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Youth-decorated pandemic time capsules sealed in downtown ceremony

The bins will be scattered throughout the city at different cultural institutions and won’t be opened until 2026.

The “Once Upon Our Time Capsule,” a public art project, celebrates children and teens for overcoming the adversity they endured amid the coronavirus pandemic.  Uniquely embellished time capsules — filled with pandemic mementos and letters from youth children describing what life was like during quarantine  — will be stored around the city until 2026.
The “Once Upon Our Time Capsule,” a public art project, celebrates children and teens for overcoming the adversity they endured amid the coronavirus pandemic. Uniquely embellished time capsules — filled with pandemic mementos and letters from children describing what life was like during quarantine — will be stored around the city until 2026.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

After months of reflection and decorating, about 2,000 pandemic time capsules — designed and filled by city youths — were ceremoniously sealed Wednesday evening in large bins that won’t be revealed for another five years.

About two dozen children and some adults paraded around the ninth floor of the Harold Washington Library to the beat of a drum, and one by one, they dropped uniquely embellished time capsules — filled with pandemic mementos and letters from children describing what life was like during quarantine — into larger bins, which were later slammed shut with a giant cardboard hammer.

About 40 youth organizations came together to sponsor “Once Upon Our Time Capsule,” a public art project celebrates children and teens for overcoming the adversity they endured amid the pandemic as they look forward to the future.

“It’s really cool, it’s really nice here,” 16-year-old Fannie Yu said. “I’ve never really had my artwork made into a product before so it’s a different experience.”

Yu, a high school junior and After School Matters participant, decorated the outside of a capsule with anime characters that express different emotions she experienced throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, Max Howard, 10, drew fast cars and tall buildings on his — both things he sees happening in the future.

Others used feathers, jewels and ribbons that read, “The Sky is the limit.” Some included notes detailing their experiences throughout the pandemic.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Jacqueline Russell, co-founder and artistic director of the Chicago Children’s Theatre, compared the coronavirus to being “some kind of villain in a superhero story.” But the “Once Upon Our Time Capsule” project helped empower city children and teens to feel like they were the heroes of their own stories.

“A lot of people have been talking about children, but no one was talking about asking children what their stories are,” Russell said. “We brought in three teaching artists who developed a really beautiful curriculum that combined theater and storytelling and visual art to help kids process and reflect and, in the end, kind of recognize their own resiliency.”

Max was one of the roughly 5,000 people who participated in the project. He said he struggled when both school and his violin classes through People’s Music School, an organization that provides free music lessons to students through the city, were moved online.

“It was challenging for me because I didn’t get to talk to my friends as much and it was hard for me to stay focused in class because I was in my house,” the fourth grader said.

Still, Max was proud to show off his pandemic project in front of the crowd — his rendition of the song “Perpetual Motion” — which received a loud applause.

“It made me happy” to be a part of the program, Max said, “because I felt like I can tell people how it was to be COVID and how it was to be.”

The bins will be scattered throughout the city at different cultural institutions and won’t be opened until 2026.

“There’s so much negativity about Chicago in the media and nationally and this is an example of how great our city is,” Russell said. Around 40 “organizations came together... to make this happen. And I just don’t believe that this would happen in every city in this country. We’re pulling together to really do something for our children.”