It's a regular, old, chain link fence circling a parking lot in a residential community in Maryland.
Except that attached to the fence are seven wooden boxes. They look like elaborate dioramas.
It's all part of an art exhibit called Community Lost and Found — and it asks residents to consider the question: What have you lost, and what have you found in 2020?
One box is decorated with a bird's nest and a pacifier suspended in a translucent globe — representing the baby girl that Megan Abbot and Gary Hall had in May.
Another box, designed by Renee Regan, is filled with pens in the shape of a pie, with a slice missing. A placard next to the box says, "We have said goodbye to an entire segment of our society recently. I wanted a way to grieve, honor, and memorialize them through sculpture."
Andrea Jones is the curator of this outdoor museum, located in the town of Brentwood, just outside of Washington, D.C. She also lives next door to the fence and constructed the wooden boxes. Her day job is as a museum consultant, but a few months ago she decided she wanted to do something that would help her process this year.
The idea, she said, was a riff on "the idea of the lost and found box that you might find at a school or grocery store."
"In my work, I do a lot of talking to museums about the potential to help people to process emotions," she says. "We have lost and found so much during this year, and it really has affected our identities."
The work is therapeutic, she says.
"The act of actually writing down what you think you have lost and found is — it's just a way of processing and sort of starting that ball rolling because there's so much going on in our heads right now," says Jones.
After she built the boxes, Jones asked her neighbors — some of whom are artists and some of whom aren't — to decorate them.
Cecily Habimana is the co-owner of Sew Creative Lounge, which operates out of the building behind the fence. She says when the pandemic started, they had to close their doors.
"Even to this day, we only have about 20% of our students back into our studio. And so what we lost was connection. Connection between our students, connection between the work that we did together."
So Habimana decorated a box with colorful swatches of fabric and strands of pearls.
"Not real pearl, but pearl beads that are suspended throughout the space. And it basically shows that, you know, each person continues to do work, continues to sew at home and by themselves. But none of them are touching. None of them are interacting with each other. And that that connection has been lost."
Alicia Tarr is a council member for the town of Brentwood, Md. She covered a solar-powered box with an antique gold picture frame. It has a little keyhole that you have to press your face up against to see inside.
"I really wanted to make it more interactive. So when you actually walk up to this box, there's a proximity sensor."
Inside, there's a tiny mural Tarr dedicated to the people who have died this year — like her aunt.
But it's not a box about loss - it's a box about what Tarr found during the pandemic.
"I wanted to just use it as a launching point to focus on the things I could change," she says.
"Basically, I started sewing masks like a crazy person," says Tarr.
After she started, she says, she found a community of people who were also making masks. "They did it because they wanted to donate masks to people that ... either couldn't get it themselves or it was not affordable because we live in a sort of economically depressed area. So I did a lot of children's masks."
Jones, the curator, says she wanted everyone to be able to participate in this exhibit. So she also created little wooden tags that passersby can write on and attach to the fence.
To represent their losses, people have written things like "The fun at school I had." "Fellowship." "Ruth Bader Ginsburg."
On the found side: "I found my voice to advocate for myself," read one note. And — "How to play with my brother."
Jones says the project is democratizing in a way.
"This kind of asks a lot of questions, this exhibit, about who can be an artist, who can be displayed in a museum because, you know, that's a really big honor for an artist. But there's also a lot of elitism in that."
Stephanie Vaughn was leaving the parking lot when she stopped in front of the fence.
She says she's had a tough year — her husband died in September and her mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor. When she was in South Carolina to help her mom, she needed a project to do with her nieces.
And so when she picked up a tag - she wrote about what she learned.
"Found: I started crocheting again. I made baby blankets and dishcloths," she reads. "I enjoy giving the gifts I made to family, friends and strangers."
After sharing her story and tying her tag to the fence, Vaughn heads to the post office to mail a package of her crotchet in time for the holidays.
A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Alicia Tarr as saying that she was "selling" masks, when in fact she said she was "sewing" masks.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
As the year draws to a close, an art exhibit is asking residents of a Maryland neighborhood to consider this question - what was lost and what was found in 2020? NPR's Samantha Balaban visited the fence where the outdoor museum is located.
SAMANTHA BALABAN, BYLINE: It's just a regular, old, chain-link fence topped with barbed wire surrounding a parking lot, except that attached to the fence are what look like elaborate dioramas.
ANDREA JONES: You know, I've never made an outdoor exhibit like this before, so I wanted to make sure I could see it, you know?
BALABAN: Andrea Jones lives next door, and she's the curator of the exhibit called Community Lost and Found.
JONES: In my work, I do a lot of talking to museums about the potential to help people to process emotions.
BALABAN: Jones is a museum consultant who works for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. A couple months ago, she decided she wanted to do something that would help her reflect on this turbulent year.
JONES: You know, there's a lot of change happening. And in order to really process what's happening to us, I think it's really useful to do things, you know, physically, you know, with your hands.
BALABAN: So Jones built seven wooden boxes - they're a riff, she says, on the lost and found box you might find in school or a church - and asked her neighbors to help decorate them.
JONES: Can we walk over here? I can show you a little bit.
BALABAN: Jones walks over to a box designed by Megan Abbot and Gary Hall, who live across the street. This year, they had a baby.
JONES: And so what, you know, Megan and Gary found during this year was their daughter. So this is a real bird's nest that they put in this box.
BALABAN: She points to a pacifier suspended in a translucent globe.
JONES: And this kind of represents the bubble that they felt like they were in at that moment.
CECILY HABIMANA: So my box is - the name of it is called connection.
BALABAN: Cecily Habimana is the co-owner of the sewing studio Sew Creative Lounge. When the pandemic started, they had to close their doors.
HABIMANA: And even to this day, we only have about 20% of our students back into our studio.
BALABAN: So Habimana decorated a box with colorful swatches of fabric and strands of pearls suspended from the ceiling.
HABIMANA: And it basically shows that, you know, each person continues to do work, continues to sew at home and by themselves, but none of them are interacting with each other and that that connection has been lost.
BALABAN: Andrea Jones wanted everyone to be able to participate in this exhibit, so she also left out some pens and created little wooden tags so that people walking by can write on them and contribute.
JONES: Like drinking. Drinking - I gave it up during this year.
BALABAN: It's a living installation.
JONES: There's a special one that's dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and it has these pearls draped on it.
BALABAN: Some of the things people have written on the tags are funny. One person wrote under the lost section, body fat. Others are poignant. A little kid writes under found - how to play with my brother.
JONES: Here's one that actually refers to the exhibit itself. I found these cutouts clanking in the breeze against an otherwise silent and nondescript eyesore chain-link fence and then smiled.
STEPHANIE VAUGHN: Oh, wow.
BALABAN: Stephanie Vaughn was leaving the parking lot when she stopped in front of the fence.
VAUGHN: This is really nice that the community would take the time out of their busy lives during this time to tell their story because every one of us has a story.
BALABAN: Vaughn works at a school in Baltimore County. It's been a tough year. In May, her mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her husband died in September. When she was in South Carolina to help her family, she needed a project to do with her nieces.
VAUGHN: Well, OK. Let's keep this on the positive note.
BALABAN: When Vaughn picks up a tag, she writes about what she learned.
VAUGHN: Found - I started crocheting again. I made baby blankets and dishcloths. I enjoyed giving the gifts I made to family, friends and strangers.
BALABAN: After she tells her story and ties her tag to the fence, Vaughn heads to the post office to mail a package of her crochet just in time for the holidays. Samantha Balaban, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.