Smile Politely’s own Debra Domal takes up the challenges of our time and shakes them up to reveal the truth and the beauty of this moment in history. Her sleek volume of prose and illustrations tells the story of the coronavirus with whimsy, pathos, and an exacting sense of purpose. With the generous support of the Urbana Arts Council, Domal’s Confession by Numbers is more than a book; it is an interactive experience, inviting readers and viewers of all ages to participate in “fighting the COVID number numbness” by sharing stories. This unique project invites us to contemplate the stories we’ll leave behind from these tumultuous years.
The virus that’s upended all of our lives has also inspired artists like Domal to think creatively about the healing power of art. Growing up with, and marrying into, a family of “numbers people,” Domal found herself “anthropomorphizing the numbers. What did they think and feel? This led me to think about how so many of our social and emotional struggles revolve around numbers like test scores, age, weight, credit score, zip code, and salary.” As the COVID-19 numbers began crawling across our screens night and day, Domal began focusing on the “number numbness” infecting our culture.
The book itself, which serves as an invitation to the Number Story Project Website, is a simple yet complex series of statements all illustrated with numbers in a variety of fonts, formats, shapes, and symbols. Inspired by Philip Cowell and Caz Hildebrand’s This is Me, Period, Domal “wanted to play with the idea that people talk about numbers as being black and white facts.” Like Cowell and Hildebrand’s 2017 work, Domal has created a slim rectangle in black and white oozing with an empathic text which seeks to remind us of our shared humanity amidst the myriad numbers we inhabit.
One of my favorite sets of observations in the book poignantly illustrates the numbers of cases and hospital beds and jobs lost. Domal writes, “The numbers grew tired…and very, very sad. They feared that they had become …nothing but noise.” We are reminded that each of those numbers “belongs to someone.” The text here is stark and the illustrations thought-provoking. As hard as the subject is, however, the combination of illustrations and text conjures an overwhelming sense of hope and promise as the power of story will ultimately renew our hearts and minds.
As the pandemic took hold and people started reading her book, Domal “began to imagine a community book project that contained submissions from a diverse range of people who shared their COVID number stories in text or in images that used numerical type as the basis of an image, as I did throughout the book.” The sounds of words and how the book performed would be an important part of the project as a whole. Domal notes, “I didn’t know how important it would become until the book was accepted into the Pandemic as Portal exhibit at Krannert Art Museum. The curators suggested that I record a reading of it. But since I didn’t want to separate the words and images, I did an animated slide show with a voice over.” Her beautiful presentation is available on YouTube.
The Number Story Project, funded by the Urbana Arts and Culture Program, features a live website inviting community members to participate by sharing stories of loss, love, and survival. Domal hopes others will share their own narratives in as creative a way as possible. She observes, “I thought from a narrative standpoint: numbers wanted to confess their own struggles. I even worked out their reactions to cliches about numbers: like the number zero meaning nothing, the number one being alone, that numbers stood alone but also worked together.” Working together is the priority of the project as a whole and Domal masterfully utilizes her talent for multimedia in the book, website, and her poignant presentation.
On or after February 5th, head on over to Lincoln Square Mall’s Art Coop and experience Domal’s installation in the window to spark your creativity. Free kits to create your own COVID number story for the Number Story Project will be available on that day as well. Contribute your stories to The Number Story Project by March 19th at midnight. Also, stay tuned to Facebook and Instagram for updates on @thenumberstoryproject. Debra Domal’s Confessions by Numbers is available for $10 at both the Art Coop and on Amazon, where you can follow her work as well.
The ebook will be a collection of the stories posted from now through March 19th and will be available at both the Champaign Public and Urbana Free libraries for free in April. She hopes to do some art and writing workshops on Zoom soon since Omicron is keeping us from events at our beloved local public libraries.
While this virus continues to sap our energy and impact the lives of too many families, Domal’s work reminds us that humans can marshal creativity in the face of adversity. And that there is, indeed, strength in our numbers.