In order to see Dave Eassa’s new show, I Wanna Hug You, I drove to a quiet, tree-lined residential neighborhood and let myself in through someone’s back gate. Bags of soil were stacked next to the garden beds—evidence of a family’s weekend activities rather than an art gallery—and I walked past a firepit, a hammock, and an A-frame treehouse before I reached The Shed.
The Shed is a new exhibition space run by artist Bonnie Crawford, located in her backyard. (It’s also a literal shed, built by a previous owner of the home.) The untraditional setting allows for an intimacy we’re all lacking these days. When Crawford emailed me directions, she told me to help myself to jalapeños and sugar snap peas growing in the garden, playing host in spite of the fact that I couldn’t see her on my visit.
That need for connection echoes throughout I Wanna Hug You. The show consists of a large sculpture by Eassa—three gestural figures, painted in dandelion yellow, raspberry red, and cerulean blue, hug each other with blissed-out smiles on their faces—along with an interactive element. Visitors are asked three questions: What do you miss the most? What are you leaving behind? What are you taking with you?
Eassa has been asking those questions himself. As an extrovert whose life is centered on people—he works at the Baltimore Museum of Art as Manager of Community Engagement, and he’s an active member in the city’s skateboarding scene—the shutdown triggered an intense period of self-reflection. In addition to dealing with the shock of the pandemic, Eassa faced limited mobility while recovering from knee surgery, and he grieved the loss of two friends. His best friend Ron, who Eassa grew up with and describes as one of his brothers, was killed by gun violence last March. Around the same time this year, his friend Andrea also died.
Eassa doesn’t think he’s alone in that process of self-reflection and reckoning, and he wants his show to provide a space for people to make sense of their emotions. A desk in the corner offers paper and crayons and pencils for people to doodle, and visitors’ answers line the plywood walls of The Shed: “I miss sanity and freedom.” “I am going to leave behind judging others.” “I am bringing with me a renewed sense of energy in how I show up for myself.” (Writing utensils are separated into clean and dirty bins, and visitors are provided with hand sanitizer and disinfectant to sanitize surfaces.)
“I’m a huge geek for art and what it can do for people, and I feel like seeing those messages has been a testament to the power that art still has, even in the pandemic,” Crawford says. “Dave’s piece, I think, really strikes a chord with people right now and where we are emotionally and psychically. It’s a very joyful looking and feeling piece and I think it feels safe to explore some of the more difficult feelings that we have about the pandemic… in the context of the colorful smiling sculpture.”