These images depict my sense of loneliness and confusion during eight weeks of Parisian confinement. Isolation has been a time for introspection. I reflect on the past while aware the future is unknown.
The COVID-19. Where is it stalking me? In the street, in the air, on my sweater? My shoes? Certainly not on my hands because I just washed them—counting aloud more than 20 seconds.
I’ve lived for six years on the rue Maître-Albert, a narrow street in the 5th arrondissement known in the 13th century as la rue perdue (the lost street). Across the Seine, beneath the towering cranes, the wounded cathedral Notre-Dame survives. A year ago, I watched the spire collapse as flames engulfed the wooden roof.
If I venture out for my hour-long walk, I tape a tissue inside the only mask I have and carry an attestation paper with my name, birth date, and the time. Within the allotted hour I may grocery shop, go to the doctor, the pharmacy, or walk within a one kilometer radius. Since I do not have a printer to print out the required attestation, I write mine longhand daily and carefully avoid the police control and possible fine. Armed with the attestation, I descend the circular four flights of the stairwell grasping the twisted rope banister. Once outside the heavy front door, bright sun hits my face.
Braving the eerie quiet I cross the Quai de la Tournelle and pause on the Pont d’Archeveche. The Seine, below, still as a lake, has become a fertile place for my imagination. I resume my walk around the Île de la Cité and the Île Saint-Louis blocked by incertitude but encouraged by the ongoing restoration of the church Saint-Louis-en-l’Île. Reminiscent of a life I used to live, “les madeleines de Proust”—pistachio ice-cream, blues singer, René from Louisiana, and the toll of Notre-Dame’s great Emmanuel bell—return to inhabit my emotions.
Tonight for five minutes, I shall join six nightly companions, perched on their balconies or leaning from their windows to applaud, to “unite,” with the thousands of people around France who cheer and clap every evening to support emergency health workers, Red Cross, and front-line responders on whom so much of our daily lives depend.
I created these pieces to capture the themes of what this worldwide pandemic has caused. It has been difficult to do because of self-isolating.I am refusing to go outside unless I absolutely have to.
I came up with these images from things I had in my apartment and could photograph at home. They explore where, exactly, this virus has come from and then two aspects of results from this pandemic. They represent my concerns and observations. I don’t find this situation full of emptiness, but rather full of mystery and grief.
The current pandemic has me worried about how the art world will be when it’s over. Together Again is about getting back together after a doctor’s appointment with good news: the virus attacking a person and one surviving it. I am the Intruder is the Coronavirus. Heaven or Dog Food represents what could happen if horses were able to contract the COVID-19 from people.
I have worked on this series intermittently for over ten years with a renewed focus beginning last summer. The work has made me think about quilting, altar cloths, ceramic tiles, rows in a cemetery, wall structures, and the diversity and connectedness of people. It feels like these paintings take on a new meaning in the age of COVID-19. I usually title the paintings after Maine towns with optimistic names: Harmony, Liberty, Unity, Hope, Union.
Aside from violent protests and abdication of leadership at the highest level, the third elephant in the room is the ongoing COVID-19 virus. In a few short months, we have lost over 100,000 Americans—more than 9/11 and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts combined. I am still thankful to have a job and salary, whereas over 30 million have filed for unemployment. All because of this invisible enemy.
Image at top: Ruth Sylmor, Paris. Cimetière St. Vincent, silver print, 14 x 11 in.