Artists Responding to COVID

By Keiron Cobban

What made you realize that the COVID-19 virus is as serious as it is? When did you come to terms with the fact that your life would be altered forever? For me, it was making the difficult decision to cancel the remainder of my photography show in Toronto, it was the moment when we stopped allowing people in the front door and when we turned off the lights of the gallery. This was when I acknowledged that this virus was bigger than any gallery or show, it was bigger than my wants and desires, and it was bigger than anything we have had to deal with before.

It was at this point that I began to question how art will be affected and disrupted by this invisible viral force and whether art has a role to play in responding to the COVID-19 virus. Questions have arisen around the sustainability of art galleries and museums, the possibilities and challenges around presenting visual works digitally, how art-based communities will weather the storm that we currently find ourselves in, and how artists have had their artistic practices impacted by the pandemic

While we have all been affected by the coronavirus, each person has had a profoundly different experience. Some have found solace in solitude, taking the time to explore their minds and their creativity in isolation, while others have found periods alone with their thoughts more difficult to bear and inspiration harder to come by. By speaking with a variety of painters, photographers, musicians and sculptors, I came to better understand how different artists have responded to the coronavirus and how art has helped them build towards the future in a time where uncertainty rules.

Michael Rozen, a Vancouver-based painter, has been fortunate. He has used his time during the pandemic to push himself to work with new mediums and techniques. He has embraced the free time that has come with the forced closure of his jobs painting houses and working in set decoration, this has allowed him to spend more time painting and exploring new sources of inspiration. While usually finding creative motivation abroad, he has been forced to look locally, finding inspiration by building community and physical spaces in Vancouver. During COVID, he has found the creative community especially collaborative in designing a better future and responsive in helping its members emerge stronger than before. Reflecting on his communities response, he is optimistic: “Let’s think about what we can do to improve our creative lives and the creative lives of the community in general, put those at the forefront as opposed to just focusing on how can we make more money, how can we produce more quickly or get the next contract, it became more about how can we stay connected to the power of communal gathering, shared space, shared ideas, and creative energy while restrictions and precautions are in place.”

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Michael Rozen was commissioned to paint a community mural envisioning life post-COVID in Vancouver, Canada. Here he is in discussion with passerby as he paints his mural.

Ryan Song, a photographer in Toronto, has had his artistic practice impacted in a very different way. Pre-COVID, Ryan relied on his photography to both pay the bills and satisfy his creative urges. He shot photos for the Toronto Maple Leafs, worked with the intimate concert company Sofar sounds, and had his own clients, often working with musicians and artists. During the initial period of isolation, he found himself without work as concerts and sports were cancelled, and without motivation, as he was unable to connect with the musicians and community that he draws much of his inspiration from. His mental health was compromised and he found himself without the normal means of alleviating stress and anxiety. He would often use photography as a way to take care of his mental health but during the pandemic, going outside and shooting meant a constant reminder of what was happening in the world, how his life was constrained and his plans derailed. This was a catalyst for him to shift his creativity from photography to going to school for UX design. The decision came from a desire to move away from using his camera as a career and keeping it strictly as a passion, one that he did not need to commercialize.

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Ryan Song lost all of his photography income due to COVID-19 but was able to redirect his creative energy into UX Design.
Photo Credit: Ryan Song

This has been a period of introspection for most. People have had time to think and analyze their lives and determine the best path to move forward. As the Canadian economy is projected to contract worse than the 2008-2009 financial crisis and unemployment is expected to remain high through 2021 and beyond, some artists are considering the feasibility of remaining in an industry that can be volatile at the best of times. What will it mean for the creative sectors if more artists begin questioning a career in the arts and changing their paths to more secure job options?

The possibilities in using art as a way to connect people are endless, from creating supportive networks and spaces where collaboration can flourish, to allowing for expression of lived experiences that others are facing. Art will be instrumental in counteracting the crippling loneliness and mental anguish that accompanies isolation. For this to happen we need artists creating. This means that we need to provide the spaces and the financial support for artists so that we don’t lose creatives to different disciplines. Whether this means supporting artists through subsidies or creating more spaces and programs that allow for people to hone their creative abilities, art will be essential in bringing us together in a time where many of us feel so alone.

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