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Local artists work to remind audiences about “What Matters Most”

In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, and life for all of us has been very different ever since. To acknowledge the full year that has passed since the pandemic’s beginning, Commerce commissioned artists in the communities it serves to create works that reflect on where we’ve been since the start of the pandemic, as well as where we’re headed.

Working with artists is a natural fit for Commerce Bank. Since its founding, the bank has had a long tradition of supporting the arts. It has a collection of modern and contemporary works displayed in its buildings; the bank and Commerce Bancshares Foundation financially support visual, performing and cultural arts in our communities; and it underwrites support for the Box Gallery, a community exhibition space in Kansas City.

“We support the arts and cultural programs because they bring people together and strengthen communities. It is a natural extension of how Commerce views itself as part of the community,”

says Robin Trafton, an art curator at Commerce. “A vibrant arts sector is a powerful force. The arts drive economic impact, celebrate diversity, foster creativity and contribute to quality of life.

For this program, Commerce asked eight artists in eight communities to think about what matters most to them, and how those important elements in their lives have kept them going through the difficulties of the pandemic. In the hope that these artistic creations will in turn provide inspiration and positivity to the bank’s communities, the pieces are displayed in an online exhibition titled “What Matters Most: A Commerce Bank Community Art Project.”

“This past year has been challenging for everyone, and devastating for some,” says Trafton. “Many of us had to shift our way of living and thinking, often while separated from family and friends as well as the activities that make life meaningful. As those of us at Commerce begin to plan for the future, it seemed important to reflect on what’s happened.”

One of the participating artists, Kansas City-based Vanessa Argueta, appreciated the way the program encouraged her to contemplate everything that’s happened in her life over the past year. “I really hadn’t taken the time to reflect on it all,” she says. “Everything has been so busy with getting back to work and trying to live life more normally. It was nice to take a breath and sort through my thoughts.”

Paris Cunningham, another contributing artist and resident of Wichita, found the program’s focus on “what matters most” to be intriguing. “I enjoyed the challenge of it,” she says. “I liked taking our collective experience with COVID and turning it into something simpler. I wanted to make something as simple and relatable as possible, so that when people see it, they can apply it to their own experiences.”

Cunningham’s piece features an image of her bumping elbows with her mother. “I recreated a moment we shared while hunting for toilet paper at a local grocery store,” she says. It’s a moment of levity, but also a reminder of the impact of the pandemic. “Before COVID, we took for granted how important physical touch is. That interaction is so meaningful, and it’s really influencing my thinking these days.”

Argueta, whose piece is a combination of handmade quilt textiles and digital art, also created a piece that was influenced by her inability to spend time with loved ones in person. “I normally take a lot of inspiration from being around other people,” she says. “Being isolated and at home all the time made things difficult. I spent a lot of time listening to music — specifically, the Spanish and salsa music my grandma and mom played for me growing up. That helped inspire my work.”

The isolation of the pandemic had a somewhat different impact on artist Kris Kanaly. He spent his extra time at home in Oklahoma City focusing on gardening. “I’ve always been into plants, but I really got into it during lockdown,” he explains. “It helped with my mental health at a time when I was stressed about the lack of money coming in.” Kanaly is a muralist and is often invited to paint murals live at events, but in 2020, most such events were cancelled.

“Before the pandemic, I took not just my physical health, but also my mental health for granted,” he says. “I was able to find joy in seeing my plants thrive. For this project, I wanted to paint something that was emblematic of good health.”

Kanaly’s piece in the “What Matters Most” exhibit reflects his fondness for things that grow and is filled with images of bright, colorful plants. Though it looks like it was painted by hand with oils, it’s an entirely digital creation. “Digital art is something I’ve been exploring lately, especially since we can’t display physical art in galleries right now. It’s an exciting medium.”

Janessa Williams of St. Louis is also creating her contribution to “What Matters Most” digitally. “I created this piece on my iPad,” she says. “It focuses on a theme of communication and how it can help love and relationships grow. It includes elements that relate to the pandemic, but it also shows how we’re going to grow as we all get through this time.”

Williams says that communication with family members helped her overcome the isolation of COVID-related lockdowns. “I spent a lot of time calling family members on the phone just to check in with them,” she notes. “That’s something I never did before the pandemic.”

The past year has been a difficult one for Williams, whose mother-in-law passed away in February. “It wasn’t due to COVID, but it made this time very stressful,” she says. “We had to mourn a family member on top of losing jobs and not being able to send my baby to school.” She also has a grandfather in New York who contracted COVID twice. “We couldn’t go visit him,” she says. “It was tough.”

The pandemic has had a silver lining for her, however.

“It gave me time to reflect on things, and I realized I wasn’t living for me or walking in my truth,”

she says. As a result, she quit her job at a nursing home to focus on being an artist full-time. “I reconnected with my talents, built a studio, pushed hard and put my name out there. I realized the importance of being who you really are.”

She was excited to be asked to contribute to the “What Matters Most” exhibit. “I thought this was a great opportunity for artists to express their stories,” she says. “After all, we’re the ones who’ve been creating happiness for other people or helping to explain what’s going on through imagery.”

Kanaly echoes Williams’ sentiments, noting that he’s also proud to be part of the project. “I think it’s great that Commerce is exhibiting artwork and extending artists’ ability to have their work seen,” he says. “It’s a way to give back, not just to the artists, but to the community. Providing this platform is a really cool thing.”

To view the “What Matters Most” online art exhibit, visit 

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