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Intricate Chess Set Made of Gum Wrapper Figurines Shows Warring Sides of COVID-19 in America

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When Lyndon Barrois Sr. first conceived the idea for an artwork that would be included in a group exhibition at the Band of Vices gallery in Los Angeles, all he knew was that he wanted to create a chessboard set. It would, of course, incorporate the artist’s unique style of art: lifelike, miniature figurines he sculpts from gum wrappers. 

However, it wasn't until COVID-19 created a ripple effect throughout the world that it became clear to Barrois, 56, that his project would center around the pandemic. Specifically, it would serve as a portrait of America's handling of the virus as a nation divided in this moment in history.

Barrois’ chessboard is a battle between frontline workers and first responders against the politics of the pandemic. One side of the checkered board is colored to represent the blue states, and the other, red states. He said the idea is reflective of “the way this country and administration has … set up an us-against-them mentality. The fact that it's being done in the wake of a medical pandemic, [when] we all should be coming together to deal with this … glorifies our health .… So there was no way to ignore that.”

The chessboard, which can be viewed by appointment at Band of Vices through August 7, is part of the gallery’s “MASTERPIECE” show. Band of Vices senior curator and partner, Melvin A. Marshall, invited 18 contemporary artists to produce a piece of art that would pay homage to other artists they’ve admired. The artists participating in the exhibition, many of whom are persons of color, ended up producing artwork in various mediums honoring the masters of art, from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Jack Whitten and Leonardo da Vinci. 

Barrios' chess board comes together. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrios' chess board comes together. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.

“Regarding Lyndon, he blew me away,” Marshall said of Barrois’ COVID-19 chess set, which he described as being “completely original.”

When Barrois came to the realization that America was in the midst of a civil war regarding the pandemic, he turned to artists Mort Künstler and Mark Bradford for inspiration. They had previously created works of art about the American Civil War.

Barrois constructed his 15-inch by 15-inch chessboard to be playable, in which people could pick a side and “challenge their morality,” he said. “It's a battle, and I hope the [side with the] heroic first responders and essential workers … is going to win on the board and literally in real life.”

Click through below to see Barrios' figurines of frontline workers. 

Barrois’ models of doctors and nurses from the side of the frontline workers.  | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ models of doctors and nurses from the side of the frontline workers. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a farmer from the side of the frontline workers.  | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a farmer from the side of the frontline workers. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a janitor from the side of the frontline workers.  | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a janitor from the side of the frontline workers. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a firefighter from the side of the frontline workers.  | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a firefighter from the side of the frontline workers. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a protester from the side of the frontline workers.  | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a protester from the side of the frontline workers. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a postal employee from the side of the frontline workers.  | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a postal employee from the side of the frontline workers. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a chef  from the side of the frontline workers.  | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of a chef from the side of the frontline workers. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
The side of the frontline workers in Barrios' chess set. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
The side of the frontline workers in Barrios' chess set. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.

While Künstler and Bradford’s pieces are much larger than Barrois’ project, the artist said he chose a chess set, because “even on its small scale and the small scale of my work, the message is just as massive” in a game that is universally played.

Barrois’ chessboard has 32 incredibly detailed figurines, each representing standard game pieces. Each miniature is roughly an inch tall, made from gum wrappers that Barrois twisted into shape and then painted. They’re individually encased in test tubes, a nod to the pandemic. While Barrois, who is also a feature film animator and animation director, normally animates his sculptures in video, he didn’t do so for this one, so he posed each one as if it were suspended in action.

"The piece was difficult to make itself because it's so intricate, and it's so detailed and [there are] so many stories that I'm telling in each piece," Barrois said.

Each of the gum wrapper figures laid out. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Each of the gum wrapper figures laid out. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.

On the red side, a pants-less President Donald Trump is king, standing on a pile of body bags —a reference to the human cost of COVID-19 — with Mike Pence as his queen. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks in front of a podium stuffed with more body bags, while a Supreme Court Justice tears the Constitution in half. Other figurines include members of the Trump administration's White House Coronavirus Task Force: a defeated Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, who is captured looking dejected after Trump asked her in April if injecting disinfectant could combat COVID-19. There’s also a satirical figure of a FOX News host, gun-toting and Confederate-flag waving individuals, and governors holding up “We are Open” signs.

"It's one part satire and nine parts truth because it's what's [actually] happening," Barrois said.

Click through below to see Barrios' figurines representing pandemic politics.

The side of pandemic politics. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
The side of pandemic politics. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
A game piece on the side of the politics of the pandemic. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
A game piece on the side of the politics of the pandemic. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Model of a a Supreme Court Justice tearing the Constitution in half on the side of the politics of the pandemic. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Model of a a Supreme Court Justice tearing the Constitution in half on the side of the politics of the pandemic. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
A figure of White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaking at a podium stuffed with body bags on the side of the politics of the pandemic. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
A figure of White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaking at a podium stuffed with body bags on the side of the politics of the pandemic. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.

Many on the blue side are sculptures of essential workers and first responders wearing masks, gloves and face shields — something the red side is not depicted as doing at all. There are figurines of a chef cooking on a stove, a U.S. National Guard handing out rolls of toilet paper and a bag of groceries, an exhausted farmer taking a break by his crates of produce, a female journalist asking questions on the White House’s front lawn and young protesters holding Black Lives Matter signs. 

“When you think of the term ‘I can't breathe,’ it not only connects to what literally happened to George Floyd and Eric Garner and so many other people who have been captured on video saying those words as they're being killed by police, but it is the virus that is also really taking our breath away, so it has that dual connotation,” Barrois said.

What’s most striking in the piece is Barrois’ attention to detail. Each body was sculpted from a single gum wrapper. He carefully twisted the paper to be anatomically correct, while being detailed about gender, body shapes and hairstyles. Barrois used additional wrappers for clothing and props. He then painted them with fine ink brushes and pen markers, as well as watercolor and acrylic paints. It’s a process that takes him one to three days to complete each sculpture. Additional props like a gurney were made with phone wire, a chair through 3D printing and a podium outfitted from thin cigar cedar.

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Barrois has been working on his wrapper art since he was 10 years old. As a child, he loved sculpting with whatever he could get his hands on, from modeling clay to aluminum foil and even gum stuck on church pews.

Wrappers were always around at home because Barrois’ mother was constantly chewing (and swallowing) Wrigley’s gum, to the point where a doctor told her she had to stop. A light bulb went off in Barrois’ head when he realized that if he sculpted with the non-foil side of the wrapper on the outside, he could paint it. He then started making drivers to put in his Hot Rod toy cars.

Barrois’ model of Donald Trump sans pants prior to painting. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrois’ model of Donald Trump sans pants prior to painting. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.

In 1990, Barrois garnered attention from the likes of NBC’s “The Today Show” when he created a diorama of great moments in Super Bowl history. It was timed to Super Bowl XXIV that took place in his hometown of New Orleans. Those figurines are now on display at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in Hollywood.

Barrois later learned the fundamentals of proportionally shaping his sculptures at Xavier University of Louisiana, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts. When he wanted to learn how to animate his figurines, he enrolled in California Institute of the Arts’ experimental animation graduate program. 

Barrios' finished chess set. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.
Barrios' finished chess set. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.

Since then, Barrois, who is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said he got sidetracked in the most “awesome” way by working in animation on 20 feature films, from “The Matrix” sequels, to “Tree of Life” and “Happy Feet.”

However, three years ago, Barrois decided to work full-time on his “It’s a Wrapper” films, and since then has been commissioned and invited to exhibit his artwork in museums across the country, from L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, to Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. 

“My dream was always to come out here [to L.A.] and do ‘It’s a Wrapper’ films and just do my miniatures full-time, commercial, anything,” Barrois said. “It’s everything I’ve wanted to do.”

Top Image: The side of the frontline workers in Barrios' chess set. | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrois Sr.

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