When we put together the 2021 Arts Issue, I found myself most curious about how artists made art, thought about art, and perhaps were challenged by art over the course of the many undulating waves of 2020 through 2021.
Part of what makes creators so interesting to me is how they juxtapose their own creative ambitions against the backdrop of what is going on in the world, for better or for worse. A beautiful, pastoral landscape, brilliantly colored natural artifacts, a messy, chaotic house, or global disease can all inform art. Art can also bring the viewer a new lens through which to experience a side that’s universal but sometimes still invisible.
These are the stories, as they told it themselves, of navigating life and creation during the pandemic from 12 Charlotte artists.
When everything shut down initially, I focused singularly on my family. With my family home all day, my home studio no longer provided a quiet haven to create. Between the Zoom calls for school and what seemed like a perpetual rotation of meals, there really wasn’t much time for making art. However, I quickly realized that when art wasn’t a part of my life, everything suffered. I had considered renting a studio for some time. The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. By the fall, I found a light-filled space to call my own and it dramatically changed my outlook and my productivity.
Now, I am able to forget the fear and uncertainty we have all faced in the midst of COVID for the few hours I spend in my studio each day. I am able to lose myself in the work and to push myself creatively. It is incredible how healing that can be for the mind and the spirit.
Not many artists had the privilege of working through the height of the pandemic. Many artists shared spaces here in NYC to help manage studio costs even before they lost their jobs or were furloughed due to the shutdown. Fortunately, I was able to maintain a steady studio practice in the unprecedented times of 2020. Personally, because of the focused time I had to continue to create, I thrived.
There are many different ways one can protest. The traumatizing murder of George Floyd in the wake of a pandemic shook up the world, while I anchored my conflicts with the situations in my studio. These are the times when artists must go to work.
Art to me over the last year has become much more than just my hobby or passion. It has become my saving grace.
After almost 17 years in Corporate America, I received the call that I was displaced due to the pandemic. While I was in shock and still processing the news, I immersed myself in creating. My mentality took a drastic shift and I realized that art would now become my lifeline…my full-time career.
Looking back, I knew at some point I would have to choose art or Corporate America. The two together had become chaotic and unmanageable. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have had the courage on my own to take the leap into a full-time art career. But it is clear to me this was 100% the best path for both me and my family.
While I’ve never worked harder in my life, and every day is different, I’ve also never been so satisfied. The freedom, flexibility, and customer relationships I’ve gained are priceless. The encouragement of the Charlotte community has been absolutely overwhelming. While my journey may be unconventional, I love the end result.
In the last year, the studio served as a place that can exclude the outside world. Not an escape, but a place that can be quiet, to focus only on the concern of what’s at hand. Time spent there is a luxury to enjoy.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I moved my studio back home and into my kitchen, along with my school Zoom-ing children and my remote working spouse. I’d run out of canvases and other art supplies were limited, so I grabbed what I could: a roll of heavy paper, gesso, paint, and brushes for my makeshift painting space at home. As I left my studio, I tore off a piece of brown packing paper and scribbled, “welcome back” in pencil. I thumbtacked it to my door and prayed the next time I read those words the world would be back to normal.
I put out a call for people to let me know of any frontline workers who might like some art. Then, I made tiny 4 x 6-inch paintings on gessoed paper and sent them to whomever asked for one. It was just the project I needed to support our community, even if from afar. People reached out to me sharing stories about loved ones who were on the front lines needing support. One nurse came into contact with COVID and was in quarantine alone. A doctor was working around the clock with no sleep. Someone else had a colleague pass away from the virus.
People wrote me letters and notes sharing how much their paintings meant to them. I will keep these notes forever as a reminder that there is always something we can do, no matter how terrible our circumstances might be.
Once the stay-at-home order was lifted, I moved out of my kitchen and into my studio where my “welcome back” sign was waiting. Painting became one of the normal things I could do. I grew as an artist and found new ways to connect with my community. I am more grateful than ever before for the opportunity to make art as a bridge to connect with others, give back, and put some joy out in the world.
While we draw inspiration from our surroundings, sometimes our subconscious can influence our artistic style as a rebellion. Within the external chaos, my artistic style experienced a transformation. Once existing in the realm of sole abstractness, my mind craved structure and order. Consequently, my artistic style adapted lines and specific images that held a resonance of my abstract style but began forming a more definite expression.
Prior to Covid-19, I created pieces that embraced the abstract form. I allowed the audience to discern meaning and purpose, as the ebb and flow likeness can evolve within each mind’s eye. After the global lockdown, I craved stability and distinctness. I returned to a more compositional form and Vessel Series emerged. This collection was a sellout show at Anne Neilson Fine Art. Another breakthrough pandemic piece, Girl with a Pearl Earring, brought life to the canvas, formulating the portrait of a woman, riddled with personality and secrets.
By studying Dutch Master Vermeer, I sought to understand how other artists coped with corresponding situations like the Covid pandemic. After viewing Vermeer’s response to suffering and sickness, I gravitated to his rendition of “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” I was drawn to the portrait’s gaze and the mystery this conveyed.
My yearning for stability in the chaos of 2020 inspired me to formalize my image of the woman.
Over the past year or so, I have focused on being as expressive and intuitive as possible in my work. It allowed me to channel the angst associated with all that is going on in the world. My business literally became a cycle of inspiration.
So, as my clients commissioned me to create paintings that inspire them and to bring vibrant color into their homes, the creation of those pieces also served as an inspiration and therapeutic outlet for me as well. Before the pandemic, as an educator, it felt more like work even though it is my passion. Now, I am even more passionate about offering my art to the world because I can see that I am doing my part to inspire others during difficult moments in their lives. That was the thing that shifted for me. Most importantly, art really helps me to maintain a positive mindset, take time away to care for myself, and share my passion with the world.
Art. That tiny, 3-letter word has taken on a whole new meaning for me. It has transformed my entire life. Before quarantine, I painted after work and here and there on the weekends. When we found ourselves housebound I was, of course, home all of the time. Stuck in the house and stuck in my head, thinking and overthinking. Fear, sadness, and uncertainty became familiar emotions. Nothing felt secure.
So, I painted, and, like many, I worked on remodeling our home. If I couldn’t go anywhere, I wanted to love our home as much as possible. I channeled all of my fear, anxiety, and energy into creating. Fast forward 15 months and art has transformed my life. After 18 years in corporate America, a month ago I left my day job and jumped off the proverbial cliff into entrepreneurship. I am now a full-time creative, artist, and interior stylist. It’s safe to say that art has changed everything.
The role of art is to bring a visual thought, beauty, hope, or inspiration into our surroundings. Art should give to us in some favorable way. When the pandemic began, I was afraid and fear stifled my creativity. A group of artists with whom I kept in contact daily encouraged me to still paint and even to continue to teach. Painting helped change my focus from fear to what I love. I began to breathe freely and celebrate living again believing we would have a future.
Teaching others during the pandemic got me to focus on hope. I encouraged my students to paint and I painted. I also looked for artists both current and throughout art history to show my students. During this research, I found many artists that created through world wars, pestilence, and disasters.
Over the past year and a half, my creative practice has both expanded to heights I’ve never seen and been limited in ways I could have never imagined. I feel my voice and my ideas are more valuable to any projects that I pursue because of my most recent work. My clients and my audience have grown to a level that even I don’t fully understand.
When it comes to consuming art, I’ve found myself more attached to the story of the creator than any of the pieces themselves. This has changed the way I’ve approached having my hand in any and everything I choose to be a part of.
About three years ago, I was approached by Sonya from Elder Gallery about speaking at her gallery. She was incredibly brave to give me free rein on the topic of discussion. Under the topic “The Intersection of Fine-Art and Commercial Art,” she allowed me to be hyper-critical of galleries. That opened the door for a beautiful conversation regarding what we could do to push the boundaries of not only creating, but also how viewer and artist interact.
Fast forward to the day George Floyd was murdered. I was struggling with creating a white-centric body of work during one of the biggest civil rights resurgences in the past 75 years. So, I enlisted the help of Dammit Wesley to create an “experience” at Elder Gallery. Wesley and I carefully enlisted four other artists to be a part of this show called, “Off the Plantation.” This was what I was searching for these past three years – something to push how people experienced art and how artists created and presented art.
I’ve always been an artist with a heavily stylized signature aesthetic, but for this past year and a half, I was looking for something deeper. I was looking for something that could move people, but also push the boundaries of how the viewer can consume and experience art. For my art and my friends there was nothing more important in this moment than highlighting police brutality in America, but also how prevalent racism is and how we can speak and listen to each other through art in order to move things forward.
Despite years of PR talking points about equity, actual transformation did not happen within arts institutions, funding sources, galleries, and cultural facilities. Since last year, I have seen a real shift by some organizations and spaces to amplify the voices of those excluded for far too long.
Opportunities are steadily opening to BIPOC artists and creatives. I’m talking about talented folks who have been in our communities, doing fantastic work all along, despite lack of support and visibility. It is about time we value and invest in these artists. I am hopeful this momentum continues long into the future until it is no longer about diversity talking points but we can focus on sustained equity.