San Diego artists focus their work on stopping the spread of COVID-19

A local photographer and theatrical designer partner on digital art campaign promoting wearing masks

A collaboration between San Diego-based commercial photographer Ken Jacques and theatrical designer Janet Pitcher spotlights local artists and the importance of reducing COVID-19 so artists can return to work. “Stop the Spread” is a photo-driven project created in partnership with San Diego Musical Theatre [SDMT] that features socially-distanced artists against the backdrop of some of the city’s most notable locations.

Pitcher, SDMT’s resident costume designer, handcrafts the masks photographed in the shoots. Artists photographed in the campaign come from a variety of disciplines, from music to dance to visual art.

At the start of the pandemic, Jacques, like many in the industry, found himself out of work after shooting his last gig at San Diego State University in March. Initially, he said, he was searching for a creative outlet. Jacques and Pitcher had worked together in previous San Diego theater performances, and they connected over social media when Pitcher needed shots of models in masks for her online shop.

“And then things started to germinate, things started to come together,” Jacques said. “Janet, our designer on this project, the mask designer — is a costume designer. She reached out on Facebook, you know, ‘What can we do?’ And I said, ‘I got the ideas. Let’s play.’”

Having worked for publications like National Geographic and TIME, Jacques found his home in live performing arts photography. While he is the visionary behind the camera, Pitcher is the occasional on-screen creative, appearing in some of the photos as well as custom-designing the masks worn by the artists. Fusing “fashion and function,” Pitcher said she initially started making masks for local San Diego hospitals. But, she soon realized that this could be an opportunity to highlight the necessity to stay safe during the pandemic and motivate people who might be reluctant to wear a mask to do so.

“We wanted it to be really positive,” Pitcher said while making masks in her studio. “By making it artistic and fun — to look at pictures of beautiful people in beautiful masks — then hopefully, if we can change the minds of somebody and get them to wear it, then that’s the story.”

Pitcher additionally makes SDMT-branded masks for the theatre, which function as advertisements for the arts while the theatre’s doors remain closed. SDMT’s production manager Ron Christopher Jones said the company has been selling Pitcher’s custom-made masks online as well as during the filming of the live outdoor benefit concert “Stars Under the Stars,” which will stream online on Sept. 25.

“We’re not gonna be able to really have people in the theater until mid-next year,” Jones said. “We want to make sure that we stay relevant, in the conversation with people, on their minds during this time when you can’t really go see live theatre.”

Pitcher said SDMT has also opened its doors to the campaign directly. The crew integrated the element of the playhouse ghost light to show that even though performances are canceled, artists are eager to return to the stage.

"We’ve done two shoots in the theater, which also makes a great statement with the ghost light, " Pitcher said. “The theater’s dark now, but we want to come back.”

Max Cadillac, a San Diego Musical Theatre performer and the series' artistic director, is busy both on and off-camera, assisting with everything from casting to wardrobe while on set at the shoots. Cadillac has worked with Pitcher since 2013 and has been performing professionally since graduating from Coronado School of the Arts in 2008.

“I think it’s great to really show all sides of the art community,” Cadillac said. “We really wanted to show the strength and the unity of the entire arts community, entertainment community, all of the above, and really give each other some form of unity, some form of togetherness.”

Cadillac explained that the artists are unpaid, but show up for the opportunity to keep the San Diego artistic community alive.

“Everybody has been fantastic with volunteering,” Cadillac said. “It’s incredible how many people have turned out just to work together and see each other from a distance, and really, really pull the arts community together.”

Since its summer release, the series already has six installments and has gained recognition from several national performing arts centers. Both Houston Ballet and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre have expressed interest in taking part in the project, Jacques said. He is already in the process of developing a photobook.

Aside from photographing artists in masks and promoting safety measures, his vision behind the series is to showcase that all artists, regardless of career path or discipline, need to be working again.

Photos from the project can be found here.