Pandemic: There is a light in the darkness, it is the hope in the despair

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919. Oil on canvas.

Throughout recorded history, Artist have continued to produced art even in the worst of times such as war, plagues and pandemics. Sequestered in their homes and studios, artist continued to pick up their brushes and chisels and labored on. Writers and poets continued to pen their poems and stories. Time can be a cruel mistress to an artist and living during a deadly pandemic can certainly make one think of one’s own mortality.

I have to admit that I was scared by this pandemic. I feverishly worked on this piece, exclusively because if I got sick, this could be my last piece. If that were to happen, I wanted “Sanctuary and the loss of innocence” to be an iconic piece that spoke to what I experienced in these uncertain times.

In March of 2020 I went home like everyone who could and I started teaching remotely. I say “like everyone that could”, because I certainly count myself as one of the lucky ones who could do just that.

I have such admiration for those doctors and nurses who have risked their own lives and worked tirelessly the front lines, and for those who kept city services and food distribution going and have continue to do so as this pandemic has continued to take its toll. According to the World Health Organization at least 115,000 health and care workers around the world have lost their lives to Covid-19 to date.

Maybe because it was Spring, and my garden was full of cone flowers, birds, butterflies, and bees; these signs of life going on was reassuring and grounding. So as the Pandemic started to take its root and spread its fear, sickness, and death, I spent more time in the garden. There I could lose myself to the teaming life, and visuals, smells and sounds that filled my eyes, nose, and ears.  So when I wasn’t logged on and teaching, I was spending time in the garden and big swaths of time in the studio.

For the next seven months I started creating a sculpture of a woman reading while seated under a tree.  The piece started growing very organically and soon included birds, butterflies, bees, lizard, squirrel, and the family dog. It felt like it had all the elements of a modern-day Edward Hicks “Peaceful Kingdom” piece. All the animals were momentarily in perfect harmony and listening to the woman reading except for the mother bird tending her young, the little bird who has just landed on the bird bath to take a drink. And of course, the bees who just mindlessly go about their business collecting nectar and spreading pollen.

Over the years I have planted as many perennials as I can because I love when plant life sows its seeds and comes back on its own every year. I always found that cycle of life reassuring.

At this point I was thinking that I was finished with the piece.

But as the Pandemic raged on, new drawings started to appear in my sketchbook.

These new drawings of a man with a shovel suggested that I was not as through with the piece as I had originally thought. At first I didn’t know if the man with the shovel was digging a hole or burying something. But in the end he seem to be trying to fill a bottomless hole. Filling in a bottomless hole seemed like the perfect metaphor for what was happening in the world.

In this second half of the piece, the garden appears sparse and filled with prickly cactus and fallen leaves. A cat who has caught and killed a mouse appears through the underbrush. The line of ants is surely a symbol of man and how we go about mindlessly following the one in front of us. A raven, a symbol of death, appears and is squawking at the man.

So this second piece started to take form and became a bookend to the first part of the woman reading under the tree.

Just like wearing a mask and taking the vaccine has helped me with the physical reality of this sickness and kept me well, creating this piece has helped me deal with the mental effects brought on by this pandemic.  It would have been easy to let this pandemic beat me into depressive submission and there were times I wondered if I could go on. This piece has helped me work through my anger and redirected me toward the beauty around me. Even the second half of the piece……the bookend, which I see as being darker, people have told me that it brings them joy and hope because there are signs of life and growth sprouting from the earth. They see it as a sign of life’s vitality even though our battle with the Covid-19 Pandemic is far from over.

There is a light in the darkness, it is the hope in the despair, and so life continues and I am thankful. And now that I have this piece completed, I can turn my attention to new work.

The following verses of scripture have brought me solace during many times of hardship and joy and speaks truth about the life we are born into.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:     

A time to be born, and a time to die;      

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; 

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

One might think of what purpose under heaven could a Pandemic serve. If there is any silver lining to these dark times, it’s that there will be inventions and innovations that will come to be because of it. Maybe it is to remind us how fragile life is and in the blink of an eye, how we can lose love ones, acquaintances, and scores of people we do not know. Maybe it will help focus us on the disparages in equality that we continue to be plagued by and the work that still has yet to be done. Maybe we will learn to look each other in the eye and speak in a truthful manner instead of lying, passing on lies.

I can only pray that this terrible Pandemic will affect us in ways that make us better people to ourselves and others. In the mean time, I will continue to make art.


Further Reading about art and healing

How Art can heal, American Scientist

Art and Healing, Americans for the Arts


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