Glass screens to protect workers from coronavirus have been given a decorative makeover by artist and Sunderland PhD student Rachel Welford at a North East social enterprise.

Rachel was commissioned by Jack Drum Arts to create covid screens between staff members’ desks, which reduce the impression of their being a medical intervention and instead become a beautiful addition to their office.

Rachel, who is renowned for her glass artwork that responds to the nature of a space and becomes part of the fabric of an environment, designed acrylic screens which feature silhouetted foliage that catches the light and mingles with the view of the trees outside their office windows.

Staff at Jack Drum Arts, which provides cultural opportunities through workshops, courses, theatre, music-making and outdoor events, are delighted with the results. The company has been coming up with innovative ways to help the local community through arts activities since the impact of Covid 19 and has also been aware of how difficult the situation is for artists financially, committing to continuing or creating as many paid opportunities for this community as possible.

Rachel, from Scarborough, who has worked with Jack Drum Arts previously making glass awards, said: “When the enterprise was making plans to get their office up and running again, they had the idea that it would be really beneficial to minimise the visual impact of measures such as screens, reducing the impression of them being medical interventions that could be quite fear or anxiety inducing and turning them into a beautiful addition to the office that serve the appropriate function but don’t appear like covid screens at all. In that way they make the office environment more relaxed, taking the focus away from the virus.

“The feedback has been great, and the people working there say they’ve made the office more beautiful rather than stress inducing and clinical.”

She added: “Although I’m writing my PhD, I also need additional paid work and had intended to run classes over the summer, which of course didn’t happen due to Covid19, and my income has been much reduced. So this commission has been really welcome.”

Rachel, whose other major works includes a commission with Adrian Riley to design and make 12 stained glass windows for St Peter’s Church at Wearmouth in 2016, explained the process in creating her covid screens.

“The screens are made from acrylic sheet,” she said. “The designs are cut from transparent and translucent vinyl, with one layer being applied to the front of the screen and one to the back. That way there is physical depth to the piece which creates interesting diffusion of light.

“I usually make artworks that respond to and interact with the environment around them and wanted to do that in this commission. There are trees just outside the windows of Jack Drum’s office, and in the afternoon, natural sunlight streams into the office filtered through the leaves. I’ve used silhouettes of trees, shrubs and plants including, Silver Birch, Elm, Hawthorne, Honeysuckle and Jasmine, linking the designs to the view through the windows. The workers in the office can look through the foliage on their screen to the trees outside, and the two superimpose nicely. The flickering leaves almost become part of the artwork.”

Helen Ward, Managing Director of Jack Drum Arts, based in County Durham, said: “While making plans to ensure our office space was Covid secure for a return to work for our small team, I spent hours looking for social distancing screens. I couldn’t find any online that would add something to our office environment other than creating a ‘divide’ between staff with a bland sheet of plastic.

“I came up with the idea of approaching an artist to see if they could create something and that’s when I thought of Rachel. I have a small piece of her glass artwork hanging in my house which I love so got in touch with her to see if she could design something using her beautiful simplistic style. Neither of us knew if it would work as I have never commissioned social distancing screens and Rachel had never designed any! However, she has risen to the challenge ten-fold paying great attention to detail with regards to our environment and the nature that we can see out of our office window.”

Helen added: “As an arts organisation in receipt of emergency funding from Arts Council England I am very proud that we have found innovative ways in which to support freelance artists with paid work. Commissioning Rachel has definitely been so much more rewarding that ordering blank plastic screens off the internet from a large manufacturer. We are really thrilled with our beautiful screens and will be keeping them in situ long after the current crisis has passed.”

So far this is the only commission for Covid screens that Rachel has worked on and hopes to do more.

She says: “I’m not aware of any other commissions of this nature, but I feel that making these screens into art to enhance the environment and minimise the negative impact the virus-related function has is such a good idea. The pandemic is dangerous for our mental health and we should do what we can to reduce its stress and anxiety producing effects. These screens hopefully contribute to that effort.”

Since completing her Masters degree (MA Glass) with a Distinction in 2009 at the University of Sunderland and then awarded an AHRC funded studentship to undertake PhD research, Rachel has been researching ways of creating ephemeral elements and complex spatial relationships within flat glass artworks. She’s been doing this through the use of mirror, sandblasting, screen-printing and layering, creating internal shadows and reflections that come and go in relation to changing natural light.

She explained: “Although the screens are made of acrylic not glass, and use frosted vinyl instead of sandblasting or screen-printing, they interact with light in similar ways and so feel like a continuation or application of my research.”

Previous to the creating the covid screens, Rachel worked on a project in Hull, before the pandemic, creating artworks for a health care centre there. Entitled Elemental, it involved creating artworks based on the four elements of air, water, fire and earth, and also responding to the natural environment and industrial history of the area. She created glass wall panels, prints and textile hangings as well as pyrography work on paper using hot glass.

Once her PhD is complete, Rachel intends to begin working on commissions, looking towards business development and planning support through the Enterprise Place, based at the University of Sunderland’s City Campus.

Companies and organisations wanting to enquire about bespoke covid screens, can contact Rachel by email or phone.
rachel@rachelwelford.co.uk
07740 309553