Editor’s note: This is part two of a series in which artists and writers talk about life in the Covid-19 era.
Lewis deSoto. As Covid-19 progressed in China, I was involved in producing two large projects. First, preparing and performing in Deep Canyon Conversations, a performance piece with myself and Gerald Clarke at the Palm Springs Art Museum on March 2. Accompanying that is a book, Tired of Eternity, published by Magnolia
Editions in California. The performance went swimmingly to a large crowd. However, getting the book out there and for sale has stalled.
As the crisis spiked, I was on my way to Phoenix on March 11 in a nearly empty plane. Thinking I was safely sequestered on this aircraft of seemingly endless seat choices, a woman decides to sit next to me and proceed to hack and cough, open-mouthed while yelling at her husband. I was terrified. The flight attendant moved me to the very back of the plane to an empty row.
When I arrived in Phoenix, I endeavored to find a “clean” rental car. Luckily, I had alcohol wipes in my luggage and thoroughly wiped down my car, which was a horror show of smudges and unidentified splatters everywhere.
At the Heard Museum in Phoenix, I met with the staff. We pre-assembled my 12-foot- tall inflatable, “Suburban Skookum,” in the auditorium (pictured). Ironically, the sculpture contains the illustration of the smallpox virus on it. We were aware that there was an ensuing problem with contagion. No handshaking. We stood as far apart as we thought possible while still getting work done.
I flew back on Friday the 13th. The day before, Arizona’s baseball spring training was canceled. Grumbling fans filled the plane, and I became deeply paranoid. No one wore masks, and everyone was talking loudly. I self-isolated for 14 days, wondering if I had brought something home. So far, so good. Or, I had it, and I have no idea? How to know?
The exhibition opening in Phoenix is delayed to some future date.
When I returned, the pool was leaking, the deck was sinking, trees were falling over from the soaked soil. Trees were cut down. I ordered wood from the lumber yard and supplies from Amazon and donned my
automotive paint mask and started taking boards out of the deck to shore it up and refinish. Since I’m working mostly alone, this project has taken all my time since March 14. I may still be at it when the stay-at-home is lifted.
My life as an artist has mostly turned into the life of a contractor. I’ve cleaned my studio and will prepare for life to begin anew. Large-scale work involves some collaboration, so for now, I’ve shelved many projects. I have ongoing photography work and can print in-house. Studio visits have been postponed. There is a large installation going to a museum that I’ve just mothballed — for now. It is ready to ship, but no one to receive it.
I believe that there is a false hope that things will return to “normal,” and that once again, large crowds will pack art fairs and museums. Gallery openings will fill with an avid art community, everyone talking, laughing and communing. Until there is a vaccine, culture will continue in a virtual world of two-dimensional screens and Zoom conferences. Art classes will be severely restricted by how and what medium can be taught. Art will become screen-sized. Art consulting will surge. Commercial galleries for a time will disappear.
A resurgence of conceptual art will take place, where the sensual is replaced with mind aerobics and interactive platforms. See you on the other side.
Deborah Oropallo. My first reaction to Covid-19 was to prepare our family to shelter in place. Our tactics were pretty much the same as those for the rolling blackouts we faced during the wildfires: Get food, gas and supplies. Somewhat ironically, those preparations also included having N95 masks on hand for smoke.
At this juncture, with so much human tragedy and suffering unfolding daily, I wonder why I continue making art. It can sometimes seem irrelevant. However, I have noticed many artists with sewing machines making
masks. This fills a need to both produce something and contribute to the greater good. I also realize that on a broader scale, museums, galleries, art fairs, curators, critics, are being financially challenged like never before. As everyone turns to the internet for exposure, we lose personal, experiential involvement with the REAL thing for which there is no substitute. What can be less tangible, less satisfying than looking at art on a laptop or phone?
Thankfully, an artist can still work, and I predict more creativity will flow out of this crisis. As the effects of travel restrictions and limited access to materials become increasingly apparent, and as we spend more and more time reflecting on the situation, new options will arise. Change can be invigorating, even when it’s forced.
I’ve had upcoming shows canceled and postponed, and as a result, the pace of my workday has slowed. It is now more in keeping with the tempo of nature, which is to say, my life on a farm: watering, feeding, building and plants and animals grow. I’m more aware of incremental changes in my environment.
I’m currently working on a video of still images that I shoot once a day. Over a year, it might add up to a real-time glimpse of this transformation. Working this way feels more like meditation. Time is more elastic, less committed. I can ruminate more and allow my thoughts to linger. Boredom is actually OK. I experienced this during
the rolling blackouts, and I’m experiencing it again now. And, since I’m spending far less on materials, I find myself experimenting more, using what’s around me.
In general, I try to make work that will wake people up and prompt them to look closer. In my videos, especially, I try to slow down for the viewer, news images of events that we often never see in this country, and I present them in ways that make clear the challenges we face on planet Earth.
M. Louise Stanley. Given the calamity at hand, I feel guilty not doing anything for the greater good. But how much can I do? I am at-risk, old with really bad lungs. My neighbors say my job is to stay well so someone else can have a ventilator if need be. On the plus side, living in an artists’ co-op with friends down the hall, so I don’t feel lonely; in fact, I love being alone, and I am living my ideal studio life. But if I fall ill, I fear I won’t survive. I am in contact with my acupuncturist, and I have an arsenal of bottles in case I’m hit by a cytokine storm. Our co-op has a weekly grocery run that delivers greens and herbs. Volunteers wipe down doorknobs during the day, and there are spritzer bottles at each entrance and in the mailbox area. As an adjunct teacher at Berkeley City College, I am on unemployment. I can pay the bills, barely.
I’m keeping art school hours, painting into the night, drawing in my sketchbooks, reading The New York Times, doing iPad jigsaw puzzles (just did the Ghent Altarpiece), watching MSNBC, Say Yes to the Dress and Netflix. I’m emailing friends, looking at Instagram and doing a lot of reading. I’m enjoying the art history re-makes people are doing with their families and pets and alone in their homes. I’m paying virtual visits to the museums of the world. And though I’ve never been much for social media, I see this emerging access to art and artists spawning a new reality. There is so much more daily sharing going on between artists.
My biggest disappointment was the cancellation of the New York Frieze Masters Art Fair scheduled for May. I was slated for a solo booth in the fair’s Spotlight section with my Pompeian Villa installation, paper mache Greek Vases, paintings and sketchbooks, sponsored by my new SF gallery, Anglim Gilbert. But alas, my 15 minutes of international fame got nixed. It took several days to realize my loss was small compared to that of so many others less fortunate. At least several times a day, I’m confronted by the realization things will never be the same.
I am working on a sketchbook project: half the works are devoted to paintings at Legion of Honor, the rest to works owned by the de Young Museum. Luckily, I took many photos, so I can finish the book when
museums reopen. I am now tackling Tiepolo’s The Realm of Flora. My interpretation, The Triumph of Flora, is a San Francisco version featuring the Gay Freedom Day Parade. I see it as utterly silly, upbeat, and, perhaps, a harbinger of better times.
We artists are survivors. We work around obstacles and fix things on our own. This situation, unfortunately, can’t be easily fixed. At least three times a day, I feel a wave of helplessness wash over me.
As I consume the news non-stop, more harrowing each day, watching our blundering leader and his facilitators, while frantic health care workers scramble to ward off death, I feel rather selfish making art. As an artist operating at the margins, I’ve been a keen observer of human life and the human condition. But this is one condition I can’t paint.
Kara Maria. When Covid-19 started emerging in the US, I was working on a large, outdoor mural for theSan Francisco Arts Commission at 1330 Polk Street. I was riding BART frequently, and walking through Civic Center and other (adjacent) crowded areas. I was experiencing street life daily and wondering if I was putting myself at risk. I had already begun wearing a mask in populated areas and using hand sanitizer with abandon, not realizing that it would soon become almost impossible to buy. My assistant fell mysteriously ill (most likely with Covid-19), but no tests were available to confirm that at the time. I hired another person to help me complete the project, and we finished right before the shelter-in-place order for San Francisco went into effect.
Since then, my life has changed dramatically. I am at home with my husband, Enrique Chagoya, and our cat Santos (for whom shelter-in-place feels more like a vacation), working on two new series of small paintings. One is for an exhibition this fall at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art that was postponed to Spring 2021; the other is my TP project.
The latter consists of 6 x 6 inch, acrylic-on-canvas paintings rendered photo-realistically to depict single
rolls of toilet paper. TP seems very beautiful to me in the way it catches the light in semi-transparent sheets. In relation to the crisis, this characteristic strikes me as both humorous and alarming. I have been making these to order and donating 10 percent of the proceeds to Covid-19-related causes. It’s one small way I can engage with the world and remain at home, motivated to work. You can see new rolls as I create them by clicking here.
I believe this crisis will change the way the art world operates. Since much of what we do involves standing in crowded spaces chatting with people, I wonder how museums, galleries and art fairs will work and still allow social distancing. Meantime, the galleries I work with are all finding ways to reach out to people while their physical spaces are closed. I am relying more on social media, my website, and my mailing list to communicate with friends and supporters.
I am thankful for the stunning, clear skies we have been experiencing as a result of the lockdown. It is remarkable to witness nature recovering as we take off some of the environmental pressure. When we return to “normal” life, I hope we can find a way to retain some of those benefits.
Enrique Chagoya. Like most people, I don’t recall a time in my life when I felt a global catastrophe was just outside the door, much less with death lingering and waiting for us hidden beneath the clearest skies and purest air we have experienced in decades.
But here we are, having a hard time believing it and accepting it. It is a new reality that will be with us for months, if not years. Yet, life outside seems to be really blossoming. Spring is giving us new flowers and green landscapes, birds are singing, hummingbirds and other natural wonders appear to be making an
effort to cheer us up amid the human tragedy. The planet is having a break from us, responding with a thankful breath of fresh air. It is ironic to think that such a horrendous threat to our existence could be surrounded by such peaceful beauty.
As artists, we may wonder how can we live through this experience that goes so much beyond art? In my work, I address social and political issues, and for the moment, I am like most everybody with an overwhelming amount of shocking experiences and information to process. I currently have an exhibition at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara that is closed, and an upcoming solo exhibition of new works at Anglim Gilbert Gallery in SF scheduled for the spring that got postponed. But none of this really matters now, because I feel that being an artist and having time to even make some art at home is an incredible privilege when the world is having a taste of what an apocalypse may look like. Reality will always be more dramatic than fiction. I feel humbled by the immensity of this pandemonium.
This new reality in my mind is a message from Earth to us with love, very tough love. It is showing us how the world could look and change for the better if we have a better interaction with nature and with ourselves.
For the time being, this crisis is a magnifying looking glass, making more transparent the inequalities we face as a society. The virus discriminates in multiple directions because society as a whole facilitates that outcome. As we all know, more black and brown people (particularly undocumented immigrants) are dying from this pandemic than other groups due to less access to health care. Asian-Americans now suffer an increasing number of hate crimes. The private health system has never been so terribly inadequate as it is now, with hospitals overwhelmed, and where it not for the heroic work of first responders and care providers, things would be worse. Domestic abuse has also increased exponentially, along with deteriorating mental health and increased substance abuse.
The economy (what economist Naomie Klein calls “disaster capitalism”) is no less dystopic and surreal. While unemployment approaches Depression-era levels, Wall Street seems happy with the recent handout of unrestricted money (thanks to the Trump administration getting rid of the conditions set by Congress to use the funds to support employees of corporations). The stock market went up many days in a row while the unemployed had to wait in long lines at the food banks. Small businesses and the unemployed are not getting the promised help as quickly as Wall Street, and this is going to create a long-
term economic loss with a new concentration of capital in the hands of the few. This will undoubtedly have a significant impact in the artworld. As with the last crisis, the top markets controlled by mega galleries and the auction houses will be part of investment fund portfolios and will prosper in partnership with Wall Street, while a large number of main-street galleries may go broke. Fewer small- to mid-size galleries will remain open, emerging artists will suffer, and public money for the arts may disappear for the next few years (unless a newly elected administration creates WPA-type initiatives.) It will be even tougher to operate as an artist without having to do something else to survive.
The demagoguery of Trump and ultra-conservative politicians who have done too little too late don’t fool people anymore. In their desperate and reckless attempt to reopen the economy (to please donors), they seem not to care about the wellbeing of workers and society at large. Wall Street lobbyists are pressuring the president and Congress to set artificial deadlines to reopen the economy against medical advice. The president is clearly pleasing them as part of his re-election bid, while neglecting or refusing to set a national strategy to fight the pandemic, leaving the chaotic response by different states to blame if anything goes wrong.
The reoccurring question, “WHEN are we going to get out of this?” presumes the existence of a “reasonable timeline.” The real question, as medical experts keep telling us, is, “HOW do we get out of this?” Clearly, we need millions of tests, diagnostic, and anti-body tests to track the infections and enough protective gear for everybody before we get a vaccine or drugs that may protect us from the pandemic. Only then can we talk about going back to work, to school or to an opening reception or a party. But also in this area, some tech monopolies, like Google and Apple among others, are taking advantage, positioning themselves to collect more of our personal information to “help” track the infection, increasing their data farming power, creating a brave new world well beyond anything imagined in the dystopian novellas by Aldous Huxley or George Orwell.
Amid all this ugliness, nature is telling us that we could live with cleaner air, without the greed that exploits resources and people, with a more sustainable and fair economy for all, without the extreme pollution that is creating ongoing extinction. Otherwise, nature in all its wisdom is showing us that potentially it could get rid of us without eliminating the rest of life on the planet because we are part of nature, and if we continue our conflict with her, she has the upper hand.
It is a time for reflection. How did we get here and how could we move forward to a healthier reality? What is the role of art in this process? Art may not save the world by itself, but it may help us to think more creatively and may help us fight for a better future. Otherwise, we may just well head towards our own accelerated extinction (hopefully with the rest of life on the planet intact). This, I am sure, will inspire new art.
To stay sane, my wife (artist Kara Maria) and I take daily walks around our neighborhood, wearing our masks and crossing the street if we see people coming our way, talking to our neighbors from a yelling distance, enjoying the breath of fresh air, admiring the birds and flowers that we are lucky to have around. At home, we cook comfort food that we are fortunate to have and watch non-violent dramas and comedies on TV. We are seeing life through the eyes of death, with a deeper appreciation, taking nothing for granted, listening to the message Earth is trying to tell us. We should listen to her for our life’s sake.