In July of last year I started a series of portraits in my studio in Bath. I used a stack of etching papers brought back from the University of Iowa print shop years ago when I was a grad student there in the print department. The paper is 30 inches by 22 inches. 29 friends and acquaintances sat for me in the studio, in the same straight-backed, hard wood chair. With each individual it was an intimate and deeply personal experience. Portraiture is always very challenging and engaging, the balance being to not be too literal yet maintain the “essence” of the sitter along with the “freedom” of the mark. I used pencil, oil pastel, collage, ink, and oil wash. In each of the drawings, a piece of the chair shows and is an integral, if minor, part of the series.
I stopped drawing the portraits in January when I moved my studio from Bath back to my home studio in Woolwich and started to concentrate on imagery for an upcoming November show at Greenhut Galleries in Portland. Since the chair was the one constant in the work of the last six months, I decided to use the chair as a focal point. I thought I might still have a “sitter” in the chair but more abstract and conceptual, a figure that spoke more universally and not so specifically to the viewer. The paintings are on wood, painted with acrylic, ink, collage, and range in size from 12 x 12 in. to 16 x 16 in. I began with two 12 x 12 loosely abstract paintings with just the empty chair. They stayed on my work wall in the studio while I started a few more paintings, puzzling out where to go with this idea.
Then the Coronavirus overwhelmed everything and the empty chairs in those two paintings became symbols for the mounting number of deaths, the social distancing and the isolation the virus imposed.
Early in the virus I began keeping daily track of the national numbers of those infected and dead, incorporating those mounting and relentless tolls into the work. I use different font sizes to accent the uneven distribution of the virus cases and run the numbers together so they stream without pause. The abstract chair became more precise and representational, sometimes graphic, calling attention to its emptiness and the blunt fact that no one is sitting there.
There is a stained glass window in my house from the St. Charles’s church in Brunswick that was being demolished in 1972. It was given to my family and then to me. I began to use its shape and colors in a few of the paintings which adds an interesting spiritual connection to the series and opens up questions the coronavirus pushes us to ask. The stark contrast between drawing portraits and quarantine has been both unsettling and motivating. The series continues to evolve as we move in response to the pandemic and figure out how to draw a future for ourselves.
Image at top: Tom Paiement, Virus3, acrylic and collage and ink, 16 ⅗ x 15 in., 2020.