Art in the Time of Coronavirus


“Ghost Town,” by Neal Rantoul

What artists are creating during the pandemic, and how.

Time all alone, with no obligations — social or otherwise. That scenario — all too real these days — may seem like torture to some, but to an artist devoted to his or her craft, it can be a godsend. A good number of Island artists are finding our current situation to be conducive to testing their boundaries, focusing on experimentation, honing their skills, or just enjoying the act of creation solely for the sheer joy of creation.

“I literally haven’t seen anybody other than my family members,” says renowned ceramicist Jennifer McCurdy. “I’m just a recluse in my studio. It’s been heaven. Like two months of Sundays.”

McCurdy creates decorative, intricately carved vessels that require equal parts engineering skill and an artistic eye. Her carved curvilinear sculptural pieces in unglazed porcelain capture the detail and symmetry found in nature in a purely stylistic form.

The mathematics and engineering that go into creating each piece are as much of a time-consuming project as the actual production itself. These days the master ceramicist has found that her newfound freedom from deadlines has allowed her to experiment with new forms and designs. “I’ve had the time to pick up some difficult techniques,” says McCurdy. “My work is a takeaway process — carving the porcelain away. The pieces change a lot when they’re fired. It’s very technical calculating how each form is going to respond to gravity depending on how much I have cut away.”

McCurdy executes a number of trial runs before attempting a full piece. “I’m trying to spin out new forms and then look at them to try to imagine how I can articulate these particular forms and see if I can combine these qualities and exaggerate the movement.”

This scientific approach takes time and the artist has found that she is truly in her element when she can spend hours a day experimenting. “I could have never done this work a year ago,” she says. “Now I’m putting all of my 40 years of knowledge to work. It’s so exciting, The possibilities are endless.”

Artist Harry Seymour is also spreading his creative wings these days. He has recently begun expressing himself with words as well as images. Currently Seymour is working on a series of paintings that he has digitally altered from their original form and accompanied with original poems.

“I’ve always had a narrative to my work,” says the artist. “One important ingredient I always want to have in my paintings is emotion. When I started playing around with words I realized the power they had. It satisfies my creative instincts when I combine the emotion of poetry with the emotion of painting.”

“Walking with Grandad,” By Harry Seymour

Seymour has taken some of his previous paintings and digitally tweaked the original a bit to create what he calls “derivative giclees.” These altered images change up the narrative and he supplements the message with a poem. An example of this dual approach is a new version of a painting titled “Walking with Grandad.” The original image depicts a young boy and an older man strolling side by side along the path by the seawall in Oak Bluffs. For the new iteration, Seymour transposed the image of the grandfather a few feet farther away, leaving a ghost image of the man in its original place. The artist has retitled the work “Social Distance with Grandad” to reflect the added precautions necessary these days for those at risk. The accompanying poem tells the story through verse. There, “In a Time to Be Old,” Seymour writes, “Yet, for old guys like me distance is key.”

“I wanted to write something about how I was feeling as an old man,” says the 78-year-old. “It don’t matter how you feel, Covid tells you how old you are.” Seymour is not unfamiliar with isolation. As a self-proclaimed hermit, he says, “A lot of people talk about how terrible this time is, but when you’re an introvert and an artist, it’s not that bad. I love people but I’m very content with my solitude.”

Like Seymour, artist Frances McGuire is also splitting her time between writing and painting these days, with a clear connection between both endeavors. For years McGuire has focused on scenes around Oak Bluffs, her summer home. A while back she decided to document her love for the town and the journey that brought her there with a book of images and text.

“The book is about how I came to Martha’s Vineyard in the first place,” she says. “How I became a painter of Oak Bluffs. The series of events that led me there and then, eventually led me back.”

Having found the freedom to work on whatever she pleases these days, without the constraints of fulfilling any obligations, McGuire has commenced working on the book in earnest while also exploring new subject matter in her artwork.

Two of her most recent paintings are direct responses to the pandemic. “Sunday Summer Afternoon at the Beach 2020” depicts a completely empty parking lot facing a low seawall with the ocean and blue sky seen beyond. Although the scene says a lot about what the coming summer may hold in terms of deprivations, McGuire indicates that “there’s hope on the horizon” in the form of a distant sailboat.

“The Poncho,” by Frances McGuire

In “The Poncho,” a woman dressed in a bright yellow rain poncho stands on the beach with her arms held defiantly outward, palms forward. “She is saying no to the virus,” explains McGuire. “You will not kill my spirit.” This painting is loosely based on a watercolor that the artist did in the 1980s of women dancing under the Gay Head cliffs

McGuire was scheduled to be featured in a solo exhibit at the Film Center in late June. When that show was postponed, it freed her up to work in whatever direction her muse took her. She is enjoying not being bound to commission work or a gallery these days. She recalls an artist friend giving her a word of advice when she was just starting out as a professional. “He told me, ‘Once you’re in a gallery, be aware. Something will happen to you.’ I stopped trusting my gut when I worked with a gallery. I’m trying to trust my gut again. That’s when my paintings are more powerful.”

Painter Donna Straw has been getting back to the basics during her down time. She’s been producing a series of pen and ink drawings she likes to refer to as “bite sized treats.” Each day she takes an hour or so to draw something that inspires her. “I’m really enjoying being a free spirit right now,” says Straw, who is best known for her lovely monochromatic linear paintings. “My paintings are so labor intensive,” she says. “Each one takes me about a month. The drawings I can do within an hour or three hours. It’s so fulfilling. ”

The drawing series was originally inspired by a gift from a friend. “My neighbor gave me a little arrangement of bleeding hearts,” Straw recalls. “I had given her some brownies. The flowers were so beautiful I decided to draw them and I gifted her with the drawing. It was like this pay-it-forward type thing.”

“I haven’t abandoned my painting,” says the artist. “I love getting lost in a painting. It takes over. I get totally immersed in the color, the palette, the journey. The drawings are just lighter. It’s very fluid. You’re like a little inchworm, moving the pen. You’re totally focused. It’s very Zen.” On her Facebook page, the artist refers to her latest endeavor as “fine line pen therapy.”

Straw tends to draw whatever inspires her on any given day. Some are botanical drawings done from life. Others, like an of a barge in the harbor or one of a house on the pier in Menemsha, are done from photos. The drawings, executed with a Micron pen, have marvelous detail and show off the artist’s serious draughtsman talents. Straw posts her drawings on Instagram and sometimes on her Facebook page. She has no plans to do anything further with the drawings. For the moment she’s just enjoying the process. “I think all artists need to go back into themselves and not be concerned with creating for others.”

While painter Wendy Weldon has not found herself commenting directly on the state of the world today, she has found that the situation, and her response to it, is influencing her work in a variety of ways. “My work is never conceptual,” she says. “But visually, things like color and shape and energy and form reflect what’s going on around me.”

Weldon generally works in abstracts and semi-abstracts. She tends to favor bold colors and clearly defined color blocks. The artist is well known for her series of images featuring barns and houses and, even in her purely abstract work, there’s a sense of architectural form — something solid and defined is implied.

“Staying Sane,” by Wendy Weldon

For her most recent paintings, Weldon has departed a bit from her usual multi-colored palette, focusing more on varying shades of greens and blues. Perhaps her efforts to imbue some sense of peace into her work explains the color choice. “What I’m finding is that my work starts out kind of chaotic, just being influenced by what’s going on,” she says. “There’s so much sadness, so much fear. I throw down a bunch of paint and then a part of me makes me want to make that all go away. I add a lot of white to create pale pastel colors to try to make order and take away all of the confusion that’s on the canvas. Then it gets boring and I think, ‘Where’s the passion and the energy?’ so I bring it back in again. I’m having trouble finding the right space to inhabit.”

As with all of her work, Weldon attempts to bring order from chaos.

“I’m trying to process what’s going on and wondering how I can organize everything that’s happening all around me,” she says. “It’s very difficult to find a calm place but a place that still has energy without it being chaotic energy. I’m trying to put a face on my canvas that reflects what I’m going through and the confusion that’s going on around me.”

Renowned photographer Neal Rantoul, whose work is included in the permanent collections of many prestigious museums around the world, has found time both to devote to ongoing projects, as well as to document the current situation in and around the Boston area.

“I have used the time in isolation to go back through past bodies of work to bring some to the front and center,” says Rantoul. Those projects include a series photos of department store mannequins.

The mannequin series, like some of his other unconventional work, is a clear departure from the landscape images that the artist is best known for. On his blog Rantoul writes, “I categorize the Mannequin pictures as fitting squarely into other bizzaro work of mine from the past.” That work includes a series called Monsters which was featured in a gallery and museum in and around Boston in 2015.

More in line with his general area of interest are two projects that Rantoul is currently finding more free time to devote to. One is a series of photos focusing on the area surrounding the confluence of the Assabet, Sudbury, and Concord rivers in Concord, Mass. The other is a new book of images captured after the wildfires in Paradise, Calif.

Similarly, Rantoul was recently inspired to document another subject of historical interest. “In the first weeks of the shut down, I went to downtown Boston and documented the scene,” he says, contemplating the impact that the current crisis will have on the future. “It’s a little bit like 9/11 when the theory was that the world will be changed forever,” he says. “Some patterns and interactions will certainly be altered. I don’t predict that things will be back to normal altogether. I have a hunch that humanity reverts to its best and its worst during times like these. This may be an impetus for change. Will we still have the same sort of leaders? Will we still have racial inequality?”

Only time will tell but, one thing is certain. Artists will continue to document changes in society and in the world at large, each in their own unique way.

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