Photo by Uwa Iduozee

By Catharina Schürenberg

By now, we’re hopefully well aware that wearing a mask in public is necessary to slow and stop the spread of COVID-19. For a while, many of us hoped that the accessory would be obsolete after a few months spent in lockdown. However, as COVID cases in this country continue to rise at alarming rates, it’s clear that we’ll be wearing masks for some time to come. Not only does wearing a mask help to keep us safe, but it also protects those around us. Masks are a sign of respect. 

Illustrations taped on the windows and doors of storefronts all over New York City tell us that the risk of infection is only reduced (up to 75% reduction) if we all do our part by wearing a face covering and wearing it properly (both nose and mouth must be covered). In the spirit of community safety and pushing towards a further reopening into normality, wearing a mask has become mandatory in many places.

As a New York City resident and filmmaker, I’ve been daunted by the uncertainty of when we’ll see phase four of reopening. My industry will remain closed or under severe restrictions until then. It’s nearly impossible to produce films during a pandemic, as film shoots require groups of people to give up their personal space for as long as the shoot takes. Film sets are busy and everyone is up in each other’s faces. Interactions such as costume fittings, getting food at catering tables, scenes in which actors are in close proximity to one another for hours, and crew members touching the same equipment or props are unavoidable. This makes any sort of social distancing and COVID-appropriate hygiene precautions very difficult. Official guidelines for a safe production period have been released and bear many challenges. They propose measures such as quarantining entire crews and even quarantining departments separately. Just when we will see these first attempts at the future of filmmaking put into action, however, is unknown.

Like so many artists, I’m unable to produce my work as a costume designer and documentary filmmaker due to these strict guidelines and limitations. I’ve struggled over the last four months to find an outlet for my creativity. As a result, I’ve decided to pivot and adapt by putting my skills from a career as a costume designer to use. I began producing masks for friends, family, and essential workers, and have recently launched publicly to expand my reach beyond my own social network.

Originally, the intention was to support my immediate community in the city that was hit the hardest. At the time, there was a severe shortage of PPE for the healthcare workers on the front lines. It felt logical to do what I could to improve this grim situation. 

My cloth masks can help surgical masks remain in the healthcare system and protect some of the residents of the city I dearly love. It feels right to be doing my bit to give back to the incredible community I’ve found here, and to stand with this city and see it through such a difficult moment in history. You could say I design and craft each mask myself as a little love letter to my city. 

I’m operating on a small scale with a domestic sewing machine from my apartment in East Williamsburg. I also traverse the boroughs on my bicycle to deliver to my customers and essential workers where possible. There seems to be a real lack of well-made, re-usable, and visually-pleasing masks. The feedback I’ve received from my community and new customers has been overwhelmingly positive. 

Most masks that are currently out there remind people of hospitals and disease. They feel clinical. My masks are bright and vivid, but are still safe. They’re intentionally ultra-colorful; we’re going to be wearing them for a while, so why not feel fly in them? I want to turn wearing a mask into something positive — a celebration of color and style as well as community awareness and safety.

I’ve been told that people feel safer and more joyful going out wearing my masks, and that seeing their family outfitted in colorful, vibrant masks makes the world look less scary. Knowing that I’m helping my community in this way, making a difference and maybe even saving lives, has helped me cope with my own feelings of anxiety and uncertainty during this time.

As the demand for my masks grew, so did the call for me to adopt a more publicly-accessible business model. Up until recently, I only gained customers through word of mouth and I wasn’t charging anyone. Capitalising on a PPE shortage during a pandemic did not sit well with me. Still, I figured out a structure that would allow me to cover the costs of materials and focus on being the middle woman in helping people be considerate during this time of need. As a result, I decided to combine this project with another cause I feel very strongly about: increasing awareness around issues of female incarceration and the injustices these women face.

Women are the fastest growing prison population in the United States today. Many of these women are single mothers and were the sole breadwinners of their household. Statistically, the most common cause for female incarceration, besides self-defense, is check and credit card fraud. Most women are just trying to feed their families. Oftentimes the general standards of women’s facilities are worse, as the system is designed for men. Despite the rapidly growing numbers of women in the carceral system, there are still much fewer women imprisoned than men, and therefore there are less programming and opportunities for rehabilitation and education offered to them. Especially in the prison system, women’s voices and needs tend to be ignored.

For nearly two years, I’ve been teaching debate classes at the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s facility on Rikers Island. Before the lockdown, I was working on a documentary about female incarceration. Most Saturdays, a group of volunteers and I go and discuss critical ideas with the women at Rosie’s (the nickname for the facility) while teaching them how to debate competitively. I have seen with my own eyes the disproportionate numbers of visitors, mainly wives and girlfriends with kids, piled in the visit buses to the male sections of the jail and the empty buses headed to Rosie’s. Shame and stigma around female incarceration is much higher, as the combination of incarceration and femininity is still seen as contradictory.

Through my teaching and documentary work, I’m closely connected to Rosie’s. In light of the injustices women face in prisons and jails, I’m connecting the safety of the wider community with the safety of incarcerated women by matching every purchased mask with one to be donated directly to the jail. That’s why I call my venture PAY IT FORWARD. By buying a mask from me, you’re also buying a mask for someone who is part of one of the most vulnerable populations in this pandemic. Large dormitories, joined washrooms, and communal meal areas make social distancing near impossible in prisons, so appropriate hygiene and protective equipment are therefore crucial. There has been a severe shortage in masks according to hair-raising reports coming from the jail and prison system. PAY IT FORWARD is working actively against that.

Each mask is made with care and attention to detail to ensure safety for all my customers, may they be inside or out. They are made from 100% cotton, which means you can boil and reuse them when they need to be cleaned. They also have a replaceable filter pocket, elastic loops for the ears, and a wire across the bridge of the nose for optimal fit. As our governor Cuomo pointed out in one of his press briefings, masks do not prevent the spread of COVID-19 when worn as a chin guard. I took special care in the design and wearability of the masks since the more comfortable it is to wear, the more likely people are to wear them and to wear them correctly!

To abide by the Department of Corrections guidelines, the donated masks are not permitted to have a wire across the nose and the color scheme has to be grey, beige, or brown. It would be wonderful to bring a joyful splash of color to the ladies at Rosie’s, especially in a time where being in contact with loved ones is even harder and things feel more dark. However, getting reusable quality masks to these women is what really matters.

To promote the initiative and get as many masks into the jail as possible, PAY IT FORWARD needed a public face. I organized a socially-distant photo shoot to launch the campaign and called upon some brave friends. Despite the challenges of maintaining a safe distance, it felt great to emerge from quarantine and to be collaborating with my creative community again. The amazing Brooklyn-based Finnish/Nigerian cinematographer Uwa Iduozee came on as the photographer. My models were the Australian musician Kate K-S and her partner, the American keys player Brett Williams, as well as my long-time collaborator, the Canadian artist and urbanist Caroline Macfarlane. The shoot was put together with the upmost care in a pre-phase one New York City to not only celebrate the spirit of keeping each other safe, but also as a diverse collaboration that isn’t shying away from embracing new parameters in order to do good. The shoot’s aesthetic and diversity mirrored New York City’s defiant and uniquely vibrant multicultural community — a demographic that is truly NY-tough.


PAY IT FORWARD is still small, but besides being widespread in New York, it has shipped to many national and international cities such as Los Angeles, Toronto, Munich, Paris, London, Melbourne, and Lisbon. In line with its commitment to community spirit, the Williamsburg restaurant Suzume has teamed up with us and is selling the masks alongside some delicious Japanese/Hawaiian cuisine out of their take-away window. 

The colorful celebration of masks as a sign of safety and respect has started to span the globe, and together we have donated dozens of masks to the ladies at Rosie’s. To become part of this initiative and support PAY IT FORWARD (and by doing so, support the ladies at Rosie’s), check out @payitforward_bk on instagram.

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