has felt that technology can bring about emotional connection. “Personally, I get through times of crisis by creating… I feel this is very Jewish– to innovate in times of crisis.”  

Mark and Zack completely agree with Ben that creativity and trying to create a better world is exactly the same thing. They make a great and collaborative trio. These posters embody this sentiment clearly.   See all the posters here:  

CJM is also actively collecting Covid related items: how being Jewish is different right now, how you are changing and adjusting to these new circumstances. If you have things to share with us, please let us know here.