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Remote Design Students Turn Attention to a New Medium: Masks

Matt Bonvino ’20 and a small army of fellow students have created a line of brightly-colored, whimsical masks to make visits less scary for Children’s Hospital patients amid COVID-19

By Monique Kleinhuizen '08, GS'16, new media strategist

April 22, 2020 | 8 a.m.

Mask designs Bethel students have created for local hospitals

Students' mask designs feature whimsical, colorful images that are intended to make hospital visits less scary for kids

There’s not much that COVID-19 hasn’t impacted in some way. 

But Matt Bonvino ’20 is somewhat familiar with transition. He started at Bethel intending to go into medicine, but three years in, took an art class and fell in love. He’s since made the official switch to a studio art major inspired creatively, in part, by experiences he had as a kid going to museums with his family. 

“Those designs made a giant impact on me,” he says, adding that he’s hoping to pursue a career in museum fabrication or some kind of kid-centric design after graduation. This spring, he’s gaining practical experience as a warehouse and production volunteer at Gemini Athletic Wear in Edina. But work came to a screeching halt as sports seasons were cancelled and games postponed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

As he began seeing reports of hospitals overcrowding and the medical world struggling to respond, another memory came to mind: this time of his sister as an eighth-grader diagnosed with a serious digestive condition that landed her at Children’s Hospital for months on end. He was transported to a time when his family was stretched and things seemed scary. 

“But the people there made a huge difference for her and made her feel safe, comfortable, and reassured,” Bonvino recalls. He felt for the young patients at Children’s right now, and imagined that even routine treatments and appointments were likely becoming much scarier because of precautions taken to fight the spread of COVID-19. 

Bonvino realized that he and his fellow students had extra time on their hands, and that they could make use of Gemini’s sublimation printing and garment production facilities to help make a difference. He made a few phone calls and with permission and a little logistical help from University Professor of Art Ken Steinbach, he and a group of fellow students pivoted with the direction of their spring sculpture class community art project and turned to a medium none of them had worked with until a month ago: clinical masks. 

The students obtained a template for a standard 9-by-6 inch mask and created an entire line of whimsical, colorful designs, getting a little creative when supply chain challenges have come up. 

“The market’s evolving so fast right now, and we can’t predict what’s going to happen,” Bonvino explains, mentioning that many products are “held up in Southeast Asia.” For instance, there’s been a run on elastic as companies have rushed to mass-produce masks for clinical settings, schools, and other places where people come in contact with groups of others. So the students have experimented with using bra straps in place of elastic bands. They’ve been able to bring together practical themes from their art and design classes—considering supply and demand, wholesale pricing and production, product regulations, and creative development—in order to quickly bring a product to life. 

Production of masks at a local athletic wear company

Steinbach explains that a community project for a local church had fallen through early in the semester because of social distancing, so he eagerly agreed to the project idea Bonvino proposed. He’s led the spring Sculpture I class through creative critiques of the designs at three points in the semester, using Zoom to converse via video instead of in a room. And he adds that while the art department teaches practical skills like command of design softwares and digital design concepts, a major focus is on teaching students to bring creativity to problems they see around them.

“This project, for Matt, comes from a deep place of empathy. He saw a need and felt for those kids and said, ‘wait, I’ve got all these people who can design masks!’” says Steinbach. He adds that many Bethel art graduates don’t end up creating art full-time, but weave artistic thinking into whatever role they end up in. For him, Bonvino and his peers are embodying exactly the kind of approach he hopes all design graduates will take. “It’s about learning to be creative wherever students land...and this project is just so timely.”

“I think it’s fair to say that masks in general are going to be a massive, massive market for a while at least. And it’s fun to be able to put a different spin on what, to kids, is a really confusing and uncertain situation. Instead of looking at something industrial, cold, and clinical-looking, we’re hoping this is one way to help people feel comforted and like individuals. The important thing, for me, is that we’re doing what we can do to fight back against this thing. In these trying times, it’s the community—it’s people—who can come together and make a difference.”

— Matt Bonvino ’20
The students are tweaking prototypes of their designs, and have ordered an initial run of 1,300 masks, produced and donated by Gemini Athletic Wear. They’re in conversations about getting the masks to Children’s Hospital, and they’re raising funds to expand the project and get more masks into more clinical and educational settings. To support this project financially, you can make a gift online and note “Mask Project” in the “Additional Comments” field.

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The role of visual images in our culture is enormous—and artists and designers create them. At Bethel, you’ll explore artistic expression in its many forms, and develop your gifts in ways that fuel your creativity and strengthen your passion.

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