Fine arts staff using skills for pandemic-fighting mask production

Contact: Joy Brown
A woman sits at her sewing machine making masks.

Department of Theatre costumer Kathleen MacKenzie sews masks from home for Western Michigan University alumni who are in the medical field.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University College of Fine Arts employees, known for their expertise in areas such as costuming, dance and painting, have temporarily set aside silk, soubresaut instruction and canvas to make room for cotton fabric for at-home mask making.

Eleven CFA workers are participating in the project aimed at helping fight the COVID-19 spread; the project also is keeping student assistants engaged in constructive and compensated work.

"We were going to start on Tuesday, March 24, after setting up the atrium lobby as a sewing area with tables at least six feet apart. But as we were starting to set up, we got the stay-at-home order," says Department of Theatre costumer and mask-making team leader Kathleen MacKenzie.

So, the making masking is happening at home. Mask makers are planning for a long haul, explains MacKenzie, who is doing her best to buy fabric from local and independently owned businesses that are still delivering. She initially bought about 450 yards of fabric and separated it into bags for mask makers to pick up from her porch.

They have made several masks, but haven't kept count, given that they've also been contending with recruiting, student wellness checks, budgeting and teaching, MacKenzie says; MacKenzie herself is still teaching six credit hours and working on redesigning a class so she can teach online for the first summer session. She estimates she has made about 50 masks, and several others have made around 30, putting the total around more than 200.

"I can make about 16 to 20 per day if I'm not teaching or grading," MacKenzie says.

Three nurses wearing masks hold up sign showing they are WMU alumni.

The donations have gone to WMU alumni who are nurses, The Sisters of St. Joseph at Nazareth College and pharmacy technology workers. A large batch is earmarked for Whyndam West living community, and the team has bought more fabric to make masks for additional alumni nurses who work at local hospitals.

"Really, they’re going to whomever needs them. I'm planning on keeping a few with me just to give to people who need one," says MacKenzie. "I was asked to make some for a few postal workers, too."

This community-needs project certainly isn’t out of reach for participating skilled clothiers like MacKenzie, whose creations usually grace the stage for the University’s many productions.

"People often don't realize that myself, our associate professor of costume design, Kathyrn Wagner, and a handful of students make many of the costumes for theatre performances from scratch, starting with making the patterns ourselves," says MacKenzie. "For 'Shakespeare in Love,' we created over 20 full Elizabethan outfits."

Elaborate costumes have also been created for shows such as "Amadeus," "Gas Light," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Hair." The artistic work requires highly skilled tailors with a penchant for constructing visually striking fashions fit for the spotlight.

"We have had several costumes that took more than 100 hours to make, and a couple that clocked in at around 250 hours for a single costume," MacKenzie says.

"Whoever thought that home sewers would be having to supply Personal Protective Equipment to keep hospitals functioning?" she wonders.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges, MacKenzie says the mask making she and her colleagues are doing is "putting a spotlight on how important skills like sewing are, even in the modern world.”

A dozen masks for medical professionals lay on a table.

For others, such as School of Music concerts assistant David Bernard, the project has been an educational opportunity. Making masks gave him a chance to dust off a sewing machine that was gifted to him years ago and try his hand at sewing, which is something he’d always wanted to learn.

"Acts of service are my love language, so to me, this effort is about freeing up resources for medical professionals who are in dire need of high-quality, medical-grade personal protective equipment," Bernard noted in a blog post MacKenzie wrote about the project.

Besides MacKenzie and Bernard, project participants include: Laura Cornish Gamble, dance department production manager; Stacey Tyler, dance department administrative assistance; Tanya Bakija, Richmond Center art gallery curator; Pam Mottley, Frostic School of Art administrative assistant; Brittney Young, School of Music assistant to the director; and Lynn Abbatte, Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation administrative assistant.

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