Inspired by the ways in which COVID-19 has limited and transformed our in-person access to and experience of galleries, festivals, museums, and other designated art spaces, Brief Encounters with Art investigates the power, potential, and complexities of encountering art in passing moments and unexpected locations. If you have suggestions, ideas, or feedback, feel free to contact us at [email protected].
For an avid museum goer like myself, COVID-19 has changed the way I interact with art. Since the pandemic began, I’ve immersed myself in the virtual realm of art. I’ve become more diligent at following local artists and makers in CU, as well as around the world.
During the beginning of quarantine, I was fortunate enough to participate in the abCU virtual gallery, hosted by CUDO. This successful event pushed the boundaries of what is possible for art, despite the limitations of physical interaction. The CUDO website hosted the traditional typographic-themed showcase and attendees of the virtual gallery opening interacted on Zoom chat rooms.
However, despite actively looking at art online I haven’t found it to be as satisfying. Screen time has become a necessary part of my life, as a graphic designer, as well as a primary communication tool during quarantine. Staring at my laptop and phone for extended periods of time has become draining both physically and mentally.
When I look at art digitally I feel as though I am not getting the full experience. There is something so vital about seeing art in person and being in a physical space with the visual language that a piece is communicating. You can’t experience a 6-foot-tall painting the same way just by glancing at it on your 6-inch phone screen. You can’t see the layered texture of paint on the canvas through a 300-dpi photograph. You can’t feel the brushstrokes, line work, shading, etc. through a virtual encounter. To really look at artwork and appreciate it fully means to be present.
Location: Interior of Flying Machine Avionics, midtown Champaign
Installation format: Work, in charcoal, paint, digital, installed on interior walls
Artists: Patrick Earl Hammie and Stacey Robinson
I’ve always appreciated coffee shops and cafes for showcasing art and making their interior spaces feel like galleries. Since July 2020, Flying Machine Avionics in Champaign has been displaying the artwork of Stacey Robinson and Patrick Earl Hammie. According to Robinson, “Josh wanted to provide a safe space for the black community.” Originally, intended to host BPoC events, the space has turned into a miniature exhibit. It is inspiring that local CU businesses strive to be Black Lives Matter allies and actively seek out ways in which they can support the BPoC in their community.
Viewing access: Mostly from within the cafe interior, with a limited view from outside
My brief encounter, in brief:
Walking in to Avionics you are immediately greeted by three works of art. They are so prominently displayed you forget your primary objective was to secure a cup of coffee. Every time I walk through the door I get drawn into the eyes of the middle subject. Her gaze is strong and her expression is difficult to decipher. This uncertainty intrigues me and I begin to ponder what she might be thinking. The piece, Hammie’s Ingrid Silva Drawing, is a lovely charcoal portrait. She is surrounded by two Afrofuturistic collages created by Robinson.
I enjoy that a higher rendering in an alternative medium of the same portrait is displayed inside the coffee shop. The large-scale oil painting creates a different viewing experience. The warm colors make the subject more approachable, despite the canvas being three times as large as the drawing. The color amplifies the voice of the woman and I am inclined to move closer and observe the brush strokes that make up her existence. At this point I remind myself to place my order and while my drink is being prepared I explore the gallery further.
I go back to the starting point and this time I focus on Robinson’s work. I really appreciate the brightness and boldness of these pieces. The surreal settings allow me to travel within my thoughts and think more critically about the messages being portrayed. The abduction occurring in the fictitious Planet Deep South firmly prompts viewers of the ongoing protests against police brutality. The hope is that in the future Black folks will not vanish into the abyss without any explanation. These pieces are reminders that there is a lot of work to be done in restructuring our society.
Another piece by Robinson is located on the opposite wall. It depicts a Black figure with branches and leaves growing out of their head. The variety of textures and intricate weaving lines keeps my eyes continuously wandering throughout the illustration. At this point I realize my coffee has been waiting for me on the counter…
I feel a bit strange lingering in a public space during a pandemic but the time it takes to prepare my drink gives me ample time to immerse myself within the artwork. It helps that I frequent Avionics often, so I’ve had multiple occasions to really look at the pieces.
I do wish there was more artwork on display. As I mentioned earlier, I think viewing art in person is an extremely special and intimate experience that cannot be recreated virtually. Additionally, I think that more signage would be helpful, such as labels stating the artist’s name, the medium, and a short artist statement or explanation of the piece. Since I am a student at the University of Illinois School of Art and Design I am very familiar with the themes within the work of these two professors but newcomers are losing this valuable information.
Galleries within atypical settings, such as cafés and coffee shops, provide access to artwork for those who wouldn’t go out of their way to see it in a museum. Furthermore, they bring attention to work that has important social and political messages. I believe that more restaurants, bars, and any other public spaces should exhibit artwork within them. This creates conversation, inspires critical thinking, and builds a stronger overall sense of community.