In a time of quarantine, it is hard to find uplifting content on the internet while mass feelings of uncertainty flood social media and news headlines become increasingly bleak. However, two Medill alumni have taken the negative feelings of quarantine to create something truly beautiful – The Nearness Project, an online community self-described as “something akin to group therapy.” Nearness is a platform for contributors to share their art, writing and mutual feelings of uncertainty during the unprecedented time of COVID-19.
Like everyone else, Anna White and Alia Wilhelm have been experiencing their own personal feelings of displacement and uncertainty during quarantine. White, who is usually based in Chicago, was forced to extend her weekend visit home to Seattle indefinitely due to the shelter-in-place restrictions. Wilhelm, who is usually based in London, jokingly notes that she is wearing a sweater that doesn’t belong to her. She is temporarily residing in the English countryside after the film she was working on had to cease production. Obviously, Wilhelm and White are not the only two experiencing such displacement as the coronavirus continues to disrupt daily lives around the world. In an attempt to cultivate a space of togetherness in a time of mass quarantine, the two decided to create an online community to document emotional responses to COVID-19.
Despite knowing each other for several years, Wilhelm and White ironically have never met in person. Their connection began with an online magazine community that inspired their creation for Nearness. Both were regular contributors for Rookie Magazine, an online teen magazine founded in 2011 with a focus on the inner struggles and triumphs of normal teenagers. When states began to issue stay-at-home orders and COVID-19 seemed to be the only thing anyone could think or talk about, White felt herself missing the online community Rookie provided. After seeing the response to an Instagram post by Rookie’s founder, Tavi Gevinson, White realized she was not alone. She reached out to Wilhelm and the concept for Nearness was born, with their first piece published on April 3.
“In a time where you can really feel like you’re alone in your emotions, when we’re all spinning out in different ways ... Having the platform and the license and the space for people to express that and share that creates a sense of community,” White said.
The site includes essays, graphics, comics, collages and photography, but every piece responds to the coronavirus in some way. Some are very personal, such as this photo set that recounts moments missed during quarantine, while others include new phenomenons, such as a New Yorker exploring her newfound connections to New York’s wildlife. In a time when the internet seems to be overcome with bad headlines and hopeless tweets, The Nearness Project does not ignore the virus in its entirety, but explores it in a realistic, yet beautiful way.
“If I need a reason to smile, I can just go on the homepage, and [the artwork] all feels different from each other but also kind of cohesive in a way and definitely in a way that reminds me of Rookie,” Wilhelm said, recounting her love for the site’s artwork.
Nearness has since gained significant traction, already amassing over 3,000 Instagram followers and a response so large that the two editors gush over their overfilling inboxes.
“I wake up every morning, and there are submissions from people I’ve never met and countries I’ve never been to,” Wilhelm said.
“It’s kind of crazy to me,” White echoed.
The site even received recognition from Tavi Gevinson herself, who produced one of the first pieces and gave their site a shoutout on her Instagram.
“As someone we admire and respect so much and [who] created something that brought us together, [having her]submit something to us was so special,” White said.
The Nearness Project continues to grow each day and Wilhelm and White plan to cap it off when social isolation ends with a print issue. However, both have entertained the idea of continuing The Nearness Project to some extent after the period of self-isolation comes to an end.
“Since all of the content is geared to this specific moment in time, it’s hard to say [where it will lead] but I’ve really liked doing this and for it to end seems bittersweet,” Wilhelm said.
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