by Simona David
“I have a feeling that in art the need to understand and the need to communicate are one,” remarked Hedda Sterne, revered Surrealist painter.
Coming out of a 14-month once in a century pandemic, we take a moment to reflect on this monumental experience and make sense of the changes we have witnessed around us thus far.
Artists have extraordinary perceptual abilities, an attribute that Marshall McLuhan referred to as “integral awareness,” something that will guide us through the process of re-gaining meaning in a post-pandemic world. Societal forces play their role as well in influencing the artistic product from idea to execution and reception of the artwork in the field as the artist and his or her social surroundings are interdependent.
The pandemic took a year out of our otherwise normal life – everything was turned upside down. The unexpected circumstance changed our mindset, and forced us to adapt like never before. It also provided the sudden opportunity to slow down and re-think priorities. The post-pandemic world will look a lot different than the pre-pandemic one.
But how exactly does the art world respond to this colossal transformation in our life? In her seminal book “Meaning and Expression: Toward a Sociology of Art,” first published in Germany in 1967, Hanna Levy Deinhard exemplarily illustrated how humans are able to distinguish in a work of art its visual expression from its meaning. While visual expression however remains relatively constant over time, its meaning is subject to change. Deinhard strived to reconcile the everlasting contradiction in art between the artwork as a timeless object and the artwork as an expression of its time.
With that in mind, we spoke with prominent Catskills artists to learn about their experience during the pandemic and how that might have impacted their creative life.
Brian Tolle (sculptor)
The pandemic and all the chaos that it created gave rise to a different mindset for many of us. On the one hand we were intensively connected to the world, unified in the global effort to control and contain the virus. On the other hand, were in lockdown, limited to our immediate cohabitants guarding ourselves from our families, friends, colleagues and neighbors. My time was spent obsessing over the news and worrying about my loved ones. That said there was little or no time for thinking about art. For the first time in my twenty-five-year career the mere thought of making ART felt gratuitous. However, I greatly respect and appreciate the work that so many artist friends produced during this most difficult time. I alas, did not, could not. What I did do was to reflect on what it meant to be an artist and art educator. My resolve for both pursuits is stronger than ever. Creative thinking is essential for the health and survival of humanity.
Recently I have begun to focus my energies locally, inspired by the communities that I live among. My work has always been engaged with history and my sights are currently on the history of the Catskills; the place my partner and I call home. More specifically I am studying the history of Roxbury, where I have a studio. Of particular interest are the lives and careers of John Burroughs and Jay Gould, two men who grew up in this place at the same time but pursued very different careers. Burroughs the great naturalist and Gould the capitalist represent very different world views that continue to shape the nation and the world that we inhabit.
Amy Masters (painter)
My most recent body of work centers around the idea of home and shelter. I had been exploring the iconic ‘house’ shape for many months, experimenting with its form and how accessible and recognizable it can be. When the pandemic forced so many of us inside and often isolated us, the house paintings took on a new and deeper meaning for me and pushed the work even further. The house became a symbol of safety; a shelter that protects but also isolates.
Gail Freund (painter, illustrator, and embroiderer)
It has been an unchartered time. Terribly sad, isolating, yet interesting. I was fortunate to have moved to the Catskills from New York City in 2016 and had already been familiar with leading a remote life in this beautiful region. Over the past year I had been missing social interaction and community, however. Pre-pandemic, I was working on a fabric book project called Verso-Recto at The Pine Hill Community Center. A few artists including Hedi Kyle and myself were meeting there regularly to work on our books. The pandemic put a stop to those meetings, but I continued to work independently at home. Because the book is heavily embroidered, I used to jokingly call it my “security blanket”. On the bright side, this was a rare occasion to literally have more time on my hands. Working on the book was meditative and handily portable. For three months last summer I had to take care of my 93-year-old mother in Long Island. It felt great to be able to bring this project with me.
Lisbeth Firmin (painter)
When the pandemic first hit, when we shut down in March 2020, I was stunned and afraid like everybody else. We did not know anything about Covid, and the panic about that combined with the isolation bred fear and anxiety. I was working on a few paintings for my gallery on the Cape, and for a while I continued to do that. But after those paintings were finished, I just did not do that much. I would go to the studio – I was very lucky that I was able to do that. My building was empty, and I was the only one there. So, I would just go there and read the news, and sit and worry. All my workshops and exhibitions were cancelled. My art income was gone. Then in the fall, I started a new series of oils. I have painted through so many tough times. I will continue to do so.
Tabitha Gilmore-Barnes (textile artist)
2020-2021 has been a time of great challenge for me. My husband fell critically ill last fall and winter, and I had very little time to spend in the studio and create new work. In the midst of such upheaval, I have been blessed however to be visited by producer Jan Albert and filmmaker Kent Garrett who interviewed me for “Catskilled Crafters” as part of a series hosted by The Pine Hill Community Center called “Getting to Know Your Neighbors.” The presentation is posted on my website at VIDEO: Tabitha Gilmore-Barnes Studio Visit | Tabitha Gilmore-Barnes Studio where people can learn more about my work as a weaver.
Alan Powell (media artist)
In May of 2020 I was asked by a colleague from Buffalo, NY, Dorothea Braemer, to take part in a global project to document our dream during the Covid pandemic. Many of us were having intense dreams due to the stress of the pandemic and the isolation that we were feeling. There were about twenty initial participants from as far away as Bulgaria and Arizona. These dreams were to be produced as video projects. I put together a team of ten former and current students to work on a 30-minute narrative called “A vacation in Covidville”. The narrative centered on two young women taking a road trip during the Pandemic. One woman was a rock and roller looking for her next gig. The other woman was a revolutionary looking for a home for her revolution. They would stop at homes along the way. Each home housed a dream. In the fall of 2020, I made collages from the dreams and showed them in a popup exhibition that was hung in the store windows in the town of Stamford, NY. The ad-hoc collective included artists such as Nat Thomas, Elaine Mayes, Amy Masters, and others. One such dream is what I titled Corona Diary #15, posted on Vimeo along with other videos that I created in the past year.
Nursing Home Pantoum By Sharon Israel I call to hear my mother’s voice She eats so little, drinks Ensure So sorry I can’t visit now We say I love you at the end She eats so little, drinks Ensure I keep disaster from my voice We say I love you at the end She worries that I’m not all right I keep disaster from my voice I hear fear in every word She worries that I’m not all right Everyone’s so strange here I hear fear in every word I’m in a hospital, she thinks Everyone’s so strange here Nursing staff wear bunny suits. I’m in a hospital, she thinks Friends disappear from the dining room Nursing staff wear bunny suits The dead visit her in dreams Friends disappear from the dining room I call to hear my mother’s voice The dead visit her in dreams So sorry I can’t visit now
This poem first appeared in the May 2020 issue of Chronogram magazine. The pantoum, a form from 15th century Malaysia, consists of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line is the same as the first. Poet Sharon Israel used it in her poem for its repetitive and incantatory qualities. Her mother died on June 28th, 2021 at the age of 99 and a half.