Although I have many daily habits that serve as anchors or guides, I am currently experiencing a fragmentation of time, as if life has become a verb, a present tense. The future, currently opaque, is a horizon within a fog. I say, too many times a day, “We’ll see,” thinking, when we get there. The events of the past few months resemble a jig-saw puzzle designed by Kafka, its pieces laid out on a table, from which I am trying to find the picture encoded within the parts. The cover of the box that the parts come from is blank.
During the quarantine, I correspond with friends and family who return me to a constant and offer up a Long View of life and art. Some friends and acquaintances show signs of Weltschmerz: a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness, the condition arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering. Many people are keeping diaries these days: Quarantine Diaries, COVID Diaries. Perhaps we are marking time as a daily unit of experience because each day something pivotal seems to happen, after which our perception is altered.
Creating a visual diary, artist Steve Mumford went to Portland, Oregon, after the Federal troops were sent in, to chronicle the protests. James Boorstein with Box3Productions sent out photographs and writings that reflect on and capture daily life in flux, Jeffrey Ackerman’s paintings offer a perspective on the daily gyrations by also holding a long view, drawing from history to illuminate the present. Marina Epstein and Benjamin Davis send me updates of their life and art, offering a perspective that is outside of time. And the Comet Neowise appeared to us during this unique time of turmoil, leaving us again while it continues in its orbit of Geological Time.
July 27, 2020, Waldo County, Maine
It’s quiet before dawn. An owl belts out its call, from the chest, like an opera singer, filling the valley. Venus, bright in the eastern sky, emerges from the trees at the edge of the forest and fades as morning light increases. A car goes by, headlights still on. One cricket starts up a chorus of thousands, a wall of sound that begins anew each morning until the first hard frost. A flock of crows call and are answered by jays. A hermit thrush takes a long, complex solo that echoes inside the forest as if in aqueous suspension. A few deer pass by my window, sneezing. I drink a cup of tea. This is a moment of calm before the morning news.
When I open my laptop the world spills out. It is the 60th straight day of protests in Portland, and more than five months after the pandemic was declared. I plug in my earphones, press “start” and a video of the protests comes to life before my eyes.
The first thing that hits me is the noise of the crowds, thousands of voices chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” and “No Justice, no peace,” and “Black Lives Matter.”
The intensity of the crowd is palpable. I can’t hold back tears.
1968–70, St. Louis, Missouri
I was six years old in 1968, when my father was Dean of Students at Washington University. Student protests against the Vietnam War had him working weekends and nights. One night a group of protestors stood outside our home, chanting my father’s name. My parents were out, my brothers and I had a student babysitter. She said she knew karate; she said she could protect us. One night the protestors burned down the ROTC building. One morning I woke up and saw something in our backyard. I woke my parents and told them that I was going to see something “funny” out back. I found our pet rabbit, Wiff-Waff on the cement pavers of a little sidewalk that ran through the center of the yard from the porch steps to the back fence and alley beyond. Then I saw that the rabbit’s cage was broken, wood slats pried off. His neck was twisted, throat cut; a knife lay beside him.
February 24th, 2020, New York, NY
My husband and I are in New York City for the grand opening of the newly renovated British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, a celebration of a project we worked on that took many years, many people, and many diverse skills to complete. As we dress for the party, I get an email from a friend in Germany asking where we are. “Go home, stock up, head out to the island if possible until this all blows over,” he says, “this virus is going to be worse than anyone thinks.” We laugh, but nervously. Only a few cases are reported so far, on the west coast, a cloud on the horizon; we have time. The party is in the Great Hall, packed full, a crowd you have to shimmy through, sideways, champagne spilling, “Excuse me, oops, sorry.” People are here from England, from Italy, there are speeches, and lots, and lots of handshaking.
“I’ll never see anything like this again,” I think, dazzled, intoxicated and already aware that I mean that in more than one way.
March 11th, 2020
First the museum and then New York City close down. The World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a Global Pandemic.
In Maine, Governor Mills issues a State of Emergency. Travel restrictions and stay at home orders follow.
March 27th, 2020
Comet Neowise, an ancient visitor with a visible tail of gas, dust and sodium, was first spotted.
April 1st, 2020
James Boorstein writes a note to announce his new Box3Productions project:
“The Covid Entries (CE) result from what I have very recently come to think of as a personal defect, a need or desire to record events and observations instead of attending to other more pressing responsibilities. The idea was to share these “entries”—what was noticed or known that day simply to provide a glance back, a record of some sort, though captured daily they are sent every other day, as to not overwhelm anyone. My inbox has not seen any social distancing.”
The entries are short, occasionally with an audio, always with an image.
May 26th, 2020
Protests against the killing of George Floyd are first held in Minneapolis and spread to other cities, then globally.
June 14th, 2020
On Facebook I scroll through conversations. A group is discussing police brutality on the homepage of a friend who is a New York City officer. The combination of anger and civility varies from speaker to speaker. One friend weighs in with ALL CAPS and is ridiculed by another. One friend says to another they are “sorry to rag on your page, but I’m totally fed up and taking no prisoners lately.”
Another friend is “exhausted physically, but worse, mentally.” They say, “I don’t need to agree with your opinions to be your friend. That’s what being an adult is all about, so I won’t be ‘unfriending’ anyone on account of this discussion.”
June 21st, 2020
Discussions flare over the removal of public statues and monuments. Social concerns mingle with iconoclastic tendencies. There is eloquence, grandstanding, and friends are at loggerheads.
Content aside, the sculptural style of all of these statues is of an era that has expired for most viewers. Their classically derivative mode of antique expression makes these statues less welcome, alien even, in a world that has recently unveiled the Hudson Yard “Schwarma,” a monument to a confederacy of oligarch developers, designed primarily as a “selfie-destination.”
April–August 2020 – Steve Mumford Entries
Scrolling through Instagram I come across the artist Steve Mumford, a frequent contributor to Harper’s, and who has been embedded in Iraq to record, by drawing, what he saw there. “I’m trying to be honest about what I’m seeing and drawing,” he says.
July 15, Steve writes: “I’ve been drawing aspects of the COVID crisis in NYC, which was published in Harper’s online… now I’m drawing the protests! Working on drawings of the protests. It gets very intense sometimes, reminds me of Iraq.”
July 29th, Portland Oregon: “The bang-bang days. A corps of leaf-blower guys and gals moved in with each round of tear gas. Some people hurled the gas canisters back over the wall, others pointed lasers at the Federal cops, and shot fireworks at them.”
July 31st, Portland Oregon: “On the night of the 28th this woman got up to speak. She wasn’t scheduled and there was almost a fight over it. She was incandescent with emotion, rage over white people’s casual and even destructive involvement in BLM. Maybe you can read some of what’s on the drawing. I am a conservative and I often don’t agree with what’s said here; but it was impossible not to be moved by this woman and what her words said about the need for change.”
August 1st, Portland Oregon: “Quick sketches from Portland, last night, (below): the wall of vets, with Emma Ingram and Adam Janosko standing at attention; protesters massing at the fence around the Fed. courthouse; at around midnight as the protests wind down, Tony Poemikaele dances on the central mound where so many bonfires have been lit; a group of young black women express their anger at lack of respect from society. A growing political rift with Wall of Moms results in the Moms leaving the protest, something I sorely wish they hadn’t done. Aren’t Moms supposed to heal with unconditional love?”
(click on images to enlarge in Slideshow)
Artist Jeffrey Ackerman reflects on his recent work: “Looking back on my past year of art making, in the midst of pandemic and economic collapse, I find the work oddly well suited to the tragic and life affirming sentiments now dominating my moods. Not that it was predictive in any way, but it was created with the understanding that art endures through the vicissitudes of history and must speak to ages of turmoil, as well as times of peace and prosperity.”
“I try to inject my creations with a gravity and emotional complexity, offering the viewer a range of responses that might adjust to a variety of moods and external circumstances.” Jeffrey’s father and grandparents escaped from a Europe in flames, in 1939, just as the borders were closing. His family’s fatalism and stoicism, produced by this experience, informs Jeffrey’s attitude toward life and art. Subjects in his work often include historic references, starring characters such as the cruel Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, the “Crowned Anarchist,” as Antonin Artaud called him. History is used as a baseline to measure our current dark times.
July 22nd, 2020
Artist Marina Epstein writes to me, “I am very fortunate that during this time of uncertainty I have a solitary vocation. Living in the Vermont forest one can easily forget the coronavirus and all of the consequences that are shaking the world. With my normal outside events closing down it has given me an opportunity to delve into other interests and look more deeply at the infinite beauty of the world around me. (Yesterday was the mother lode for chanterelles.)”
July 31st, 2020
Artist Benjamin Davis writes to me: “I don’t think I really live in the present so I am not sure how my work might relate to the subject in question. Not much has changed here except for the fact that we don’t see our friends very much. I am finishing the following marbles: Head of Bottom, Head of a Water Buffalo, Head of Harlequin. I would like to start a large marble Muse of Painting, but I am still deliberating whether the model has been pushed far enough. If I could work on different versions for 4–500 years it might help me to find the most interesting solution…”
August 13, 2020, Gotts Island, Maine
Before dawn, around 3:30am, with a crust of moon, several planets and a sky full of stars, I see a shooting star and then, nearby, a convoy of lights. I count twelve. It must be a sort of satellite group. Long, like a railroad train, the lights in pairs, in sequence, heading fast from west to east. It is awesome, strange, yet a sign of how connected we are, or something is.*
*(I later found out that this is Star Link, Elon Musk’s satellite project.)
The Comet Neowise, essentially rock and ice rubble left over from the creation of the universe, will not be seen from earth again for another 6,800 years.
August 19th, Waldo County, Maine
Driving on a back-country road to avoid RT. 3 traffic on my way into town, I see something different ahead, stop my car, and take a picture of a neighbor’s hand-painted sign. The sign has been there since June, “Black Lives Matter Too,” it says in uneven black letters on a white board. I drove by just last week, but since then someone has spray-painted over the letters, in bold red, a swastika.
Image at top: Steve Mumford, COVID Drawing, New York City, Watercolor on paper, 4/2/2020. Steve writes: “One of the first in this Covid series… already seems like a long time ago.”
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