Creativity hasn’t shut down for these 17 visual artists
When the city shut down, I was optimistic about the sudden expanse of free time ahead of me. I thought I’d write all the stories I’d been meaning to write. I spent three invigorating days doing so. And then my focus and attention all went downhill from there, now coming in fits and starts. My ambitions were quickly scaled back to simply maintaining some semblance of mental health. Sometimes that involved writing, sometimes it didn’t.
I started working on this story in that early burst of optimism. I gleefully wondered what visual artists around the city might be working on, especially those whose obligations were stripped down to nil, and who, like me, theoretically had no impediment to days on days on days of endless creative time. Except, well, the reality of living in a pandemic.
Here’s what I learned: Everyone’s creative practice has been impacted by this pandemic, in one way or another. Whether it’s ground to a halt or taken on new forms, artists are adapting in the face of new limitations. I trust we will continue to adapt, to imagine new ways of being and doing and making.
Read on for glimpses into how 17 local visual artists are shaping their work and lives in this new era.
“I pull an invisible blanket over me believing that nothing else exists except for what is right in front of me.” Charlie Mylie’s time has gotten more precious. Since their baby was born last spring, Mylie takes care of him while his wife works. That part’s the same, his wife just happens to be working from home now. But pre-pandemic, they had babysitters for relief so Mylie could spend a few hours on his own work, too. (Maybe you caught his debut children’s book last year.) Now, he’s sneaking in work during naptimes, as he can. It calls for heightened attention.
“It has absolutely trained my focus to those hour and a half chunks! Even though I can’t leave the house, it’s like slipping into a crawl space in my mind.” He started doing observational charcoal drawings.
“It feels great just to look at something and bring a version of it to life in a way that allows my imagination to slip in. I keep room for the strange or unexpected to appear. Sitting for many hours over many sessions is the opposite of how I worked before in the immediacy of ink and watercolor. Now, things are more deliberate and composed. Everything gets attention. It’s a way to be present and self-isolate my mind. It feels therapeutic. I feel less distracted. Honestly, I could get used to this being ‘normal.’”
The uncertainty of a freelance lifestyle has prepared Kelsey Borch for this. “I’ve always built my life upon creative problem-solving for my nonstandard lifestyle. So while it’s a little scary, I almost feel most myself when I’m trying to break through a challenging time and I’m ready to adapt to this scary new world.”
Not to say there hasn’t been a financial hit. “It was difficult before, since my work was a delicate balance of several different income sources. All of these sources have changed. My hours have been halved (at least) for my stable, non-freelance jobs. Many of my consistent freelance clients are now on-hold with their work since their offices are also being hit by the crisis.”
Borch’s illustrations are often bright, busy, immersive worlds to drop into. Her work has been here in The Pitch, as well as in national publications like the New York Times and Vice. She also operates the risograph at Oddities Prints.
On the upside, “I’ve had a lot more time to reflect on what makes me a happy human on the day-to-day, and my fear during this crisis has forced me to seek some balance between work and life. When I think about the return to ‘normal’ though, I do get a little scared. I don’t want to stop having the space that has given me time to reflect and be mindful.”
Alex Savage was really ahead of the curve in getting laid off from his job back in February, for non-COVID-19 reasons. Now it’s kind of a weird time to be looking for work.
“I have retreated into self maintenance,” says Savage. “Creative work is largely on the back burner. Still making idiot tweets and looking for work.”
A few drawings are coming through though, which I’m glad for. His mix of melancholy humor and cultural commentary, of critical ideas and unpretentious delivery feels exactly right for this moment.
What feels inspiring right now? “I’m excited for the potential of class revolt.”
“Everything’s kind of at a stand still,” for Dan Ohm and his work in ceramics. He makes pottery that’s as functional as it is whimsical, but without access to the KC Clay Guild, there’s nowhere to fire, to glaze, or to access more clay. For now, he’s reworking old clay, hand building stuff at home, but there’s only so much he can do.
“While I do have lots more free time,” he says, “it’s hard to remain focused on goals I have and honestly to even stand up and do much.” Old long-sidelined projects, like recording music, fill his time in a more fulfilling way right now. He’s using the creative tools at hand.
“I’ve had a couple friends send me drum tracks or maybe drums with a bass line, and then I’ve been recording guitars, synthesizers, and vocals over it to finish a song up.”
“We’re in for an extended period of hurt.” Don Wilkson, who makes art under the name Minister of Information (M.O.I.), is concerned about the already-fragile arts funding ecosystem. “Funding for the arts and the future of being an artist in our country are concerning. Not that it hasn’t always been. Will I be able to complete projects already in the works? Will funding be reduced? Do any of the outstanding project proposals I have hanging out there stand any chance of ever coming to fruition? Proposal success rates are low in the best of times. How many calls will never happen because circumstances have changed for the funding organizations? Impossible to tell.”
He has a public art project in the works, though now there’s no certainty it will move forward this year. “If that project doesn’t happen, I could be looking at zero art income for the year.”
In the present, there are things to enjoy, though. “Weirdly, sometimes I feel more relaxed. Maybe it’s the spring weather. Maybe it’s planting a garden. Maybe it’s the hope that since every state will soon be broke and in need of tax revenue, they will all legalize weed. Maybe it’s the realization that everyone is struggling, and to get caught up in your own struggle is to ignore the plight of humanity.”
“The kids and I are doing lots of outside exploring, and I’ve started to take my Zoom H5 recorder along to make field recordings with them,” says Julia Vering, who creates multimedia performance art under the moniker Unicorns in the Snow. Having two children home from school means less time to dedicate to her own art, and finding new creative strategies. She still works at her hospice job, while her husband handles most of the homeschooling. “It’s great to be married to a high school English teacher at this time.”
Vering’s drama therapy group for seniors with dementia is, like everything, canceled for the time being. Before the shutdown, they had completed an unofficial remake of Footloose. “We had also been working on a new piece, Re-Enactments, incorporating participants’ memories into a fictional meta story about pre-teen sisters who build a mannequin body double to ‘take their place.’”
In May, she released a single from the soundtrack of Re-Enactments with remixes by local KC acts MX.MRS, Stem Cell Uterus, Killus, and Le Maître du Donjon. “Luckily it’s easy to share electronic music digitally. I am excited, as I have never had remixes done of my work, and have not collaborated with other musicians in a while.”
She hopes, too, that some seniors from her group will continue to collaborate by voice acting over the telephone.
“I have been looking to my artwork as a break from reality,” says Hubbard, whose abstract wall tapestries were included in the Nerman Museum’s exhibition “Queer Abstraction” this winter.
He had to move out of his downtown Charlotte Street Residency studio, and set up a temporary studio space in his friend’s spare bedroom. “We have an agreement with each other that we will be transparent about where we go and who we interact with. Some new levels of trust being built!”
“I am scheduled to have a show in August, which is just enough time that it still may happen. I want to continue making work in case it does end up working out. It is difficult to find the energy to be creative right now as I adjust most aspects of my life. I miss my friends! I miss art events.”
He’s experiencing a relatable contradiction: While it’s hard to be motivated or necessarily work towards goals right now, creativity offers a much-needed outlet from everything else we face.
“[My artwork] is a chance for me to have some time to step away. I wish I could say that my work is always an escape from reality; but usually, it is also my part-time job. With all the uncertainty, I can’t place many expectations on my work other than to be a distraction.”
MARY CLARA HUTCHISON
“Within a couple hours, I decided what were the essential materials for my practice, packed them into my car, moved them into my apartment, and rearranged my entire living space to make room for a makeshift studio.” Mary Clara Hutchison, also a Charlotte Street resident, is one of the many artists across the country who lost access to their studio spaces with the stay-at-home orders.
“At first I held hope for a heightened productive and explorative phase as we (artists, writers, et al) worked on creative solutions to this nation and world-wide problem. What I am actually experiencing is a demoralizing and distracting environment. My desire for social interaction trumps my previously devoted studio time in the afternoons. After working from home alone all day, I just want to talk to someone, whether that be via a virtual video chat or a (safe) visit to my family’s house. This is exacerbated by the swift and sudden disappearance of community events. A Zoom meeting can only get us so far. A virtual gallery show does the artwork disservice.”
Hutchison’s work revolves around themes of home and personal rituals, so there’s at least a lot of inspiration to mine right now. “It’s incredibly interesting and stimulating for me to see what others are doing in their homes, how they are using their immediate environments to cope with change, and the simultaneous comfort and imprisonment in ‘staying home.’”
“I do really love having my studio space integrated with my living space. I love waking up, having coffee, looking at my work, drawing a little, sitting on my porch, drawing some more, and so on. I can feel myself acclimating, which I hope means I will soon adjust to this new schedule and return to making.”
“More than ever, human expression as simple as a pencil drawing means more to me,” says Natalie Beer. “The video conferencing on Zoom, houseparty app, scrolling through and giving likes, feels empty, anxious, and schizophrenic. Like a Lizzy Fitch and Ryan Trecartin video. I know that I need that ‘in person’ view without the frame and the false light.”
This spring, the Beers family won a two-year battle against their son’s school and its handling of the Individualized Education Plan for their son, who has autism. The exhausting experience deterred Natalie from making art. Now, the battle was won, and school’s out to boot. That’s not a bad thing: “I love having my son home with us. He is happy, safe, and inspires me to keep making art.”
She and her husband, Christopher, collaborate on paintings, using their home as their studio, a less-than-ideal choice they made out of financial necessity. “Money is tight, we are utilizing every resource we can to maintain. I am proud of our creative resourcefulness. Sometimes, I laugh and think of how I am like a Sims character painting on our large open kitchen wall, while the stove is on fire and the only way to put out the fire is to give our child 13 popsicles. This simulation is not logical at all. Neither are the times.”
BRANDON FORREST FREDERICK
“I lost almost every job I had lined up,” says Brandon Forrest Frederick. “I derive some of my income from being an artist, but a lot of it comes from doing contract art handling, photography, and fabrication. Several thousand dollars of income just gone, that I was counting on, especially coming out of a slow winter work-wise.”
Like many, he’s currently looking around his house to see what he can make do with. “I’ve started a portrait project asking people to share with me something about themselves and have begun creating still lifes with whatever is available to me at our house.”
He had an exhibition scheduled to open at Kiosk Gallery on March 20th, along with a coinciding book release—the show got hung, but the opening reception didn’t happen. You can take a virtual tour—though it may just leave you longing to see it in person.
“I’m grateful that I can take breaks from my practice to cry and mourn,” says Puce Felling, “because they are ultimately fueling what I am making, since it is and always has been about trying to heal.”
Felling completed 13 months of medical treatment just a few months before the pandemic began. “My old work had been installation and performance based and always centered around my body and my identity, but once I was in treatment, I started making work that could be done while I was sitting around and waiting for things, ultimately, and I wanted to make work that was healing to me personally, so I started drawing butterflies. The butterfly drawings are delicate, repetitive to make (they are primarily stippled), and gave me a chance to meditate on how amazing transformation can be. There are strong themes in these drawings of the butterflies being injured or deformed in some way, because over the long course of my treatment I felt the need to express my frustration over the many obstacles I was facing while trying to heal.”
“This quarantine feels a lot like I have had to re-enter treatment—in the ways I feel stuck and like what I am able to do is restricted—and I’m experiencing a lot of pain from feeling like I just got out of treatment and now I have to continue to be restricted. But I have a strong passion for durational artwork—or artwork that takes a very long time to make. I love it when it is evident in the finished work that it took time and repetition. So I’m trying to channel that passion into this quarantine time and look at my work with a renewed vision. Since I was restricted to making small work with pen and paper while I was in treatment, I’m starting to make durational work that is larger with the other materials I have around my house. I’m starting to make quilts, which is one of my favorite types of durational art, when they’re in the context of time spent idle. I’m making a quilt that features some of the same themes that are in my butterfly works—thorn brambles that are restricting growth—and I’m expanding my butterfly drawings to show an evolution from destructed butterflies to galvanized ones. I’m trying to look forward to healing and comfort.”
“I have been waking up excited to meet each new day and to put brush to canvas,” says Ida Patton. “It is difficult for me to publicly share that this has been one of the most clarifying, heart centering, and beautiful times I have had within my practice in a very long time without feeling a slight layer of guilt at how many people are suffering because of this virus.”
Before the pandemic, Patton had felt stuck in her creative practice, putting all her energy into her day job in retail. Now, though, “I don’t feel as fearful about taking greater risks with my work and am rewiring my brain so that I do not feel as if I am on some kind of deadline with my own creative practice. Painting feels like a way for me to connect with myself and to invite others to access their creativity.”
She’s working on a large painting in a familiar style: Working from a friend’s childhood photo, she made a rough sketch on the canvas and is building layers of paint in sections. But she’s also expanding. “The rest of the work I’ve been making has been all over the place and it feels very freeing.” She’s working from memory and from imagination, which, she says, “I have never given myself permission to do before.”
“There’s nothing to look forward to right now,” says Stephen Proski. He had planned to start graduate school in the fall, but if they cancel in-person classes, he might not attend. “I feel very hesitant to uproot myself and move to a different city if my first semester is going to be done virtually.”
For now, he says, “I find myself very inspired, but highly unmotivated. My sketchbook just keeps filling up with titles for paintings, and reference points, and symbolism to resort back to. I’m looking forward to sitting down and drawing at some point. But right now, all I’ve been doing is cutting and sewing and face-timing with equally depressed and unmotivated friends.”
As for the various organizations trying out various virtual experiences—they don’t quite cut it. “All of these online ‘exhibitions’ are not adequate surrogates for experiences.”
An Arte Laguna Prize exhibition in Venice, IT: not happening. An exhibition in Iowa City to coincide with the election: postponed, indefinitely. An artist residency at Wassaic Project in upstate New York in June: nope, also postponed.
Watne’s year, like all of ours, is suddenly looking very different than planned. On the day-to-day, now, “It has been a challenge to get to the studio, to deal with my three children 24/7, and I have to find time and space to be active and creative.”
But Watne sees the potential in the chaos. “I am feeling inspired, I can’t put my finger on it. It can be fleeting and at times hard to formulate. It might also be too early to tell how this will affect all of us and artists especially. However, I do have faith in artists, this is a time in which they will shine.”
“Maybe this response is in bad taste, but I’m very much thriving in these conditions,” says Andy Ozier. “The weather has been ideal for working outside, and, not to mention, the limited outside distractions are allowing me to dedicate more time to my large scale mosaic projects.”
Ozier’s creative practice has shifted over the last few years to be more environmentally-based than studio-based. He works in his wooded midtown backyard to remove invasive species and replace them with beneficial ones that attract wildlife. “I suppose I’m treating the land as a canvas to experiment with unconventional landscape design, idea,s and processes.”
He also casts concrete shapes and then covers them in mosaics for embellishments, making garden pathways and borders. The biggest project he’s working on will eventually be a 50-foot-by-3-foot rainbow gradient mosaic path.
“Throughout the quarantine thus far, perennials around my yard have been slowly blooming. I suppose I look forward to walking around each day and discovering new blooms and growth.”
There’s a challenge, though: getting additional supplies. “I went to Home Depot a few times prior to the stay at home order, but when I attempted to go a week or so back and drove into the parking lot and was floored by how many people seemed to be there shopping and disregarding space, and decided not to go in.”
“I was harboring a lot of anxiety for a while that felt like my heart was a gigantic ball of rubber bands,” says Julia Monte, “so large the bands might start popping off.” While she’s still getting income from her part-time job, she’s lost her income from bartending. Like many folks right now, the finances are a struggle.
“Doing things I usually don’t have time for (workaholic over here…) having a dog to spend time with, exercising, and many virtual connections with family and friends, have extremely helped gently discard those stressful bands of tension.”
Monte’s the editor of Informality Blog, covering local art, and their Crit Club has moved to Instagram Live. Each session has a selection of artists lined up to share their work.
“It has been a great opportunity for artists to share what they are working on and engage in a conversation about it without having to leave home. It is helpful for me as well, to engage with them and be inspired. I hope we can reach as many artists as possible, to present or simply participate by watching, and bridge any gaps we can this way. I appreciate being alone, but I crave socialization and connectivity. The internet is a place of possibilities (if even a bit overwhelming!)”
“Like everything else during quarantine, making art has looked a little bit different. While things have been unstable and unpredictable, I felt it was more important for me now than ever to continue to do what I enjoy,” says local photographer and Pitch intern Samantha Solmar.
“Unfortunately, my shoots during the end of March and all of April were canceled, which meant I had to get creative about how I was, well, creative. As things started opening up, I felt more comfortable shooting with models as long as we were outside and not super close to each other. This smoke bomb shoot was actually my friend’s idea, but I’ve always loved playing with bright colors and distortion to create almost dream-like images, so I was down.”