A few weeks into shelter-in-place in March, San Carlos artist Kerith Lisi felt like she was frozen. Exhibitions had been cancelled, her children were home from school, and art supplies had suddenly become difficult to get. She was in a fog, spending more time looking out the window, unable to make art.
Then Lisi, who makes quilt-like wall panels from the covers of discarded books, remembered book end pages she had saved, many of them inscribed with names and notes that were decades old. Encouraged by a 30-day art challenge she had seen online, she made a small collage from an old book page. The next day she made another one. The practice became a ritual until she had 100 new collages inspired by her reflections on human resilience and daily walks with her dog.
“Going back to something simple and taking the next step, and then another step … that’s how I navigated,” Lisi says.
Reflecting the human experience
Across the Bay Area, artists’ livelihoods have been put on pause by coronavirus precautions, and many are struggling through studio and gallery closures, and exhibition and class cancelations. The art world is in flux, and artists have shifted their focus to the intense emotions that mark this era of constant change and economic collapse.
But the pandemic is just one domino in a seemingly endless line. Many artists are also interpreting the pain and rage that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, an incident that horrified the world and cast a renewed and urgent light on police brutality and racism. An image of a masked protester, fist raised, is 2020 in a nutshell. Artists are interpreting and responding to multiple crises during this period, from the pandemic and shelter-in-place, to police brutality and calls for social justice.
The artworks of the coronavirus era tell the story of this collective and yet diverse experience, and are also deeply personal to what each artist is living through. This is what artists do: They reflect humanity and tell a story that fills the void we are all feeling, says Michelle Mansour, executive director at Root Division in San Francisco.
“I think people are feeling like they want to create work that is motivating and with a sense of purpose,” Mansour says. “They’re asking, ‘How can I use this voice for good?’”
Who needs art?
By now, many government health organizations have communicated the mental-health impacts of pandemic-related isolation and anxiety. In June, 40 percent of U.S. adults surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that they had struggled with mental health or substance abuse during shelter-in-place. In 2010, researchers Heather L. Stuckey, D. Ed., and Jeremy Nobel, M.D., M.P.H., showed that interaction with art can reduce stress and increase healing, well-being and sense of purpose.
Given the depression-inducing changes of the era, and the therapeutic effects of making and consuming art, is it possible that art is essential?
The arts have historically been undervalued – they’re the first thing to be cut in schools, and they’re often seen as a luxury, Mansour says. But for artists – and many non-artists – making or enjoying art is a non-negotiable, essential part of life.
“I feel that during this period of shelter-in-place, people are finding out how important it is to create some uniqueness in each day,” Mansour says. “With how rote and routine and stressful life can be now, there is a lot of potential for artists.”
At SLATE Contemporary Gallery in Oakland, owner and curator Shelley Barry says gallery sales are consistent, even though the gallery has had to reduce its hours on weekdays to “by appointment only.”
“I think it’s because so many people are working at home; they now have time to focus on it,” Barry says. “Art can change a whole environment. Art is an important design element. Imagine life without art? Imagine blank walls.”
Serving the community and social causes
Many artists say they are using the downtime of the pandemic to make work and boost their social-media presence. They’re also getting involved in their communities and finding ways to help others.
Christine Koppes, curator and director of public programs at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, says many artists have become active in fundraising for Black Lives Matter and other social-justice causes, as well as support for the victims of the Beirut explosion last month and aid for local communities that have suffered the economic impacts of the pandemic, she says.
Melissa Stephens, a Walnut Creek-based encaustic artist, has been posting smaller works in the “A Little Art” gallery on her website since July and will donate 40 percent of the sales at the end of the year to the Roots Community Health Center in East Oakland. And Lisi has participated in the Artist Support Pledge – a worldwide movement started by British artist Matthew Burrows on Instagram that encourages artists to post lower-cost artworks. When an artist’s sales reach about $1,000, they purchase a lower-cost artwork from another artist.
As of September, there have been more than 385,000 artwork posts using the #ArtistSupportPledge Instagram tag.
The online question
For some, not being able to show or view art in person has been one of the most difficult changes of the pandemic. Some artists are engaging with the public through online shows. Others are holding virtual art classes and meeting online with their critique groups.
Arts organizations are soul-searching on how they’ll serve artists and the public in the future. At the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, which remains closed, curators have launched Practice Safe Art (PSA), a program that includes live streaming studio visits and artist conversations on Instagram Live. The museum website says all programming will fall under PSA “for the foreseeable future.” One initiative under PSA is an interactive piece for their voicemail system, coming soon.
“It’s a time to really think about what we’re doing,” Koppes says. “If institutions aren’t going to change, they aren’t going to be relevant anymore.”
Art in the era of coronavirus
These Bay Area artists shared their ideas and work for this story:
Kerith Lisi was inspired to make this collage, “View from Inside – Wild, Wild Life,” after seeing a deer while out for a walk with her dog. She has always saved the first and last pages of the old books she deconstructs for her larger panels, saying the inscriptions remind her of “when someone writes on a wall, like ‘I was here.’”
Encaustic artist Melissa Stephens has been inspired by themes of hope and healing during this period. “Road Without End” is a representation of gardens that have flourished during shelter-in-place. The stenciled circles represent a stone border enclosing a path, and the metallic string represents the COVID tightrope, Stephens says. “Like many of my paintings, this work comments on the fragile nature of our journey, but also the strength and resiliency we have to traverse it,” she says.
Christopher Adam Williams
Christopher Adam Williams is inspired by current and historic events and people, as well as by Harlem Renaissance artists who depicted their pride in Black life and culture. “I touch on tragedy, but I always look up to joy,” Williams says. He sits with the pain for a while, and then looks for ways to communicate that there will be a better tomorrow. “King David,” is a response to critiques he received of his portraits of African Americans. Viewers said they were confrontational because of their gaze, he says. “With this painting, I wanted to depict a Black man with confidence, looking at you with respect. And I always love to equate my subjects with biblical figures,” he says.
Angélica Turner has worked with nature as a theme since 2015, but nature has taken on a different meaning for her during the pandemic and quarantine. “Venting” is from the “Temples” series she started this year, which parallels the changes of the forest with changes in one’s life or mind. For example, the movement of the bushes can be compared to our mood swings. “This year I have learned a lot about patience,” she says.
Marcela Pardo Ariza
(in collaboration with Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera and Felipe Garcia Jr.)
“#ThisIsWeirdWithoutYou” started when Marcela Pardo Ariza, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera and Felipe Garcia Jr. saw the boarded storefronts of their favorite gathering places in San Francisco. The group followed business owners’ messages on social media and contacted them about collaborating during this tough time. The trio created messages in English and Spanish, bringing voices of empathy, longing and hope into public spaces.
Natalia Juncadella has focused on social, political and racial events that have unfolded during the pandemic era. It’s a new and challenging approach for her, but she says that through painting she is able to process what is going on in the world. The vase of flowers in “Bloom” represents the diversity of the United States. Racial discord is implied by the American flag on its side and words on the wall that read: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” “08:46” represents the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck until he died.
Ming Choi, Creativity Explored
Ming Choi’s “Pandemic Chronicles” were inspired by the need for something positive in his life, he said. His illustration “Think COVID Free Thoughts” references a mural on Masonic at Haight in San Francisco, which he suspects will eventually be painted over by anti-Trump messaging. “I just tend to see things and take it to a very bad extreme,” Choi says. “Like, see the worst possible outcome.”