Smile Politely

Local artists talk about working in a new creative normal

In the days before COVID-19, there were two ways I kept up with local artists. I’d see them at shows or, if I was lucky, at studio visits. Or, thanks to the kind of serendipity that comes from traveling in similar Chambana circles, I’d get the scoop at Art Coop, or even on line at Common Ground Food Coop. I miss those chance meetings. I didn’t even realize how much they energized me until they were gone. 

Things are hard for all of us these days. And they impact each us of differently. After the postponement of Boneyard Arts Festival and other art-oriented public events, I grew anxious to know how local artists were doing? How they were really doing. 

Our collective consciousness is filled with myths about how artists thrive on isolation. But what we’re experiencing now can’t just be framed as more quiet time to work. Not when so much fear and grief surround our staying at home. Another myth suggests that art only gets deeper and more powerful in the face of adversity. And while, historically, this has proven true, adversity of this scope can also be overwhelming and, even paralyzing. 

So I reached out via email and social media asking what being an artist looks and feels like right now. Had this shutdown shut them out of their workspace? Were they forced to consider working with new materials and new techniques? Were they managing to get adequate feedback without face-to-face critiques? Were they sellling more work online? How were they balancing home-schooling with their work?

Below are a series of “self-portraits” of six local artists, some full-time artists, some teacher-artist hyphenates. I hope their words inspire you. And if they do, consider reaching out to them online so we can all remain connected as a community. 

Melissa Mitchell, ACME Elfworks @acmeelfworks

Image: Antique metal canister of decorated garden spikes. Photo from Melissa Mitchell.

Photo from Melissa Mitchell.

For one thing, the stress related to this whole enchilada seems to be causing me to spin my wheels in general. When I hit the bed (always in the wee hours), my mind floods with items for the next days to-do list — including art-making. The exercise repeats as I lie in bed the next morning, and ambitious goals start piling up. Nonetheless, so far, I’ve accomplished very little in the art-making department — despite bringing a bunch of materials home from my studio (in downtown Champaign’s Lincoln Building) early on. And unearthing many others right here at home!

Besides having a hard time focusing on much (except getting outside, gardening, listening to music, wasting more time than usual on social media and playing with cats, of course!), I’m finding what hinders me most is having a good space to work at home. What I do — on the assemblage art side — is messy. Plus, large, flat workspaces at home are at a premium.

This past week, while it was warmer outside, I considered setting up a card table outside and at least just making the crafty-ish garden stakes I occasionally put together. I have a bunch of the parts here at home because I’d planned to offer another workshop or two in my backyard in May or June. I did that a couple of times last year, and everyone seemed to really enjoy the experience. I am guessing this probably isn’t going to happen this year, though who knows at this point! Unfortunately, while the weather was so glorious, I spent too much time doing yard and garden work each day, then ran out of steam and enthusiasm to do much more!

I make the garden stakes from salvaged staircase spindles and vintage knick knacks. But now I’m reluctant to use up any of the Nitrile gloves I usually wear while kneading and applying the material I use to adhere the pieces! I’ve also combed through tubs of supplies in the basement, looking for that material, but failed. I typically buy it at a local hardware store, and can’t find the exact product online. I could don a mask and make a mad dash into the hardware store, but I’m really trying to remain at home as much as possible, as my partner is 65 years old and has several underlying health conditions. I figure the garden stakes can wait. Or I may give in and try using a similar product he has here. But I’m reluctant to make something to sell with a material that’s not been time-tested by me! 

Shannon Percoco, Resist art show organizer, artist and art educator @shannonpercoco

My circumstances for making art have actually changed for the better. The flexibility I have, considering my studio is in my house, is much greater. I can conduct my remote teaching from there, which means I get to spend time in my studio, making art or just absorbing it.

On the other hand, this scattered mental state is what is preventing me from being super prolific. Homeschooling my boys, being there for my students, worrying about the world, it all takes a toll — the mental load is heavy.

The sliver of peace I find in my studio may come sparingly, but I’m grateful for it.

Dana Overman, Dana Overman Studio, and Her Creative Collective

Image: Photo of painting set-up with brushes, canvas, and rags laid out on the floor. Photo from Dana Overman Studio Facebook page.

Photo from Dana Overman Studio Facebook page.

I am fortunate that my painting studio is in my home, which right now seems like a very safe haven. However, with that being said, my paintings are derived from a place from within and so during these days that can feel uncomfortable I choose to paint smaller pieces, ones that I can complete in a shorter time frame. This allows me not to feel overwhelmed with the vastness of a large canvas. Which is a big switch for me, because I have always loved to paint large canvases, but this adaptation has helped. I came back to painting when my personal life/health was in chaos I am returning to some of those very intentional mindful and reflective practices that provided me great solace and hope…it is a way for me recenter. And because I have found a number of techniques to be therapeutic for me in my artistic life I decided to share those and offer them to others who feel “stuck” during these chaotic times. I spent a good amount of time writing over the last few weeks and wrote a guide “Find your Creative Voice in the Midst of Chaos” that I am offering with online classes and personal creative coaching. I feel a strong pull to share what I know with others, to help people in anyway I can. I am also taking time to revamp my Dana Overman studio website to include an online gallery and shop.  

Life may not be the same as it was prior to COVID-19, we are likely facing a difficult year, and we may need to accept a new normal. Historically speaking, art has the ability to not only record the times we live in through images and songs, but I believe, it has the power to comfort, to heal, and to gently guide us into new ways of thinking, it challenges us to open our minds and it can give us hope. I am encouraging everyone to find their creative voice right now, whether that is in writing, sewing, picking up that guitar that has been in the closet, baking, singing, capturing images with a camera, drawing, painting, building… just take some time to create.

Phil Strang, artist, on Facebook

Image: Photo of Here Comes Trouble by Phil Strang. Photo by Phil Strang.

Photo by Phil Strang.

[I’ve been] painting less than normally. [However I] sold a painting yesterday. Here Comes Trouble (shown above) will pay for the groceries for two weeks. But I’m still dealing with several layers of depression. I miss, art galleries, receptions, events, live theatre and yoga classes.

Carol Farnum, artist and art instructor @carolfarnumart

Image: Photo of Carol Farnum's new work for c-u pARTners collaboration with Circles Boutique. Photo from artist's Facebook page

Carol Farnum’s new work for c-u pARTners collaboration with Circles Boutique. Photo from artist’s Facebook page.

The financial implications [of Boneyard’s postponement] are pretty obvious…sales generated from this festival are non-existent. This is a multi-tiered problem for me, because [of] money, but also because [of the] lack of creative spark. The excitement from exhibition pushes new work forward and that’s stunted too right now.

For me, all of my classes and workshops have been canceled. So there’s that financial issue again. Self-employed artists haven’t been able to file for unemployment yet because the state hasn’t set it up for us. [I have] kids at home, and luckily my studio is in my home, but we are crisis schooling so I don’t have much time to work.

THANK GOD for Jill [Miller] setting up c-u pARTners, because I did get some direction there and have been able to conquer that in short spurts, but outside of this, who knows. And people aren’t buying studio work at the moment.

And finally, I’ll leave you with these words from Chloe of Chloe Rose Photography. While squarely realistic, the message is hopeful and empowering. And we can certainly use more that right now.  

I’ve been creating more and trying to to evolve my practice into something that can remain tangible throughout the pandemic.

Top photo from Melissa Mitchell. 

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