How can artists make a living during pandemic? How can we sell our art? Those are the most common topics of discussion among artists I know these days. The second most common topic? How can I create amidst all this chaos and uncertainty?
Not every artist feels a paralysis of inspiration, but most of us — artist and civilian — know the sense of unease, uncertainty, and heightened anxiety that 2020 has dumped on our heads and hearts.
Respite for some can come in a weekend away in a safe place. For artists, the answer often is a residency. Some residencies are collaborative, working with other artists and the community. Some are solitary, dedicated to work and reflection. Both are restorative and inspirational. Both are vital to my practice.
Before pandemic, I applied for 2 weeks at the the Lillian E. Smith Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia. (I will write about the remarkable Lillian Smith later this week.) I wasn’t sure I would be able to go when the time came. Would it be open? Would I be brave enough to leave the home bubble? The Center is isolated and no more than three artists are in residence at a time. The benefits of the residency were worth the risk of travel (by car from St. Louis) and time away.
For me, the key to a successful residency is to quickly decide on and establish a work/living routine. I open myself to the sense of place. Sit with it. Walk with it. Listen to it.
I arrived Sunday night in a light rain. Monday morning, yesterday, the trees were dripping with the last of moisture as the clouds cleared. There are four rocking chairs on the covered porch from which to choose. With a cup of coffee, a journal, a sketchbook and some pencils, I sat to take in the first day.
The colors in the morning after a rain are particularly vibrant. Among the hundreds of trees in my immediate view were oaks, hickories, and pines. A solitary maple, bright red, stood among the yellow and brown leaves and green needles.
I made several quick sketches, simply to get a sense of place and to slow down my normal frantic pace. I didn’t have obligations to meet, no meals to cook, no work to deliver, no Zoom calls to log into.
The red tree went from sketch to quick tapestry on a small loom. For me, the first day of a residency sets a tone, a pace, an expectation. A finished work is not required, but this little tapestry was done by evening. I wove it “free style” rather than using a cartoon — what tapestry weavers call a drawing that is placed behind the loom to guide the weft yarn placement. I used scraps of yarn I brought, blending them in small bundles to get the effect I wanted.
My tapestry practice is graphic, rather than representational. I don’t reproduce a scene or a picture, but explore concepts in color, shapes, symbols. A combination of the two approaches came together in the tapestry of the maple: a play of color and form suggesting — rather than depicting — the scene.
Exploring concepts, rather than reproducing life as it is seen, seems to be an appropriate analogy for an artist’s residency during pandemic. It’s not “normal” but it is possible to use the tools at our disposal to see new possibilities and improve upon our work and lives. It’s time to think more deeply.