PENINSULA SPOTLIGHT: Two sides of health shown in Port Angeles art exhibit

PORT ANGELES — Prepare to be startled, provoked and then healed.

Jake Seniuk and Bryn Barnard are collaborators hoping for such reactions to “Outbreak,” the show opening this weekend at the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, 1203 E. Lauridsen Blvd.

Admission is free to the exhibition, which features 30 enlarged paintings from Barnard’s book Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History. The works, originally created as illustrations for the book, are vivid images of how the bubonic plague, the Spanish flu, cholera and other epidemics raged across continents.

The fine arts center display, which starts with a reception from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday and stays through March 13, also shows what Capt. George Vancouver saw when he sailed into the Salish Sea: ghost villages where smallpox had wiped out the native people, leaving only ancestral totem poles as witnesses.

It shows people smooching through masks on Armistice Day in 1918, celebrating the end of World War I but deathly afraid of the flu that had already killed millions. And these, said Barnard, are just a couple of the examples of how a disease can spread through people rich and poor.

The artist acknowledges right off that his work is “a little creepy.” But he hopes it’ll start us thinking, and appreciating the public health system that, he said, “allows us to live in such large, dense concentrations without dying from all manner of epidemics.

“I also hope people in our me-first era realize that we are all in this together. You can still see what happens when public health breaks down. Just look at post-earthquake Haiti’s cholera epidemic,” Barnard noted.

“Cholera used to sweep across the world with depressing regularity, killing millions, no matter their class. After nearly a century of such epidemics, industrialized countries reluctantly invented the kind of basic hygiene protocols we take for granted today: mass access to flush toilets, efficient sewers and sewage treatment, clean water and decent housing for the poor.”

The hard lesson of public health, added Barnard, is that “to ensure the health of anyone you have to ensure the health of everyone. You can’t just vaccinate the privileged or provide clean water for the wealthy, or sanitation for those with access.

“Pathogens are equal opportunity killers. They don’t care if you have a credit card.

“For the strong individual to survive you have to protect the entire herd. Even the weak. Especially the weak.”

Meanwhile Seniuk, director of the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, is noting that Barnard’s exhibition includes maps and excerpts from the Outbreak book that may shock visitors.

“How the Black Death smashed feudal Europe,” “how yellow fever stopped slavery” and “how cholera cleaned up cities” are some of the book’s chapter headings

Seniuk said the book, which is geared toward middle and high school-age youth, fascinated him. “It gave me a different perspective that my [formal] education hadn’t.”

The “Outbreak” art exhibition was featured at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., last year, Seniuk noted, and was so popular that its three-month run was extended to five. Its Northwest premiere in Port Angeles is cosponsored by Olympic Medical Center.

Barnard weaves history, science and art together into a compelling mix, added Seniuk. The artist, who lives on San Juan Island, will return to the fine arts center to give a PowerPoint presentation on “Outbreak” at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30.

As an “antidote,” Seniuk said, the fine arts center will present a series of related events on the theme of healing. These include “Rest in Restless Times,” a program with sound therapist Vickie Dodd along with Marline Lesh and cellist James Hoskins, at 7 p.m. Feb. 4.

On Feb. 13, the center will host two performances by didgeridu master Stuart Dempster; his “sound massage parlor” will open at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on that Sunday.

To learn more about the “Outbreak” show and related activities, visit www.PAFAC.org, or phone the center at 360-457-3532. The art gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

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