Finding the rainbow in the COVID cloud: How one Santa Cruz artist stitched herself happy

Marie Cameron's "Rainbow Vaccination," a vintage photo of a child receiving a polio vaccine.
(Via Marie Cameron)

The pandemic left Santa Cruz County artist Marie Cameron feeling despondent and lost. She longed for relief and healing, she writes, and unexpectedly found it arcing across the sky at Pajaro Dunes beach: a rainbow. She spent two years exploring rainbows and stitching them onto vintage photos to remind herself of her own light, the goodness in others and the beauty still left in our world.

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I survived the pandemic because of a rainbow.

Marie Cameron's "Rainbow Self 1," 2020.
(Via Marie Cameron)

I have always found nature to be an endless source of inspiration, and I can’t tell you how lucky I feel as an artist to live between Los Gatos, where I work in my art studio, and Watsonville, where my family goes to retreat and renew at our place in Pajaro Dunes.

In my oil paintings and mixed media assemblage, I explore themes of environmental consciousness and human impact on our planet. I make great, big paintings of shell middens — layers of discarded shell detritus — contrasted with visual elements like pink, plastic flip flops and plastic water bottles that — for me — symbolize human exploitation.

I think about nature and our role in it all the time and try to create conversations through my art.

When COVID-19 hit, everything seemed to change.

My ongoing exhibitions became either virtual or were canceled altogether. I was grateful to have an online presence and a studio in my own backyard. I thought quarantine would be a breeze. Endless creative quiet time.

It wasn’t.

It was really hard to focus. I was hit with such sadness.

I was already overwhelmed with climate change and questions of environmental sustainability, and distressed over the corruption of the Trump administration and the erosion of our social fabric and democratic norms.

But on top of this, I felt I was witnessing the mishandling of the pandemic in our country. There was so much violence and tragedy and I longed for social justice. Wildfires were tearing through California and Western states, leaving a blanket of toxic air and unsettled lives. Our country felt like it was imploding and our world was burning up!

I missed friends and family.

I was reaching a breaking point, struggling emotionally, and was longing for something hopeful and healing, something intimate and true, something beautiful, spiritual and timeless, some reconnection with a sense of awe, wonder, perhaps even joy.

But how to convey a feeling? How to capture that in my art?

I was pondering this question while walking on the beach at Pajaro Dunes, where I do all my best thinking, and there was my answer — a gorgeous rainbow cutting through the gloom. For me, rainbows offer a momentary window into the magic of the universe and our place in it, opening us up to our sense of awe and wonder and joy.

Marie Cameron's "Rainbow, Pajaro Dunes," 2020.
(Via Marie Cameron)

How powerful it would be, I thought, if we could see that rainbow in ourselves, in each other and our world?

At that moment, I decided I needed more rainbows in my life.

I began obsessively embroidering them onto vintage photographs, gently and methodically piercing each fragile image with the finest of needles, pulling through lovely pastel silk, stitch by careful stitch. The color and sheen of the silk glowed against sepias and grays of the faded monochrome images, introducing an element of magic and transformation.

The needlework itself made me feel closer to my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, all of whom embroidered. I felt this loving connection cut through time and space. Each rainbow seemed a meditation on the past and a prayer for our future. I chose images that connected me with my love of the landscape, the ocean, the forest. I would find vintage pictures of people at the beach or playing in the snow. I honored firefighters and nurses and doctors, even a child receiving a vaccine.

I needed to bring all that color, beauty and magic back from what had drained out of my world. I even embroidered rainbows onto rainbows and came up with the hashtag #morerainbows! because I just couldn’t get enough.

I would create a new piece most days and share it on social media, a daily connection with my art community and friends that became more vital than ever.

Artist Marie Cameron stitches rainbows onto vintage photographs.
(Via Marie Cameron)

I collaborated with my friend, author Christy Ann Conlin from Nova Scotia, on a series of postcards with rainbows on the front and her evocative prose on the back. We offered to send them out to anyone in the world who needed a rainbow, and they flew off as far as Iceland, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Italy, as well as throughout Canada and the United States.

More rainbow postcards.
(Via Marie Cameron)

As I began to amass quite a collection of these pieces, each with its own little tale, a private epiphany, a secret wish, or quiet plea, I wondered if they would not make a bigger story if I grouped them together as an entire collection. Like making a thousand cranes to have a wish come true.

It might even evoke a kind of visual diary of the pandemic, of all the ways I felt we needed to heal. I imagined a wall of rainbows and thought how hopeful that would be.

I decided they needed to stay together so they could have this moment to shine together. So I didn’t sell any of them. I encouraged collectors to reserve pieces online if they wished. I didn’t want to let them go too soon.

I imagined a pop-up exhibition of the work when the pandemic was finally over. A moment of collective relief.

Marie Cameron's "More Rainbows Fewer Fires 2," 2020.
(Via Marie Cameron)

So I held on to all of my work, except for a few pieces I donated to fundraisers, including “More Rainbows, Fewer Fires 2,” which I gave to Santa Cruz’s Curated by the Sea to help families who lost their homes to the CZU Lightning Complex fires. I also gave “Rainbow Scape 5” to the New Museum Los Gatos’ 2020-21 “Art in the Time of Corona” fundraiser and exhibit.

Marie Cameron's "Rainbow Scape 5," 2020.
(Via Marie Cameron)

Meanwhile, many of my #morerainbows! were included in virtual exhibitions locally and internationally and were published in a number of magazines and books.

When California officially opened up on June 15, 2021, I held my “Wall of Rainbows” pop-up in my studio in Los Gatos, with work mounted directly to the wall with photo corners. It looked very much like our collective photo album. Guests would come by appointment, and often shared tales from their own family’s history and their experience of the pandemic. I was overwhelmed by the intimacy of it all, reconnecting with people after this long, difficult time apart. Sharing our collective need for rainbows and for each other.

Marie Cameron's "Wall of Rainbows" pop-up, 2021.
(Via Marie Cameron)

In fall 2021, I felt like I was passing on the rainbows when I taught a “Stitching Rainbows” workshop at the San Francisco School of Needlework and Design. For me, this created a natural arc of closure to this pandemic project. I gave the rainbow project to others.

I resumed painting in a big way — my first solo museum show, “Critical Masses, A Very Low Tide,” is on at the New Museum Los Gatos until Oct. 23.

But the pandemic continues, as do climate change, extremism, inequality … so much. Now we even have monkeypox to worry about.

I am still moved to pick up my needle and thread now and then. Because the world will always need more rainbows.

Marie Cameron's "Rainbow Clown (Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk," 2021.
(Via Marie Cameron)

Marie Cameron was born in New York City, and was raised along the coast in Maine and the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. She earned her bachelor’s in fine arts with distinction from Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, where she majored in painting and minored in sculpture and photography. She worked briefly as a giftware designer for Seagull Pewter and a children’s book illustrator for Barefoot Books. Her award-winning work has been exhibited and published internationally. In Santa Cruz County, she is represented by Curated by the Sea, where several of her shell paintings are currently on display. Her rainbows will appear in three upcoming shows: Embrace at San Jose’s Know Future Gallery, Salon at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara and Resilience at Works/San José.

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