Walking on my local beach in early April in the time of social distancing and sheltering in place, I felt a need to convey my deep feelings of concern. I was collecting seaweed, driftwood, shells, and other treasures one finds on a foggy cold day. While I had created goddesses using pastels on paper, snow in the winter and sand in the summer, this one was to be different. Always a creative endeavor, I arranged my finds with care. This Sand Goddess would carry a message: stay safe written in sticks.
As my local beach allows dogs to run free, Sand Goddess 1 did not last long. Thus. my series began. I have come to see them as temporal, hopefully seen by others before the dogs and/or the tides return them to their place of rest.
The need to replace them when I notice they are gone fills me with a sense of duty to rebuild. Now, with mobs of mask-less tourists on the once-quiet beach, I wonder if my messages are useless. Yet, somehow it is my hope that their creation will serve as a reminder that all is not well and we all must be safe.
This series of tiny paintings came about spontaneously amidst other work I had ongoing in the studio when this global pandemic descended upon us in early spring. I started posting these Little Bright Spots on Instagram, thinking that others might appreciate these small moments of hope in such unnerving times, much as I did. I put a grouping of four together for this show, to create a larger dialog of hope. I don’t post every day, but the work will not stop in my studio until we are back to some sense of normalcy, which could be a long time.
The Would Be Writer of the Heart Healing Poem
The would be writer of the heart
healing poem watches the blue-eyed woman cry
over her to go Thai salad at the otherwise
deserted Food Court.
Watches as the loved world leaks helpless
down her creased cheeks. Her pink cloth mask
hangs from one ear tear stuck
to the crumpled side of her face.
The poet knows there are words for even this
but today they aren’t enough.
Pam Burr Smith, 2020
Before I could get back into my shared studio, I just used what I had at home to create these images. It seemed a positive act to photograph flowers, to emphasize what beauty there was in an upside-down world filled with disease and death. When I was able to get back into the studio, images from a photo shoot three years ago seemed to fit these dystopian times, so for the three days a week I can get back in the studio now (we’re scheduling our time in there), I decided to make an artist video.
Ann Tracy, A Silent Movie, digital video, 2:24 min.
A project I had been working on that involved making portraits of older peace activists necessarily came to a halt due to the COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing guidelines. This coincided with my wife driving down to Washington, D.C., on March 1st to help out as a temporary nanny for our ten-month-old granddaughter. Although I made a point of taking daily walks, often with a camera, I found myself alone at home with a lot of time on my hands and wondering what new project I might pursue under these new circumstances.
One day I noticed the hyacinth plant in our living room was starting to bloom. I decided to photograph it, but its placement on our front windowsill created compositional problems that were a distraction to what I had in mind. So I created a mini-studio in our dining room, using a chair with a black cloth background and the north light that streams through the sliding glass door leading to our deck. With no one else at home to disturb the arrangement, I was free to spend as much time as I needed in making several portraits of the emergent hyacinth flowers and their vase. I left everything in place and every hour or so made new exposures that took into account changes in the lighting as day turned into dusk. By day’s end—having made closeups as well as exposures from various angles and vantage points—that hyacinth truly had become my friend.
In the following weeks I made more than 20 still-life images using that same simple setting and approach: several conch shells that had been collecting dust in my study; a chambered nautilus half shell I’d bought in Bar Harbor more than 30 years ago; a small jade plant in a tea cup a friend had given us; the bloom of our peace lily; a single flower snipped from an African violet in our living room; early daffodils placed inside a small vase that had been given to me by a talented New Hampshire potter almost 40 years ago. In a very real sense, the constraints imposed by the pandemic prompted me to take a closer look at the simple beauty of household flowers and inanimate objects that normally I’d take for granted and hardly even notice. I’m reminded too of the beautiful statement made by Paul Strand about his last series of images made in the garden of his home in Orgeval, France: “The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep.”
My wife is now back home and we’re social distancing together. I’m continuing the still life series photographing the lovely flower bouquets she has been making of various flowers blooming in our yard. So in that sense it’s a collaborative creative endeavor.
Image at top: Dana Trattner, Sand Goddess 2, driftwood, shells, seaweed, and pebbles, 8 x 10 in., 2020 (Photo: J. Stevensen).