Introduction – Véronique Plesch


The pandemic that has taken so many lives—and continues to do so—has brought about an unprecedented global crisis. The social distancing that became the norm has given way to a new outlook towards artistic creation. On March 20, Hyperallergic ran a story on “The Artists Who Found Inspiration in Isolation” and who, while sharing our current condition, have produced great work. Many outsider artists have found solace and even escape in art—whether they were confined to a psychiatric asylum or just isolated in society.

The loss of a sense of community has been deeply felt but digital media has come to the rescue and proved indispensable, a true lifeline. On a daily basis, we heard of museums and galleries providing virtual visits of exhibitions and other events. In this issue we read, for instance of Al Crichton’s initiative, Zooming “Ghost Ship Recordings.” For students graduating from programs who were deprived of the crucial experience of a concluding exhibition, the Social Distance Gallery was created to make up for cancelled BFA and MFA thesis shows.

The pandemic has asserted the fundamental need for art, its deep relevance, and ability to provide a much needed respite, for instance for frontline providers. A recent article in the Art Newspaper reported that since the beginning of the lockdown, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had gained almost 200,000 social media followers, the result of their having shifted their energies to “digital engagement strategies.” This is of course not new as you can see in “An Art Historian’s Musings on Pandemics,” in which Véronique Plesch considers some examples of art from the past meant to cope with deadly disease.

Even before galleries and museums were forced to close, ARRT! and LumenARRT! aimed at communicating with the public beyond the confines of such institutions. We read about their activities, which of course deal with the current crisis, and do so with a sense of urgency. The pandemic has given rise to many similar initiatives. To cite just one that took place on a gigantic level, artists created messages (of public safety, hope, and gratitude) for 1,800 digital billboards in New York City.

If art is about expression and communication, what happens to artists as they have to spend months in isolation? Clearly, this question hit a nerve as 62 artists sent in works and statements to our “Pandemic Showcase.” Our five featured artists (Tom Paiement, Carol Eisenberg, Suzanna Lasker, Sam Gelber, and Martha Miller) also consider COVID-19’s impact on their lives and work, as does Emily Brown (introduced by an essay by Carl Little). We also find a section curated by Diane Dahlke on art and healing (with contributions by Millie Bachrach, Jean Noon, Emily Johansen, Sharon Bruise, and Val Porter). Our feature “Insight/Incite” is dedicated to remote teaching, with an introduction by Christine Higgins, who gathered essays by Charlie Johnson, Margaret Maxwell, and Melanie Crowe, and for which Véronique Plesch contributed her Colby dispatch, recounting her own teaching experience after the college closed down. Other regular features include the poetry section edited by Betsy Sholl to which Tom Fallon and Deborah Cummins contributed, news from Pat and Tony Owen in Ireland, and from ARRT!, LumenARRT!, and the Portland UMVA chapter.

In many of the contributions, we find a combination of helplessness and optimism, with art becoming an outlet to express anxiety and, in so doing, helping to cope with it. As Janice Moore compellingly explains, “After my angst found a place to be and got recorded, I put it away.” Art also becomes a way to counteract the isolation, seeking “stability and community” (Kathleen March), while also providing, in the words of Jennifer Lee Morrow, a “new language to encompass a sense of fragile, tenuous shelter in an uncertain world.” We see the pandemic giving new meaning to the mundane, leading to new subject matter and to the use of new materials (see, for instance, Nikki Millonzi), and infusing renewed energy and urgency into the artistic practice. If lockdown often means isolation and loneliness, it also creates a sense of suspended time, a “quiet time” (Bob Richardson) that affords reflection and long expanses of uninterrupted time—a “quarantine residency” (Martha Miller). With the disruption of normalcy and after an initial feeling of rudderlessness, new routines give meaning and structure to life in confinement and become an opportunity for renewed creativity.

Such an ambivalence appears in many of the contributions: Suzanna Lasker experiences increased anxiety about death while also rejoicing about the additional time for art, and Emily Brown, who also talks about her anxiety, notes the importance of the arts to connect people in this time of isolation and how this can be achieved online. Indeed, all the contributors make clear that art is a powerful coping strategy in the face of challenging and unsettling times. Among the essays Diane Dahlke gathered on art as a healing mechanism after trauma, we learn how for Jean Noon, COVID-19 and personal grief intertwine, but also how she finds that going to the studio allows her to process these traumatic experiences. Dorie Klein, who lost her “primary job” teaching yoga, creates works that metaphorically protect against the virus, combining healing hand-gestures (“mudras”) with this modern symbol of protection against the transmission of the virus: latex gloves.

As their life conditions changed dramatically, many of the artists experienced remarkable shifts, starting with the way in which they see things (Lesia Sochor). New meanings emerge from the reflections born from a forced confinement. In the absence of a sitter, Tom Paiement paints empty chairs, which become symbols for death and isolation. The now empty seats are combined with numbers, bearing witness to an activity shared by many: tracking the pandemic death toll. John Knight, on the other hand, seeks positive symbols, painting musicians in vibrantly colorful landscapes. In Carol Eisenberg’s quarantine work, the coronavirus meets van Gogh’s sunflowers and, despite its deadly nature, becomes beautiful. The now iconic virus appears in several of the works (for instance, in Jean Noon’s wire sculpture in the Pandemic Showcase and in Norajean Ferris’s drawings), while Katharine Cartwright invents new viruses—healing viruses.

The face mask becomes an obvious symbol for the pandemic. It takes center stage in Jennifer Steen Booher’s cyanotypes, while Anita Clearfield uses it to jarring effect in her nudes. In his self-portrait, Rabee Kiwan wears a mask, bearing witness to life in a time of pandemic, but also alluding to his work as a physician (and to the relief that painting provides in his stressful day job).

Many artists find metaphors for our current situation: Al Crichton compares the cancelled exhibits to the ghost ships of legends, Linda Cersosimo looks into ancient myth and the Bible and revisits the stories of Icarus and of the tower of Babel, and Lesley MacVane photographs windows whose curtains distort the outside world, now unattainable. Formal elements are also imbued with profound meaning: for Samuel Gelber, “negative space” becomes a metaphor for confinement. We find abstract works meant to convey chaos while some artists strive to attain a sense of order and harmony.

In the absence of a proper studio, the practice itself changes, embodying the saying that “necessity is the mother of invention”: Susan L. Smith explains that “Using what is at hand has become my practice while in quarantine.” Ann Tracy similarly takes advantage of what she finds in her home to create works in which she seeks beauty, indeed another theme that runs through the issue: looking for beauty in the face of disruption and death. James McCarthy explains that “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.”

Quarantine’s distorted sense of time intersects with a new, static sense of place. The “where” takes on a new, central meaning as one cannot escape it. Some of our contributors are abroad, like Carol Eisenberg, in Jaffa, Israel, Ruth Sylmor in Paris, France, or the Owens in Ireland. For many, it also means a restricted environment lacking the resources of a real studio with the ability to use certain mediums and to create larger works. When Nora Tryon is finally allowed to return to Maine after a forced stay in California, she starts a gratitude project, mailing art to friends.

Ultimately, the pandemic has affected all aspects of the art world; the tragic circumstances lead to innovation and insights in artistic practice and in its teaching (see the essays in “Insight/Incite”), and also in ways to share art: Nora’s gratitude project echoes a recent renaissance of mail art. More than ever, art has become a means to connect and to convey heartening and caring messages: Kenny Cole exhibits his “pandemic sketchbook” in the window of a coffee shop in Camden (displaying a different page each day), Dana Trattner’s ephemeral “Sand Goddesses” address beach visitors, and Liz Prescott posts on Instagram uplifting “Little Bright Spots.”

As we wrap up this historical issue, we would like to thank for their invaluable help and hard work our two editorial interns from Colby College, computer whiz Sabina Garibovic ’22 and wordsmith Andrew MacDonald ‘21. Our gratitude goes to Colby College’s President David Greene who made this internship possible.

Image at top: MAJ Summer 2020 cover (Tom Paiement, Virus 4, acrylic and collage and ink, 14 x 14 in., 2020).