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Art in the Age of Covid

Artists persevere despite forced isolation, canceled opportunities

By Sean Meyers March 22, 2021


This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Seattle magazine.

Venerated Seattle fine artists Gloria DeArcangelis struggled to be creatively productive in recent years as she cared for her mother through a long terminal illness. She also lost her husband.

“We lived side by side in different houses and shared a cat,” she says. “It was the perfect marriage.” For three or four years, her brush was stuck in neutral. “I would get one-fourth or one-third of the way through a painting, and then everything would go sideways. I couldn’t finish.”

No longer housebound, 2020 was to be a year of renewal and inspiration, with long-anticipated trips to museums in New York and Los Angeles.

Today, DeArcangelis and fellow painter Gabriele Bakker are two peas in a pod — a Covid-19 pod. Pandemic restrictions cleaved them from their creative support network, so they work together unmasked and alone, lending each other encouragement and companionship.

Forced isolation is a pandemic-induced fetter thrust on a synergy-dependent artist community still stinging from skyrocketing rents that ruined gallery and studio space during the past decade.

“Lost income and canceled opportunities are just some of the obstacles Washington state artists have been facing since March, with little improvement since,” says Kristina Goetz, acting director of Seattle nonprofit Artist Trust, which works to assist artists in crisis. “Despite these challenges, many artists have shown tremendous resilience and have found ways to continue creating. This resilience has played a large part in keeping artistic communities afloat and should be celebrated and sustained through finan-cial support, resources and opportunities.”

Seattle art history will forever link Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. The pandemic forced literary artist Troy Osaki to be creative in ways he hadn’t imagined before. It also strengthened his resolve.

“The issues of inadequate government response to the needs of the people and state violence against Black communities have always existed,” he says. “Covid-19 and the brutal killing of George Floyd and countless others have only further exposed the crisis we’re living in. My goal to produce art that agitates and mobilizes people toward organized action has remained the same. What’s changed is the level of urgency. I believe a new world is needed.”

Multidisciplinary artist Barry Johnson was busier than ever in 2020 creating murals and other narratives to uplift brown and Black voices. His message has been the same for years, but public scrutiny intensified post-pandemic.

“Being Black in America right now is being able to share our story. People are taking a new look at my work,” Johnson says. “It has been a year of years because finally it’s starting to feel like a potential for change is happening. I’m grateful that so many people have taken the time and trouble to show their concern and support.”

Illustrator and graphic artist Jasmine Iona Brown, a winner of the Jordan Schnitzer BLM Artist Grant, used the traditional medium of the quilt to weave cultural and ancestral stories into paintings.

In response to Covid-19, she gave up her sculpting space and converted a bedroom into an office/studio.

“I’ve switched from tradi-tional media to digital because there’s no mess, fumes or extra space needed,” she says. “I can paint on my iPad.” With the exception of one BLM street mural she painted in West Seattle, Brown has been able to continue working on public art projects from home in 2020.

Award-winning artist Che Sehyun is busier than ever, inluding projects for the Seattle Asian Art Museum. But 2020 was very challenging for Sehyun, a follower of Buddhism, Taoism and Shamanism. He witnessed widespread unemployment, violence, spiritual sickness, tension, stress and social isolation in his communities. Of special concern to Sehyun was an erosion of traditional Asian cultural values, with a community-first mindset sometimes giving way to a me-first attitude.

“A lot of people whom I admire and respect are going through very challenging times,” he says.

He is reaching out and helping as many of his struggling art-ist friends as he can, even as he must be mindful of providing financially and educationally for his own two children.

Teachers face some of the greatest Covid-related challenges in the arts community. A canopy and walls must be raised each day for outdoor classes at Neo Art School, Seattle’s oldest children’s art school.

“It takes a lot of energy and dedication just to set up and take down our learning area before and after class each day. Aside from just dealing with whatever the weather throws at us, we have quite a few more precautions taking place,” says Sean Demirel, who co-owns Neo with his sister Magic, the head teacher. “Taking students’ temperatures upon arrival and throughout the day is just a sliver of the tree we must climb. Every kid needs their own personal sanitized materials: markers, pencils paintbrushes, etc.”

Staff also must sanitize the restroom after each use. Students can’t reach into a tank to switch Sharpie colors or borrow tools from a neighbor. A teacher or assistant must help them.

Gage Academy launched a free online Teen Art Studio in response to Covid-19. The Friday night Zoom classes served 1,500 King County youth who faced barriers or limited access to creative outlets.

“The world needs some good news right now,” says Joanne Levy, Gage’s marketing director. “We have done incredible art in the time of Covid.”

Marketing was a problem prior to Covid-19, but is now a critical concern for many struggling artists as gallery visitations are limited and pop-up shows restricted, says photographer Spike Mafford.

“It’s been especially tough on those artists who don’t have a website or an online presence,” Mafford says. “People are shopping online more — a surprising amount of art is being sold — but a lot of artists are being left out.”

Mafford operates from the Panama Hotel in the International District in creative collaboration with his wife, Lisa Dutton. The hotel, which is a nod to Japanese-American history, was boarded up due to protests, but hotel owners asked Mafford to create a Memory Wall featuring artifacts from Japanese Americans forced to leave their businesses and homes for relocation camps.

Mafford spent 20 years photographing the Paul Allen art collection and is widely used by galleries and artists, but he finds himself scrambling to develop new sources of income in the Covid economy.

“I’m staying flexible,” he says, “and developing new skill sets.” It’s been a tough year for mechanical-kinetic artist Casey Curran. “It was hardest at the beginning, when not a lot of information was coming out. I found myself distracted. It was hard to work, and I did not feel comfortable posting anything about art because it was just not important. The nation was suffering.”

Now he’s busy creating a new series on how systems of change take over people’s lives, and had a piece in the long-anticipated new Museum of Museums. Steve Jensen, a pillar of the Seattle arts community, has created an ongoing series of artwork to keep pace with the mounting death toll of Covid-19.

A descendant of Norwegian fishermen and boat builders, Jensen often expresses his anguish through boats, symbolizing “the voyage to the other side, or the journey to the unknown.” He began the series in 1998, when his best friend died of AIDS. Jensen pressed on even as protests raged outside his studio on 10th Avenue and Pike Street.

“I work every day. My attitude is that I am grateful if I can survive and continue to make art.” Like many artists, he struggles to remain optimistic. “It’s just a very frightening time, to see museums close, to see galleries close. I have a niece who is affected by Covid, and it’s trouble-some,” he says. “It’s just very troublesome.”

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