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In this still image from visual artist Robert Bingaman's short film "Meditation 17," narrator Yuka Naito-Billen wears a face mask. Image courtesy of Robert Bingaman

Echoing a centuries-old poem, this artist reminds us we’re not alone

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In John Donne’s famous 400-year-old devotional on how people are interconnected, the English poet wrote that no man is an island, but rather “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” It’s a sentiment that resonates in these days of pandemic-forced lockdown when the point of isolation is to keep others from falling ill.

Robert Bingaman, a Kansas City painter, memorized the text 20 years ago as a senior in high school. He said certain lines, such as “any man’s death diminishes me,” shaped his worldview and politics when he was younger.

“My feeling is we’re in it together whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not,” Bingaman said. “We are all just human beings.”

Faced with the ways his community had been affected by the coronavirus, Bingaman was inspired to make a short film that weaves in parts of Donne’s 17th-century poem.

He and videographer Andrew Thomas, adhering to the 6-foot social distancing rule, shot video of the vacant streets of Kansas City. The people who do appear in the video, and stare into the camera, are workers of some businesses working through the pandemic, like baristas in empty cafes.

Thomas said the project was a chance for him to release any pent-up emotion.

“It just felt right to go out, safely, and create something about the time we all found ourselves in,” Thomas said. “The idea was basically to show a city that had come to a crawl.”

Bingaman’s father, a surgeon, was also a main source of inspiration for this project. In one scene, a woman looks at the camera, her face covered by a lilac surgical mask, the one his father sent him. That scene is an “Easter egg,” Bingaman said, an homage to the man who raised him.

In his time of solitude, Bingaman saw this video project as a way to unite others.

“I hoped this would be a time of solidarity, common purpose, and love for one’s fellow man,” he wrote in a Facebook post introducing the film.

A barista at coffee shop Monarch takes a break from prepping curbside orders. She is one of the service industry workers represented “Meditation 17.” Image courtesy of Robert Bingaman

His hope became a reality. As a self-described shy director, Bingaman said he suddenly felt energized to collaborate with a few creative people he admired, like a designer and a colorist who volunteered their time.

Sam Billen of Primary Color Music was another one. He and Bingaman had never collaborated before, but after a few email exchanges, Billen agreed to work on the project, writing the contemplative music that sets the tone for the short film. Yuka Naito-Billen, who is married to Sam, narrated the piece.

“There’s something especially enriching to collaborating on purely art-focused projects, especially in a time like this,” Billen said, adding that “Art is necessary. Reminders of simplicity and beauty in everyday life is necessary.”

Bingaman wanted to underscore the universal feeling of the pandemic. His idea was to not only center on the pandemic’s impact on the Kansas City area and its people, but also on the global community. Scenes of life on pause and the faces of people who must still report to work every day are now a shared visual language around the world.

Before Kansas City, Missouri, began to reopen in stages on May 15, Bingaman said in an email that the video was meant to capture the moment, but also contained a message that is timeless — just like Donne’s work.

“Whether or not the hunger, poverty, or death of someone you don’t know is relevant to you in a meaningful way,” he said, is likely to continue to be a “fraught and troublesome” question for centuries to come.

This report originally appeared on KCPT’s “Flatland.”

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