The installation of an art exhibition commemorating U of T’s vaccination effort is in the works for the vaccine clinic at the Exam Centre at 255 McCaul Street. The installation will feature nine paintings by clinic staff member and artist Greg Ellwand, whose work blends depictions of staff and mundane objects from the clinic with fantastical elements. However, installation of the art has stalled as clinics open again to meet the Omicron wave

Origins of the project

Ellwand became an artist in residence at the U of T vaccination clinic at 255 McCaul Street through what he described as the courage to say yes. The first was accepting an invitation to work at the clinic in March 2021. Between checking in patients, Ellwand sketched on his iPad — until Susan Camm, clinical team lead at U of T’s Health and Wellness Centre, took notice.

“She emailed me later and said, ‘Come to my office tomorrow. There’s something I want to talk to you about.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re going to say we don’t pay you to draw,’” said Ellwand in an interview with The Varsity.

To Ellwand’s surprise, Camm responded positively to his work and enlisted him to archive the clinic and U of T’s vaccination effort through his art. 

“The magic of art”

For the next few weeks, Ellwand sat in the clinic, drawing the scenes around him. He honed in on the fervour at the beginning and the end of the day, when clinic staff attempted to use up any remaining doses. “They would be flying, trying to phone people and trying to find a way of using the dose usefully instead of just disposing of it,” said Ellwand. “It was really like they were flying a spaceship.”

Space began to crop up in other parts of his work. “[The clinic staff] were flying so fast and so hard into the blackness of space, not knowing where they were going,” he said. “[They were] trying to find their way back home, lost in space with the meteorites of COVID-19 streaking across the blankness of space outside the windows behind them.”

After Ellwand had completed around 25 paintings, Professor Jean-Paul Kelly enlisted Sherry Chunqing Liu, a masters student in visual studies, to curate an exhibition displaying Ellwand’s work. In an interview with U of T News, Liu described working closely with Ellwand and Anna Kulikov, the project manager, to arrange the exhibition in the McCaul Street space and create a cohesive narrative.

“The overarching narrative of the exhibition is twofold. One is about Greg’s creative process… from at first sketching what he was experiencing and observing to later incorporating more futuristic, vibrant, and imaginative elements,” said Liu. 

By crafting these narratives, Liu hopes to “evoke contemplation” among viewers about their own experiences, the vaccination effort, and the broader experience of the past few years. “I hope that visitors can walk away knowing that the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic has been a collective effort by our community,” said Liu.

The push to vaccinate

Although Ellwand’s work pays tribute specifically to the McCaul Street clinic, it also captures the university’s broader mobilization to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. As of December 2021, U of T vaccination clinics had delivered roughly 420,000 doses to the community. The university hosts semi-permanent clinics, such as the one on McCaul at which Ellwand works, as well as pop-up clinics across the three campuses. Many outside groups, including the Scarborough Health Network, the Ontario Ministry of Health, and Peel Public Health, also contributed to the effort. 

Ellwand views his work as honouring the vaccination effort, and, in particular, the clinic staff who put themselves on the front lines to deliver vaccines. “I’m so privileged to be able to express that and remember the people who worked there,” he said. As with many efforts to put the pandemic behind us, the exhibition has been stalled due to the Omicron variant. Amid the rising rates of infection in Canada and the renewed urgency to deliver booster shots, vaccination clinics have reopened, including the one on McCaul Street. This has pushed back the timeline for the installation, which will hopefully take up residence at the site of the McCaul Street clinic. 

In one of his pieces, Ellwand depicts a coworker tasked with checking people out after they received their shot. “He is waiting for something to happen, as we all are,” Ellwand said of the character he depicts. “We are all waiting for the vaccines to take hold. We are waiting for normalcy to come back into our lives.”