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For Justin Anthony Guertin, COVID-19 pushed his artwork into an unexpectedly “weird and exciting direction” as he finished out his last year at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. 

“I was trying to get fruit from devastation, unfortunately,” he said. “The transition was still hard and there were plenty of frustrations. But it was a silver lining to see that I could adapt to those changes with the support of a pretty fantastic community.”  

Guertin’s artwork had always sought to answer important questions surrounding the use of technology and digital communication by asking “What is social media?” and “What is web chatting?” But for the artist, the pandemic sprouted a new form of art in the creation of digital symbols—such as “likes” or emojis—reinterpreted into physical objects. Guertin uses this art to “subvert what you’re expecting,” he said, “and make personal connections in a more meaningful way, especially as we’re all emerging from this cocoon that was the pandemic.” 

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Photo of Justin Guertin workning at desk
Justin Guertin, MFA21, poses for a portrait on April 18, 2021. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

For instance, he creates hand-crafted heart coins that Guertin calls “like tokens.” Instead of liking posts with the traditional heart symbol through online platforms like Instagram or Twitter, Guertin makes physical tokens, or coins, molded out of bronze or plastic that are painted gold. The tokens are then mailed in customized boxes along with handwritten notes that he calls “direct messages” to people he knows and follows online. 

Anyone who wants to receive objects via Guertin’s Parcels of Appreciation, which is a part of his thesis projects, only needs to supply their address. He decides, as the viewer, who to send a “like” to; for example, he recently sent a package to someone because he liked a picture she posted of her dog’s birthday party. 

Initially upon entering art school, Guertin said it took a little while to “embrace the weird” and to accept the sense of feeling uncomfortable when ideas would emerge. However, he eventually realized that he was “challenging his own notions of what is normal and safe” and that he could “talk about serious things in a more playful way” through art. 

One turning point occurred during a 2020 performance class; he created a clown persona that fumbles with technology. This made Guertin start to formulate how he wanted people to interact with his work.  

“Once I made the switch to having interactive pieces where people are asked to use these objects in an engaging way, I was able to add more tongue-in-cheek kind of humor that made them engaging in a different way,” he said. 

In another project, a self-portrait painting, people can stack onto it physical selfie filters made of acetate. The painting is “flipping the idea of people dressing themselves up. It’s asking them to dress me up,” he explained. The intent is to help people ponder the use of facial recognition technology more deeply. 

Looking ahead, Guertin said he would like to focus on becoming a teacher or professor, preferably in higher education. “I really like teaching people how to make things,” he said, citing skills-based, hands-on courses, such as the book-making class where he was once a teaching assistant. 

But he said he’ll always take with him this meaningful time at Tufts, particularly because of the connections he’s made with peers and colleagues. 

“The community is what will move forward with me,” said Guertin. “It’s the friendships and peer supports.”