Austin Photographer Sarah Wilson cuts a print of Selena Xie for the portrait series “Essentials” highlighting women essential workers. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In photographer Sarah Wilson’s east Austin studio, her scissors trace the outline of a larger-than-life, black-and-white print of an Austin medic wearing personal protective gear. The image printed on the paper is one Wilson captured. It shows Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, in full personal protective equipment.

At the start of the pandemic, Wilson got the idea to begin taking portraits on her own of women who are essential workers during this time, so she began a series she calls “Essentials.” She captured fourteen images to start: medics, a doctor, a poll worker, food service workers, a delivery worker, and more.

Austin EMS Union President, Selena Xie, wearing PPE on April 30, 2020. Photo Courtesy: Sarah Wilson

Wilson heard about the City of Austin’s call for artists as part of its Arts Responders program during the pandemic, and she eagerly applied and was selected by the Dougherty Arts Center. With the city’s help, she is looking to make even more portraits, which will then be printed in larger-than-life form and adhered on the walls of buildings around Austin.

She is looking for nominations from the community for essential women workers to be photographed, including gender fluid/non-binary and trans women.

  • If you know of an essential woman worker in Austin or Travis County, you can nominate her for this portrait series here. Nominations for this project are open now through January 15.

Wilson said the definition of “essential” may mean different things to different people, and she encourages nominations of any woman who you believe has done essential work this past year.

A photo of Emma Stanley, a fourteen-year veteran Austin poll worker. Photo Courtesy: Sarah Wilson

From the nominations this time around, an additional 10 to 15 women will be selected to be added to the portrait series.

“As the pandemic set-in, I was frustrated by the disruption of our lives, my family’s income and the general sadness of it all, but I realized our situation was still one of immense privilege and safety,” Wilson told KXAN.

She explained that early on in the pandemic, she and her family quarantined at home for two weeks when someone at her child’s daycare had possibly been exposed to the virus. Then, Wilson learned of a nurse who also brought her children to the same daycare, and had to find other arrangements because she couldn’t take two weeks off to quarantine. That nurse’s experience made Wilson think about the combined personal and professional burdens that women working on the frontlines of the pandemic had to navigate.

Austin Police Officer Michelle Borton, on duty in downtown Austin, Texas on May 15, 2020. Photo Courtesy: Sarah Wilson

“And so I settled-in at home during the lockdown, but I couldn’t just sit back without finding some way to engage with this moment. I felt the need to recognize the courage and sacrifice of those who couldn’t stay home, because their services were necessary and needed for our community.”

“And so many of these essential workers are women, juggling a host of responsibilities while facing this public health crisis head on,” Wilson said. “My project, ‘Essentials’ was born out of that feeling.”

Right now, two locations have been identified for these portraits: the Counter Cafe West Campus location, at 603 W 29th St and at 313 W 17th St (at the future site of The Linden, a contemporary downtown tower).

Wilson is also looking for more wall space to place these portraits, if you happen to have public-facing wall space to offer up, she asks that you get in touch with her.

Collective Voices

Along with Wilson, artist Caroline Walker was also selected by the Dougherty Arts Center for this Arts Responders program.

A visualization of the Collective Voices project by Caroline Walker as part of Austin’s Arts Responders project.

Walker is a multidisciplinary artist who specializes in augmented reality. Her project is an augmented reality piece called “Collective Voices” which is currently taking submissions from the community in the form of drawing, writing, or audio files that demonstrate things that have helped them cope with the pandemic. Ultimately, these submissions will be incorporated into outdoor art installations that have augmented reality elements.

“I thought of two phases of social practice participation that could be carried out with no contact,” Walker explained to KXAN. “Phase one being submitting a drawn, written, or spoken message and phase two being downloading the app and interacting with one or several of the art installations at various outdoor locations around Austin. Extending my interactive art into social practice art seemed like a very natural transition.”

  • If you would like to contribute to this art project, you can make a submission here.

“By far the most popular pandemic coping strategy that has been submitted so far is spending time in nature,” Walker explained. “Playing video games is another popular one and several mention drawing–which is part of what this project is all about.”

Arts Responders

Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department explained to KXAN that for the Arts Responders program, cultural centers in the city including The Dougherty Arts Center, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, the George Washington Museum Genealogy and Cultural Center and the Asian American Resource Center and museums like the Ney and Oakwood Cemetery Chapel are commissioning artists to train in Social Practice and to organize and engage community in an artistic response to cope with and overcome COVID-19.

This Arts Responders program will run Oct. 5 to March 31.

A photo of ATCEMS Paramedic Krislyn McSherry. Photo Courtesy: Sarah Wilson
Healthcare worker, Andrea Bradford with her daughter Faith, on a rare day off. Photo Courtesy: Sarah Wilson.
Amazon delivery worker Emily Glawson. Photo Courtesy: Sarah Wilson.
Medic, Casey Basic, at Medic 33 Station in Austin, Texas on April 27, 2020. Photo Courtesy Sarah Wilson.
Lena Shichijo at Johnson’s Backyard Garden packing shed on May 4, 2020. Photo Courtesy Sarah Wilson.
Dr. Amy Young, Chief Clinical Officer of Dell Medical School, in front of the Health Learing Building in Austin, Texas on May 05, 2020. Photo Courtesy Sarah Wilson.