Authors: Tien Nguyen, Faiza Sarwar, Neha Dronamraju, Sarah Bloodworth
When we look back on the pandemic, most of us won’t rewatch news casts or reread academic papers about this time. Instead, we will look at the images, the movies, the poems, even the patterned face masks to remember our experiences.
Art from history’s pandemics and plagues are often riddled with blood, skeletons, and an inordinate amount of crazed demons.
Yet, the way artists are interpreting this pandemic is not about the loss of life or gore, but the restoration of genuine connection.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death, c. 1562
We are all finding ways to connect, whether that be waving six feet apart or dancing through a screen. Artists across communities are restoring this loss of connection by encouraging an exchange of narratives, expression, and hope through their respective mediums.
We wanted to look at the pandemic through the eyes of these artists, whether they were dancers, painters, or even face mask designers. These narratives remind us that even when social normalities of the world have shifted, we remain rooted in our desire for connection and being.
Creating Physical Connection During Social Distancing
“To touch can be to give life,” said Michelangelo. Losing the ability to touch and be near one another can cause feelings of sorrow and isolation, but art can universally fill this void.
Artist Jenn Chemasko is often inspired by her physical environment to produce paintings and drawings. She recently created a piece called Quarantine Supplies, a still-life painting that represents the idleness of social quarantine.
Jenn Chemasko, Quarantine Supplies
“I am inspired by the way the light hits … caresses and reveals forms,” said Chemasko. “(In Quarantine Supplies), I was very free with my color in ways that I can’t be free in other areas of my life right now.”
While Chemasko restores the vibrancy of simple life through her paintings, not all art is limited to brushstrokes on a canvas.
Katherine Adler, an artist with a background in performance art and theatre, is getting creative in the absence of performances and rehearsals.
“Within the dance community, we are very much struggling with the lack of touch,” said Adler. “It’s part of our daily practice.”
Adler aims to address a pervasive feeling of confinement by embodying expansiveness in their dance form.
“People are feeling smaller than usual and so I am trying to show expansiveness,” said Adler. “I know a lot of people living in cities right now are really trapped in small, tight quarters.”
Image from Adler’s 3-part series Alone, but Dreaming
Adler added that a diverse definition of art is particularly important now to provide multiple artforms for people to connect to.
“I think at this time when we are seeking so much connection, it’s important to establish multiple languages in which to express those things,” said Adler. “I like to create channels for people to connect in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
Building Connection Through Culture
The pandemic has led to a new coping culture that many of us are partaking in. From Animal Crossing to quarantine memes, we are finding joy and laughter by connecting to others with similar experiences. Uniquely, a pandemic knows no boundaries and oftentimes, it seems as though the entirety of Earth is in on the joke.
Marie Castiglione, owner of stationery company Spaghetti & Meatballs, was inspired to make social distancing greeting cards after her business took a hit due to the pandemic.
Let The Good Times Roll card, Spaghetti & Meatballs
“When the pandemic happened it was devastating,” said Castiglione. “I sat around and moped for a few days but eventually had to put on my big girl pants and make the most of the situation.”
She decided to design 10 social distancing cards and sold them direct-to-consumer through Etsy. In 24 hours, she got 20 sales. Castiglione said she knew she had tapped into something magical.
While Castiglione describes what is happening right now as devastating, she said she wants to use the comedy of social distancing culture to bring about a sense of positivity and solidarity.
“Humor and light-hearted jokes are what brings us all together and give us a breath of hope in the future,” said Catiglione. “I truly believe laughter is life’s most powerful medicine and that’s how I always approach all of my cards.”
I Miss You card, Spaghetti & Meatballs
To Gabrielle Wongso, humanity’s panacea is a good meal. When Wongso thinks of food, she thinks: universal, joy, connection.
Wongso, a radio-television-film and journalism major at The University of Texas at Austin, started painting when she was too young to remember it. She spent her early artistic years searching for a niche, and eventually landed on food.
“I draw and paint food — for myself and others — because having a favorite food is universal and it’s a common source of joy,” Wongso said.
When UT sent students home for the semester, Wongso noticed pressing needs in the student community. She was inspired to start her nonprofit, A Painting for ATX, to support fundraising initiatives for students financially impacted by the pandemic. Wongso raises money by selling custom, food-related paintings for $18 each, and she donates all of the proceeds to student emergency funds.
In addition to her student-centered fundraising efforts, Wongso hopes to give back to those who commission her paintings by publicizing local Austin eateries through her art.
“Austin has such a diverse food city,” Wongso said. “I like to support the community while promoting the restaurants around Austin, by painting their food and advertising some of the paintings on social media.”
Wongso’s art serves a tangible financial purpose, but she also hopes to spread joy and hope in an otherwise bleak time. She paints indulgent foods with vibrant colors for this reason.
Gabrielle Wongso, Ramen Tatsuya
“Even though we are in this stressful and uncertain time, people should know not to give up hope,” Wongso said. “I want to help people stay persistent to get through the pandemic.”
Connecting With Our Communities From Indoors
Most of the world is stuck indoors, but that doesn’t stop us from integrating ourselves into the wider community. Through their work, many artists have been able to strengthen the relationships they have with the communities they already cherish, and even connect with new ones.
Object Apparel is an organic clothing brand based in Detroit that is run by architects, Mollie Decker and Michael Sklenka. To them, screen-printed clothing was a form of art that was more accessible to people outside of fine arts. In addition, Decker and Sklenka said they wanted to build a business on sustainable practices such as using non-toxic dyes and organic fabrics.
“We try to have the message of buy less, buy better, buy small, support local people making things the right way,” said Decker. “No one can be perfectly zero waste, but it’s about doing the best you can and continually trying to improve.”
Once the pandemic broke out, they began making and selling face masks.
Organic Cotton Face Mask, Object Apparel
“We felt it was our moral obligation to help people when we have the skills and means to do so,” said Decker. “It just feels like the right thing to do.”
These face masks not only gave them an avenue to create art for a cause, but gave their business some unintended exposure, as well.
“With these masks, we’ve been able to make connections with people in and outside of Detroit,” said Sklenka. “I got to talk to a nurse today who we were able to make a mask for, who really needs it; that’s rewarding in it’s own way.”
Sometimes the act of giving back also lends its form to grief, as it does for Deepti Aravapalli, a student at the University of Texas at Austin.
Aravapalli started posting doodles and poetry on her Instagram account, @deeptidabbles, in 2018. She initially used it as a personal creative outlet, but she started selling her work at the onset of pandemic-related disruption among the UT community.
Inspired by a friend fundraising through commissions, Aravapalli donates all the proceeds from her own commissions to the Mutual Aid Collective, a student emergency fund.
“Most of my commission requests have been for positive or joyful things,” Aravapalli said. “I charge $5 per work, but some people have been donating more, which is cool to see.”
From Deepti Aravapalli’s 3-part series Breathe
Aravapalli’s corona commissions, as she calls them, serve her as well as her community.
“Like many people, I’ve lost something, but I feel bad for grieving that loss because other people have it worse.” Aravapalli said. “This is a way to let myself feel while also considering other people’s pain. Making art gives me some sense of agency.”
Deepti Aravapalli, Courage
Embracing the Connection with Oneself
Amidst the chaos of the pandemic, we pledge to keep ourselves distant from our peers to keep our community safe. The university hustle, coffee shop dates, and work-interactions have all been replaced with an hour on Zoom or Facetime. The rest of the day, individuals are left to face themselves.
Samia Nazir, a Houstonian Islamic artist, started a series of paintings called Sufi Surrealism.
Painting from Nazir’s series Sufi Surrealism
Nazir said she gains comfort in painting white doves, who fly freely in contrast to our social isolation. Nazir explained how, similar to the frozen images of doves flying against abstract landscapes, the pandemic has allowed us to understand that we too are frozen in place.
“Every day I am finding new meanings, purpose and catharsis experience in painting (the white doves),” Nazir said.
Nazir appreciates the inner reflection and peace that painting has brought her, and hopes others will obtain such messages through her art.
Alexa Silverman, a New Jerseyan musician, has taken up art as a coping mechanism during this pandemic. Her art has provided a good distraction from the problems of today.
“You go into another world; you’re so ingrained in what you’re doing that nothing else really matters when you’re doing it,” Silverman said.
Isolation has allowed for people to delve into new passions, providing projects to fruit into creation when society feels at a standstill. Silverman emphasizes that her art and music is not meant to send a message — she does it for herself.
Alexa Silverman, Dana Wendel
Silverman elaborated on our culture of hyper-productivity. She believes when most people are staying at home, they often think that if they do not obtain a new skill, they will be shunned by society.
“I think it’s okay to not be doing something that helps society; do something that’s helpful for you,” said Silverman.
Vy Ngo is an Austin-based physician/painter, who uses art as a platform to express narratives surrounding the immigrant experience and Asian-American identity. The pandemic has invoked the creation of Life, Interrupted — a series of abstract work depicting the emotional course of humanity during this time.
Painting from Ngo’s series Life, Interrupted
As a physician, Ngo straddles the danger that accompanies her line of work and the safety of her home life. Her artistic side allows for visual expression of how to navigate such dichotomy.
“My life kind of teeters between order and chaos all the time, and a lot of my abstract work uses elements from both those things,” said Ngo.
Ngo said she loves that she is able to express her internal emotions through her work knowing that once it is released it is no longer hers. Her creations become a place of healing for others.
“My hope is that my work will continue to inspire people to allow themselves to swim in those feelings,” said Ngo.
Ngo’s message to maintain social distancing and find things that bring daily joy is directed to young invincibles, who are impatient to restore their pre-pandemic lives.
However, the introspection and reflection derived from isolation can make us all stronger.
From painters to business owners, we see the unique ways art takes shape in times of extreme uncertainty. We tap into our communities, daily interactions, cultures and even ourselves to make our thoughts and emotions tangible. One day this pandemic will come to an end, but the stories we create in the meantime will live on for years to come.
This piece was written in collaboration with Sarah Bloodworth from Zeeva.eco – the impartial community to buy, sell, and share everything eco-friendly. Follow them on Instagram @zeeva.eco.
Featured Image: Deming King Harriman