Sustaining Ourselves in These Trying Times
In 2021 we thought it might be revealing to reflect on the past tumultuous, even outright calamitous year, as our country has reckoned with the pandemic and so much else racially, economically, politically, and environmentally. These conditions would persist in 2021, and surely into the After Times as well.
Emerging from 2020, each of us found ways to carry on, and to adapt curatorially, in art practice, through teaching, or political activism. Here we looked back from various personal perspectives to share the experiences of 2020.
The pandemic made me re-evaluate priorities in both my personal and professional lives. Three of my anticipated art events were canceled due to COVID-19, forcing me to rethink the meaning of my art practice and alternative ways of approaching audiences.
My art project has become more developed in terms of expanding and connecting with additional women’s movements globally. As a consequence I am now challenging the phrase “the Other” which we women seem to adopt, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Due to the pandemic I observed that people became more active on social media and more involved with social and political issues. This gave me the opportunity to explore and discover additional connections for my interests and art practice, including [Dis]honor Killings.
In the last year, the big load of exposure to the loss of people's lives, and feelings of anxiety, and de-socialization, caused me to appreciate the value of my relationships even more, specifically those of my loved ones.
— Roya Amigh
As a six-foot-tall, able-bodied Black American man from Texas, I was made well aware of racism and the many American systems fueled by the illusion of white supremacy since the age of seven—which is around the age when Black children are no longer seen as children. So, the year 2020 didn’t teach me anything new about our country or world for that matter. Most Black Americans share this sentiment. However, I did learn from whence came the added pressure of following the rules of a made-up game.
While COVID-19 devastatingly changed our world, we were all made painfully aware of what truly mattered in our everyday lives. It became clear that certain things were rooted in reality (basic human needs) and others were rooted in make-believe (narrow sets of unrealistic standards that aren’t kept by those who create and police them). I also learned that the scarcity model is a myth in every way possible.
Last year, the social playing field became a bit more level as it became abundantly clear to everyone that change isn’t “hard” and that new ways of doing things are needed to truly progress our world for EVERYONE’S benefit. I learned just how deep denial, greed, and cognitive dissonance can go, even in the face of total collapse. However, I am encouraged by this. I realized that the mistakes of folks in power simply prove that there is room for the rest of us who have worked our whole lives at “getting it right.” We live in a universe of balance although, some of us unfortunately have journeys filled with obstacles and uphill battles before we even get the chance to compete. But WHEN we arrive, we will be seasoned, strong, agile, and brilliant enough to thrive at anything we choose—because we were burdened with the task of actually having to know what it takes to become what our dreams require, while those who made up the rules have only been playing a role.
The year 2020 washed away my imposter syndrome, and I have reached the next stage of understanding my association among everyone else in this world. Some of the things I was blessed to accomplish serve as proof of this. Last year brought me closer to my loved ones despite not being able to physically see/touch them. Long distance love also gave me the opportunity to become closer to my wife, my own spirit, as well as strengthening my link with my ancestors. So in the isolated nature of the year 2020, I realized that I am never alone. I am beyond grateful to have made it out of last year and I am nowhere near my final form.
— Spencer Evans
During the pandemic I helped my two daughters through homeschooling and a summer with very few planned activities. The garden is a bit larger; the coffee is much improved, and knowledge of local hiking trails has increased greatly. In both home and professional life, flexibility has been key.
— Jeff Foye
When the Armory Show on the Hudson piers opened March 5, I roamed the corridors of contemporary stalls oblivious to worry, mingling with an international crowd of fellow art addicts. With a similarly obsessed colleague, I lingered over unusual or exciting works and conversed with strangers as we sought out the new and the true.
On the same day, twelve deaths from the virus were confirmed in the U.S., one in California and the rest in Washington State. I focused more on deaths than on infections, which I later realized were growing at a Malthusian rate. All of it—the thousands dead in China, the spread in Europe—was remote for me. “Remote” is a word that would soon take on a wholly different meaning as offices and schools shut down and people worked from home on their devices.
Thus I continued, Magoo-like, riding subways, sitting in a crowded Broadway theater and working out at a dank boxing gym. Oh, I was careful; I washed my hands and carried sanitizer, I avoided people who were coughing or had runny noses. I returned to the solitude and security of my spacious, light-filled apartment.
When my choral society performed with a full orchestra and a full audience at an uptown church on March 8, little did anyone imagine that our entire next season of rehearsals and concerts in that space would be canceled. As the world soon would learn, singing facilitated the spread of the air-borne killer. Singing!
At an appointment for a chronic knee ailment, my last before the city shut down, the doctor cited dire conditions in Italy: the speed with which the disease spread, overcrowding, severe shortages of hospital beds and supplies, overworked doctors and nurses, people dying without any loved ones present. “It will be like that here in three weeks,” he predicted. Quite unbelievable. Yet in three weeks, New York’s infection and death numbers were drastic and terrifying. The city was becoming America’s epicenter. With four hospitals in a mile’s radius of where I live, sirens were incessant.
The pandemic was the first collective hardship suffered massively in the U.S. in my lifetime. I was mainly an observer, and as such felt redundant. Mostly passive, I was a civilian in a time of war in a city under siege, and staying put in a safe place seemed the prudent thing. On Manhattan’s Upper East Side, residents cooperated, and I felt safe. So I remained in the city, slipped into the nearest market to buy food or ordered take-out from the restaurants that remained open. Inside, I watched the news and washed the doorknobs. The internet was a savior.
I walked for miles, often passing the hospitals. A tractor-trailer set up as a temporary morgue was parked at Lenox Hill Hospital. For two months it stretched almost a full block between Park and Lexington. There was a mammoth truck hooked up to the hospital to supply oxygen to the ICUs. Walking north, I witnessed the tent hospital set up in a field in Central Park opposite the main entrance of Mount Sinai Hospital, the first time the park housed a field hospital since the Civil War.
Yet April exploded with spring blooms; the park never looked lovelier to me. I went outside with my camera. Would I encounter an invisible deadly swarm? People kept texting and calling asking when I was planning to leave the city. I wasn’t planning to leave New York because I felt protected. I also felt connected to my city as never before, with full-throated cries of thanks every night at 7 PM as I, from 15 floors up, along with hundreds, cheered our hospital workers.
I returned to Rhode Island towards the end of May, 2020, around the time of George Floyd’s murder but before the street protests began in New York and many other cities. The COVID protocols were somewhat looser in the Ocean State, or were observed and enforced more randomly, which frightened me at first. New York City was still in semi-lockdown when I came back for Thanksgiving with my son and his family in Brooklyn.
Do I think the plague is over? No. Nor do I think we will return to how we lived before.
I know many who contracted COVID-19, among them some who were hospitalized with severe illness and recovered. Only one acquaintance died from the infection, a woman in her 90s, a neighbor in my apartment building. But there were losses unrelated to COVID. Elderly family members who had lived life fully and to a great age were strongly present and influential in my life, and I felt their deaths keenly. Then three persons dear to me developed aggressive cancers. Their treatments damaged their immune systems so they were more isolated than most while undergoing ugly procedures. (One died nine months after the diagnosis. The other two survived.)
Do I feel these sadnesses more acutely because the catastrophe that hit the world near and far in 2020 makes me more appreciative of life? Even when there is no pandemic, I have a hard time thinking that what I do is sufficiently productive. Sometimes the journey is inward.
— Pamela Markham Heller
For 15 months, with the onset of COVID-19 requiring a remote/hybrid format of teaching, I have been fully consumed by trying to bring as high a level of education as I can to the Textile students that I teach at RISD.
My courses in woven textiles usually rely on the use of complex looms with delicate warps and hands-on work with materials. And as such, it has been a significant challenge to figure out how best to provide the students with an education that effectively compensates for some of their loss of direct access to the equipment, along with other compromises they have had to accept during this time of pandemic.
Although COVID-19 has brought about more social isolation than usual, it has not really brought additional downtime to my days. Yet a depth of reflection has occurred for me during this time of the virus, fed by the pandemic itself and how it is affecting different parts of our society and community, informed by the distant but alarming experience of Black Lives Matter, and by an ongoing engagement in understanding the politics and policies of the current and past administration in Washington. The resulting reflections have clearly highlighted the level of privilege I experience within a vast and unjust range of inequities in this world. And this recognition presents the imperative of going forward in a way that involves greater focus, generosity, and effort on behalf of others.
— Lisa Scull
2020 was a year marked by isolation and persistence and intense hustle. It cemented in me what I already knew about my relationship to art—it is sensory and relational—neither of which could be experienced or celebrated in the physical isolation we found ourselves. With all the push to go online and create ‘virtual’ experiences, I was vexed and uninspired about this new pseudo space. Perhaps my resistance is generational. Perhaps it is about an unwavering understanding of the talisman over the image.
As the summer erupted from the public murder of George Floyd by police and the mounting tensions fueled by the moral agitation and oppressive policies of the Trump administration, all senses were stimulated again in public streets and on public walls. Renewed challenges to ideas of access to histories and values and art saw monuments topple and ‘American’ adjectives publicly complicated and resisted. While the earth took a breath, too many of us couldn’t breathe. While some sat agitated that their ‘right’ to go shopping and go out to dinner were denied, many of us felt peace at the disconnect from a ‘normal’ that was never ‘normal'.
How we find each other again is the quandary we face, I face. I deeply believe it is through the language of the creatives, the visual speakers that we will find connection again, yet differently. The stillness was a great opportunity—for reflection, re-definition, renewal and re-calibration around the meaning of life, of culture and art, and ultimately our relationships with each other.
— Jonny Skye
A memorable visit with another determined board member to the Art on Paper and then the Armory Show in New York, in early March 2020, became my unexpected final foray into broad first-hand exposure to art pre-pandemic. Thereafter, initially, what the epidemic (then pandemic) meant for our lives was alien and shockingly corrosive as the consequences of disregarding guidance from science became increasingly clear, and tragic. Simultaneously, the November election was on so many minds, and participating in a "get out the vote" campaign demanded a concerted and valiant virtual effort.
Far in advance of the election, through the Providence Biennial and with the support of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, I began curating a special exhibition called Out of the Fray. It was planned for late September 2020-end of January, 2021, since I anticipated that psychological relief would not arrive even with the January 20 inauguration. Through my curated selection of various creative interpretations of the American flag, the Fray recognized several artists' adoption of a powerful symbol of critique that would resonate with the utterly ubiquitous flag presence in our lives.
In its scheduling and topicality, the combination exhibition/catalogue optimistically entitled Out of the Fray proved prescient, given the actual election result (rather than prolonged Big Lie). Not far along in its development, the host institution and I recognized the need for this project to be presented exclusively virtually. The virtual was an unfamiliar exhibition framework, yet one that would become standard internationally, alongside the expansive Zoom platform that became second nature communication for our social and professional interactions.
Focused on twelve extraordinary contemporary artists and three legendary progenitors, and with virtual space designed for artists' own abundant commentary as well as my curator's essay, I was proud to have launched and shepherded along a particularly resonant project, recognized by The Boston Globe as a Critic's Choice. By its close the Fray garnered 5,800 tabulated visitors. This was an entirely new curatorial experience, with images lent by artists and museums uploaded in a carefully designed layout rather than as works installed within physical space. Through this project I was able to persevere as a curator for the Biennial, to learn to imagine an exhibition and catalogue anew, in digital terms demanded by our fraught times.
— Judith Tolnick Champa