Student artists during COVID-19: Mikki Barnett talks pandemic art

One year after final Fine Arts show cancelled, Barnett works practicum placement at Union Gallery

Barnett is a graduate of the Fine Arts program.
Supplied by Mikki Barnett
Death smells like roses.
At least, that’s the case for Mikki Barnett, Con-Ed ’21, whose tenfoot sculpture Perspective—a cave built from mirrors, chicken wire, rose-dyed polyester and twinkling lights—has been left to gather dust in Ontario Hall for over a year.
Last March, Queen’s Fine Arts majors were hard at work preparing their final shows when COVID-19 forced them to evacuate the studio.
“They shut down the studio. Everyone had to leave, and that meant stopping working on a lot of the pieces—or all of the pieces for me because I work really large-scale usually,” Barnett told The Journal.
“Right now, the fourth-years do have access to the studio again to continue working but I do know that they’ve been working from home, and they’ve done some incredible stuff from home from what I’ve seen, so I’m super impressed by them.”
While Barnett’s Fine Arts degree may have ended with a whimper, she’s currently rounding off her Bachelor of Education with a practicum placement at Union Gallery where she works to make art shows more accessible. One way she does that is by making what are called sensory boxes.
“A sensory box is a tool that will help give insight into an art piece in a tactile way using materials that relate to the piece that’s being shown,” said Barnett. For example, one of the shows on display at Union Gallery right now is "Second Sight" by Annie Briard. It’s a compilation of distorted videos of a scene: driving through Joshua Tree.
Since it’s impossible to experience a video in a tactile way, Barnett provides sensory boxes containing “kinetic sand and imitation leaves” for viewers to play with.
“The boxes and kinesthetic experiences can be really useful for a whole bunch of visitors, such as children, for helping them engage with a piece further,” Barnett said.
“It’s also beneficial for individuals who may be blind or have low vision so that there’s an alternative way to experience the art.”
Barnett’s fascination with tactility in art began in her third year when she fell in lovewith sculpting.
“In first and second year, we spent first semester doing a lot of two-dimensional works and I never really excelled at that, but I really loved sculpture class. I think I was attracted to all the different mediums and techniques you could use [compared] to printing and painting.”
“Sculpting, for me, is really a process of trial and error. There’s obviously a lot of research involved when you choose your materials in terms of looking for what will give you your desired effect. We had classes to learn techniques for certain materials like wood, stone, wax, and welding.”
Her tragically unfinished sculpture series last year was centred around death.
“During my time at school, I’ve lost a lot of people in my life, but because I’ve had so much experience with death, I’ve been able to acknowledge it as both a positive and a negative thing,” she said.
Barnett’s pieces are meant to be a rich, sensory experience. Perspective would have invited viewers to stand inside the cave and witness the bizarre and beautiful light show, a representation of passing into the next life, while the aroma of rose petals would call to mind bouquets at a funeral.
“Making the pieces for my final exhibition was really cathartic and helped me understand my own emotions towards loss but also helped me see a more positive side to death and to life itself by making pieces that wouldn’t necessarily immediately guide one’s attention to the sorrow and hard parts of death.”

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