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The Quarantined Artist

But whence this need of unity, coordination of mood? Surely it may be a necessity of the human soul in its effort to affirm itself to itself and to subdue the outer world to its purposes. The soul, consciousness, character, is forever threatened with disintegration by the various forces of nature; our surroundings tend to break us to bits, to wash us away. The human personality has purpose, direction, unity, coordination as a law of its persistence. And we persist by adapting our surroundings to ourselves quite as much as ourselves to our surroundings; indeed, the latter would be on the road to disintegration, to extinction, it would mean the person, the soul, the type, swallowed up in what compared with it is the endlessly fluctuating chaos.

Vernon Lee, "The Psychology of an Art Writer", 1904.

On March 21st Chicago’s “Stay at home order” began, but for many of us, we have been quarantining for longer. Today is day 28 for me and it feels like my physical actions are moving in a different room than my thoughts. My mood is uncoordinated and scattered, making it difficult to get lost in a drawing or focus on a task through to completion. My motivation and concentration exist only in short bursts; any progress made is in fits and starts.

In early March, before I had begun to comprehend what coronavirus had in store for us, I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts to visit my family. Instead of playing with my nephews in the woods or watching goofy kids shows, I spent the days learning about the unfolding global pandemic and each night exhausted by my effort to remain calm. On the flight back, I sat in a middle seat, between a man in a surgical mask and a young woman who resembled my sister only in profile. The change in state from grounded to airborne initiated the tear ducts of my eyes. For the entire trip home in some sort of hypnotic state of anticipated grief, still as a statue, fingers laced in my lap, I cried.

Visiting family reminds me that I was a sensitive and fearful child and that anxiousness is a family trait. I’ve come to learn that global pandemics stir up all kinds of latent anxieties. As an adult I have learned ample strategies to work through everyday anxiety. The studio is my refuge from chaos, my hortus inclusus, it is a thoughtfully planned out space, organized with everything easily in reach; paints, drawing materials, books etc. Everything is in its respective containers, tray or area.

For two decades now, I’ve been filling the empty spaces between this and that in the studio painting, drawing or making things with my hands. I swing between focused, careful methodical work and freer rhythmic, quick and gestural modes. Time is an artist’s best friend. But this time we have been gifted is not the extra time we wished for, this kind of time feels polluted and heavy. I’ve observed myself over these 28 days and noticed that many of my usual strategies to subdue the distraction of the world outside fail. I cannot conjure that sense of refuge or eager anticipation. I cannot seem to lose awareness of time in there, as I did, B.C. (before corona), building worlds through density of marks and guiding the eye with color cues, it just does not work. I am not saying I cannot adapt, I am simply admitting that I don’t know how yet. 

As I grapple with how to once again be absorbed in my work, find purpose, direction, unity, and coordination. I wonder how other artists around the world are coping and how the realities of this global pandemic are effecting their studio practice? To begin to answer that question, I’ve asked four Chicago artists to share their experiences so far, in hopes of conjuring camaraderie and strategies to help us adapt to our unsteady surroundings.

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Amanda Joy Calobrisi’s live/work studio (photo courtesy of Mark Ballogg @makingspace)

Kelly Neibert

I have no idea what day it is anymore. I can’t really sleep through the night, so I wake up about 4 times between 2am and 6am and scroll through Instagram on my phone.  “You’re all caught up, you’ve seen all new posts from the last three days” but I keep trying to refresh the screen a few times anyway before passing out again.  

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Kelly Neibert’s temporary home studio (photo courtesy of the artist)

I usually stumble out of bed between 10am and noon, make coffee, pet the cat, and sit on the couch for an hour trying to decide whether to walk 40 minutes to my studio to work on paintings/ceramics, or work on ink drawings at my kitchen table. The ink drawings usually win. I’ve been cycling between making elaborate, healthy meals and eating Spaghettios out of the can.  I had high hopes of using this time to get organized, but finding motivation feels impossible. I keep trying to remind myself that it’s ok to use this time to rest and grieve and just be a person, but it’s hard not to feel guilty when everyone else on social media appears to be so productive. I made a Spotify playlist called “Crying” that I’ve been listening to on repeat, I think it’s helping.  I draw late into the night, using my laptop to stream episodes of Tiger King and Pen15 while I work. 

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Kelly Neibert’s Studio (photo courtesy of the artist)

Charles E. Roberts III

My studio is in my home so when the quarantine began and work hours at my day job were significantly reduced I thought, "great I'm going to finally have time and space to start working on some more elaborate projects". Instead I've found myself less able to focus on preconceived ideas and more prone to experimenting with materials and even dabbling in different genres.

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Charles E. Roberts III, Thieves Plotting, mixed media on paper, 14 x 17 inches, 2020.

I had just returned to drawing this past December after about fifteen years of mainly working in video, photography, installation and assemblage. All of the drawings I had made up until a couple of weeks ago had been purely linear and more specifically very curvilinear. Even when they were dense there was something airy and ungrounded about them. So it's quite the cliché that they have recently become thick with color and more angular and jagged with anxiety. My mythical figures which had been freely roaming the clouds have recently been crowded into shallow archways, their wings have become heavy and vestigial. 

There have been some eerie synchronicities that I was slow to catch onto in terms of my imagery. I had been obsessively drawing elaborate crowns in the early days of the pandemic and as the situation escalated I started placing these crowns on figures and then these figures started carrying daggers and casting malevolent glances. Somewhat embarrassingly it took me a while to connect my crowns to the Latin namesake of coronavirus.

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Charles E. Roberts III, Tuesday Morning Crown, pen on paper, 14 x 17 inches, 2020.

Rachel Borchers

I have two studio routines. I have a studio for my large scale work and I like to work from home for more intimate projects such as my Sharpie garments and music. One of my most favorite places to create my sharpie work is on my bed and while playing a documentary. The last doc I played was, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction while working on a drawing of Karen Carpenter. Most of my music creation and production takes place in a DIY studio in my basement

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Rachel Borchers’ home “Bed” studio (photo courtesy of the artist)

My home is always set up for makeshift creative spaces anywhere at any time. For example, I keep my dining room generally open so I can transition it to work on creative projects. I also keep it open for working out. I love living in a space where one is easily able to transform any room into what is needed at the time for a particular project. I don’t care for clutter, rugs, excessive furniture or coloured walls for this reason.

Currently, I’m pursuing projects that I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while but put off due to prioritizing commissions. I’m working on a Karen Carpenter series I’ve wanted to make forever. I’m glad I waited because she has been a long time inspiration to me and I really wanted to approach this work in a thoughtful way. My ongoing projects coincide more with music & performance. AITIS Band is a music/art project I am in collaboration with former members of Joan of Arc. We’ve been together for about a year now and released one album and currently in the works of releasing a second. This has been an essential time for going through recordings, mixing & fine tuning. Our second release will be out very soon. I also have a couple of mural projects that are in their initial stages but would rather not discuss until they are in motion.

In my visual work, I paint mostly with acrylics and use Sharpie markers for my fine art garments. Since confinement, I’ve been getting a kick out of finding things around the house to utilize in my art making. I’m now experimenting with dye, highlighters, block printing, rhinestones, googly eyes, custom stencils, spray adhesive and matchsticks. As far as music goes, I play synthesizer for two bands: Aitis Band & Cookie. I also record solo stuff and play all instruments for that work.

My productivity has remained about the same although I feel like it’s turning a corner quickly. Initially, I was trying to think positively like “hey, now I have all the time in the world and I don’t have to work a regular job so I can produce like crazy”. But in reality this world catastrophe has impacted my focus, spirit and emotions in ways I’d never imagine. So it’s been trying to allow myself to tap into my safe little world of escapism and still feel cool about making art. Intellectually and spiritually, I am aware of how important it is to continue to create but my heart is so heavy and unpredictable right now. My hopes are that by setting up a routine and sticking with it, I will push through and continue in good stride. The battle is shutting down the outside world and feeling okay to escape. I want to be aware of what is unfolding in the world around me but I also need a balance and control. It’s extremely challenging not to constantly be looking at the news and social media. On the contrary, I also believe tuning in and connecting is vital at this time. I’m a naturally anxious person and I’m very aware it fuels my art-making in a sense. In this case of current events, everything feels so uncertain. Maybe covertly though, it’s inspiring me to push back.

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Rachel Borchers’ studio (photo courtesy of the artist)

Dutes Miller

Everything is radically different.  Home, I am Home! I do not go to the studio, I work at home. I live at home with my husband, Stan. I work at home with my husband. There is no separate studio life. And it is beautiful.  If only the world was not ravaged by COVID 19. 

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Dutes Miller, Ink and color pencil, 2020.

I wake up “early” between 7 and 9 am.  The radio plays NPR very quietly and I make an espresso.  I reluctantly wait for the BBC morning report, as I know there will be no good news.  

I check my blood sugar and take my daily injection of insulin.  Today I made myself oatmeal, other days it is homemade whole wheat bread and peanut butter toast. During breakfast I color my healing crystals and mineral coloring book. After breakfast and the news, it is back to bed until noon.  When I get up again with Stan and we make lunch and our plans for the day. If it is nice we go out into the small back yard of our apartment build where we have made a small garden and have coffee. Art making, reading, cooking, cleaning, and making sure to keep in touch with friends and family.  

Some days I spend time working on applications and looking for opportunities and financial relief for artists. I forward everything I find to everyone I know. We need to be generous and supportive of each other in this time of crisis. 

 After dinner and TV and a short nap to digest my food, it is time for some exercise. Then back to the kitchen table for painting small text works.  Between 11 pm and midnight it is time to relax with some music or a movie or candles and talking. Getting to bed at 2 or 3 or 4.    

 Two days before the shelter in place order was decreed, I started the largest drawing I may have ever made. Seven feet by, four feet. And now the biggest work I am making is 9 inches by 11 inches.  I have been continuing on two ongoing bodies of work. One, a series of small water-based text paintings “Pillow Talk”. The second is a series of gay male porn paper weavings. I have been working on a hankie embroidered with beard hair, with my Stan and mines moniker S&M. This part of an ongoing collaborative series. All of the work is slow and small which makes a lot of sense to me. It has been comforting to engage in long-running projects.   

I am also painting rocks to put in the garden. And hand-coloring some zines I made for the canceled LA book art fair. I keep myself distracted and busy. Too busy, unable to finish my daily to-do list. But avoiding some of the hard work, I have been meaning to get too.  The hard work of thinking. Thinking about my work, about the world, about what to make during a pandemic or if it is right to make art now when so many are in crisis and so many are going to die. 

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Dutes Miller, woven paper, 9 x 11, 2020.


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