Even before the pandemic, social capital in America had been declining, which some have attributed to our increasingly diverse society. People need places to meet, outside of their bubbles, where they feel welcome and safe, in order to form bonds and avoid tribalism. COVID has blocked our access to most physical meeting spaces, so our digital communities are more important than ever. Not surprisingly, women have traditionally been society’s community builders (at about 1:40), but consider what has happened to the demands on women over the past year.
In May 2020, Joanna Hutchinson felt powerless reading The New York Times piece An Incalculable Loss, the now-famous, full front-page death toll of US lives that had been lost to COVID-19 to that point. Like many of us, Joanna struggled with the sheer scale of 100,000 lives. She was burdened by overwhelming grief. Joanna is a certified public accountant, a data person. But she never thought of herself as a data visualizer — she doesn’t have a datafam. Instead, she found an outlet for her grief in an unusual collective, among the paper-folding community.
What started as a way of grappling with her own feelings became 100,000 Folds, a collaborative sculpture project to commemorate those lost to the coronavirus pandemic. The topics of scale and community keep coming up in my social feeds lately, so when I read about Joanna’s project I set up a conversation with her to learn more.
Mary Aviles: Tell me about the project and your goals for it.
Joanna Hutchinson: The basic idea is that, along with my participants, we’re folding one piece of origami for each of the first 100,000 COVID deaths in the United States. The origami will be assembled into larger sculptures so that we can visualize this number. And, it’s also kind of unifying to bring each individual piece into a larger sculpture. After all, we’re in this together.
How it works is that I mail pre-cut paper to the participants and they fold it in an act of memorializing those we lost. Then, they mail the paper back to me to be assembled into these larger sculptures. Originally I thought of it as a project to remember the people that died. But, in talking to the people who have joined the project, it’s become important for me to think about those who lived. So many of the people who are suffering are still with us, both those struggling with the virus and those who have lost loved ones.
MA: Where did the idea for 100,000 Folds come from?
JH: I am a finance person by trade. I also have a background in art. In my spare time, I enjoy doing different projects, but I’ve never taken on something of this scale before. This started in late May as the COVID deaths were reaching the 100,000 marker. My job switched to remote so I was staying home and I was by myself a lot. I was grappling with all the uncertainty and the virus was so expansive and horrible. I felt so alone in my grief and then I read The New York Times article. I read each of those names and the descriptions. It was so poignant. 100,000 lives. That really hit me like a ton of bricks.
It was a huge number. I’m desensitized to how big numbers are, in a way, and this has really grounded me. I started thinking about one hundred thousand people. I will never know that many people in my lifetime. It’s just too big. I was thinking about the gravity of the situation. It was really hard, emotionally. Then I began to think about what I could do to remember those people. How could I memorialize them? It occurred to me that I could make something that had one component for every one of those deaths in order to visualize the enormity of the situation. So, that’s how it started. I was reading the news and I was struck by how hard it was to understand a number like that. And, since then, it’s only gotten much worse.
MA: Why did you select origami as your medium?
JH: I settled on origami because it’s simple. The forms that I’m using make a triangle unit. They’re relatively easy to make. I have used units like this in my artwork in the past and I like the simplicity of the folds. It’s repetitive. It’s comforting to make the same folds again and again. It’s rhythmic and sort of peaceful to fold paper. I latched on to origami because it kind of made sense in the same vein as Sadako’s One Thousand Paper Cranes. Origami has a wonderful tradition. And, you can create a lot of them.
I was originally going to fold them all myself, but then I did some calculations and figured that if I was consistent and I could fold every single day, it would take me at least four years to finish. Then, I thought, “Please let us not still be in this pandemic in four years. God forbid.” I just couldn’t take this on by myself. It was too big.
I realized that was a challenge that characterized the pandemic, too. It’s a global problem. It’s this huge thing that we’re all fighting together. I decided to make it collective. There are over 300 participants now. So far, I’ve sent out 140,000 pieces of paper.
MA: Who do you consider your community?
JH: First, I want to speak a bit about the reason that I focus on the United States. It’s not because I only care about my country. I think that, as a wealthy and powerful country, we’ve really dropped the ball on our COVID response. We’ve neglected people and they’ve died. We should have done better. It makes me angry to think about it.
It’s like a Venn diagram. There are some people that want to participate because they lost somebody or they feel deeply about the need to memorialize COVID deaths. People have written to me to say, “I’m doing this project to remember my mother” or “I’m doing this project because it’s a time for grief and I need an outlet for my feelings.” There are a lot of local participants here in Philadelphia. They seem to want to participate because it’s a local project and they want to chip in. But, there are some international participants as well. There are some who are artisans from within the paper-making community. Finally, there are also a bunch of people who make things and are more generally creative who are interested in the art.
MA: How have people heard about the project? What do you think drives their desire for affiliation?
JH: Helen Hiebert has a popular blog, all related to paper art, and she featured my project early on. I also work with a couple of local artist communities. The Soap Box is one of them. They are a print-making space and ‘zine library here in Philadelphia. They’ve been co-sponsoring my online workshops and promoting them in conjunction with the Rotunda, which is another space here that not only houses a lot of art-related projects, but also focuses on social justice and other things.
I hosted four workshops in 2020. I’m gearing up for more starting this month. Participants receive a small bundle of paper, I do a demonstration on how to fold, and I talk about the project. I reserve time for community building where we can chit-chat and talk about why someone might be interested in folding paper for a COVID memorial and about origami. The workshops absolutely help bring people to the project. At one point I considered stopping them to focus on getting the sculptures together, but there’s been so much interest. I think people need a place for collective mourning and COVID remembrance.
It’s been word of mouth, mostly. It makes perfect sense that there would be this sort of Venn diagram of different communities. Some people receive the paper, they do the folding, and they send it back. Some people send me updates on how it’s going and what’s happening and what they’re thinking and working on. I have people that have asked for more paper, so I have some repeat participants. A lot of people post on their social media about the project.
MA: What is your vision for the completed sculptures?
JH: I’m thinking that the sculptures will be a large urn shape. The shape is inspired by a design I made a couple of years ago. This sculpture has the same kind of units and I love the way they interlock. I’m playing with them interlocking backwards and how that can change the shape. I’m going to have so much material that I think it’ll be enough to make something person-sized. If my calculations are right, I can make two sculptures that are five- or six-foot-tall vessels.
There’s a place called Cherry Street Pier here in Philadelphia. It’s an open air place for people to gather. I love the idea of having my pieces there. They have studio spaces for artists and I could build the pieces onsite. Then, it would be open to the public. So anybody could go there and there’s no entrance fee or anything like that. I thought someplace like that would be really wonderful. But, because this is a paper sculpture, I’m concerned about having it out. I’m trying to build it in a way that can either be taken apart or moved.
I’m working on designing the infrastructure. There will be steel armature inside the sculptures. I’m working on designing that to be modular in some way so that I can have it in one place for a while and then it can move to another place. I’ve never made something this big so I’m really excited to start putting it together and figuring that out.
MA: How has this project impacted your view of COVID? How has this project changed you?
JH: I was looking for something personal in the beginning. And now I’m looking to give others the same outlet. Originally, I wanted something to work on by myself to work through my own grief. Now there’s this whole community that’s right there with me. It’s comforting to know that there are others, so many others. It also makes me feel a a great sense of honor.
Joanna is certainly not alone in her effort to memorialize COVID deaths. Her interview has me reflecting on the meaning of ‘community’ and what it means to be part of one. As suggested in her post below, strategist and early stage investor, Sari Azout, analogizes community with home.
100,000 Folds feels like a different interpretation. It feels like a group of people with disparate interests and motivations working toward a shared purpose. Outside of their collective participation with Joanna’s organization, they may never interact, but they still seem like a community. She has come to realize that lifting up the living, those seeking solace, has added a new dimension to the project. She extended her workshop series in order to help participants process their grief and find comfort among others.
Joanna Hutchinson is a version of a network weaver. Weavers, connectors, and navigators like her share the critical responsibility of establishing networks. They can build bonds among trusted messengers to form human systems. They cultivate weak ties — the folks we meet throughout the course of our day, through friends-of-friends, or through our extracurricular interests.
COVID has done a number on our weak ties. We’re not going to the dry cleaner or waiting in line for coffee or chatting up other spectators at our kids’ soccer games. Last fall, I facilitated roundtables with attendees of the Urban Land Institute’s conference. We talked about the value of weak ties in our personal networks based on Mark Granovetter’s nearly 50-year-old research. In addition to their importance for our career trajectories, weak ties are critical to our sense of wellbeing. The Atlantic recently covered this topic. The article’s author, Amanda Mull, writes:
The Atlantic article goes on to explain that the lack of communal connections can signal larger civic problems. It can indicate deteriorated social capital with dire consequences. In his book, Bowling Alone, Bob Putnam found that:
Think about what happens when you move to a new city. You have to figure out your new system. You have to choose healthcare providers you like, find a grocery store with your favorites, locate people you want to go for walks with, and draft your preferred take-out restaurant shortlist. These things don’t exist on a traditional map. Establishing even weak ties requires some personal investment. Isolation can evolve from not knowing about the communities that exist around you. Word of mouth and mapping can reveal these networks. Asset or ecosystem mapping is instrumental in revealing supportive networks (or critical gaps).
In 2019, the New Economy Initiative, an advocate for inclusive entrepreneurship in Detroit, mapped the entrepreneurial support network in southeast Michigan. Doing so helped them visualize referral behavior among their grantees. In other words, they were able to see how many meetings new business owners were having, with whom, and for what kind of support. These insights helped them connect with more would-be entrepreneurs and guide those folks through the start-up process and on to generating revenue faster.
Last year, I conducted generative and user experience testing for the United Way of Southeast Michigan during the development of their Connect4Care Kids resource. Parents and caregivers were especially enthusiastic about the Location Finder feature. For many, it showed them childcare options, near home, work, and school, that they hadn’t known about previously. Finding safe and accessible child care is, of course, vital to employment and adult education.
Asset mapping documents what a community has, rather than studying its needs. “Assets” can refer to both people AND place. These asset maps bridge the physical to the digital. Building and maintaining asset maps is a critical investment in human systems infrastructure. Data collection and the frameworks for network or asset mapping can be extraordinarily challenging and often require an understanding of local context. This seems like an untapped opportunity for spatial visualization. While 100,000 Folds doesn’t need an asset map to achieve its purpose, consider the work of community organizations and local governments on the 2020 Census. Asset maps, like this example from Google for addiction support, are invaluable to activating civic efforts like census counts or voter registration.
I’m grateful to my digital communities for helping me check in with all my ties, strong and weak, and for providing my kids with some welcome pandemic distraction. One of the many reasons I value my DVS membership is that I think of it as a multiverse of communities, offering a range of experiences and opportunities to develop meaningful bonds with my peers. Now, more than ever, we must rely on digital communities to establish social tethers. The people and the organizations managing our digital communities can learn responsible stewardship by studying place-based best practices. Data practitioners can broaden their view to understand their potential for contribution to the “ecosystem orchestra.” Through her work with 100,000 Folds, Joanna Hutchinson has demonstrated that you don’t have to go it alone, even if you can’t go anywhere.
Which of your communities has been a lifesaver during COVID?
- danah boyd’s entire talk on the Future of Information (2018) is fascinating even beyond the citation above, for its coverage of “re-networking” and especially considering our experiences with social instability around the 2020 US presidential election.
- Find more information on/examples of asset mapping: City of Boise, HealthCity’s Participatory Asset Mapping toolkit, and Fair Count’s map of internet installations.