Softness and Creativity in the time of COVID-19

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By Marianna Schultz

Since social distancing began, art and creation have been some of the first things that people have turned to. Open any social media feed to see people posting about their painting, knitting, photography, baking, and beading projects. The activities that people normally save for their limited free time are still filling that time, but now that time is more abundant than ever. With this empty time comes an empty canvas, and maybe a sense of obligation placed on something that is supposed to be exciting.

Though it may be a dream for some to create art in isolation for days on end, for most a sense of balance is needed between time being generative, and time drawing inspiration from a group of similarly creative people. It’s important to acknowledge that something now is different from creating something from a couple of months ago. As the current landscape continues to change, artists are asking the questions: How are we documenting this time? How will we remember it? How can we make something of it?

The virtual AIR Series is a creativity circle for those who are seeking a space to share and discuss each other’s work, and to discuss what it means to be an artist during this time. The group first met on April 26th over Zoom, and consisted of local artists Synn Kune, Timothy, Alistair and Keiko. No one was exactly sure of what the workshop would entail, but came hoping for a collaborative space to work with other self-isolating artists. The group members began to share their recent projects, some via screen sharing. While some have found themselves wanting to use art to capture feelings of uncertainty or change related to COVID-19, others use it as a way to distract from the stress of day to day life.

After the general chit chat about current life during the pandemic, the artists began to talk about the ways that the pandemic has been affecting their work. A prominent theme of “making do,” wove it’s way throughout the discussion that evening. Keiko shared an animal study she read while ago about losing the sense of taste. When rats lose salivary glands (in a study experiment), they eventually die due to secondary neurotransmitter dysfunction leading to decreased iron absorption. But when a human loses their sense of taste (like the one of COVID-19 symptoms), what would they do or should do? Keiko has a friend who experienced a loss of taste, but still enjoyed food by adding interesting textures. Speaking of human ingenuity, the artists were reminded how important it is to hold on to the things that make us human, and use them to make the best of our situations.

The session ended with a final discussion prompt which led one artist to share a recent moment where his cat sat on him during his yoga practice. The question was: “What is the gentlest thing you have experienced during this time?”

Though it would be easy for artistic communities dwindle into isolation, many other organizations are also making the effort to come together in ways similar to the AIR Series. Community centres, friendship centres, and many other groups have taken to social media to continue to connect and be creative together. The significance of the situation is not lost on those who know the art produced during this time will be important in later years. One publisher in BC hopes to publish a book of stories inspired by Bocaccio’s The Decameron, which takes place during the Black Plague in Italy. A museum in Trail, BC is asking nearby residents to submit their personal journal entries for a future exhibition. A Vancouver photography festival, like many others, has moved their exhibition online and is showing a collection of “Social Distancing Portraits.”

In the second week of the workshop, it grew with the addition of two new artists, Susan Coleman and Varouj Gumuchian. While last week was more uncertain, this week it was clear just how much the artists were embracing social isolation. As the artists continued to discuss the work they have been producing, they pointed out the privilege it is to be able to stay home. And as they’ve embraced that privilege, the artists discuss the ways they have found to appreciate their artistic space.

A few of the thoughts expressed included the appreciation of “a simpler state,” and “the growing intimacy by separation.” The artists seemed to be in agreement that introverts were thriving during this time. A similar sentiment is shared by the artists George Condo in the New York Times article that Keiko shared with the group this week: “Artists like isolation.”

The AIR series continues to adapt and evolve week by week as the world has been for the past months. The malleability of the circle’s format seems to reflect the transitory period we are all in, where dates and deadlines seem to take on a gradient quality. The sense of self-kindness combined with the motivation to make something out of this situation leads to a productive and supportive circle. As the group begins to produce more work together, it is being exhibited online at the Vancouver Virtual Art Gallery (ViAG).

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