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If Not Now, When? Making Art in the Pandemic

Written 13th of November, 2020.

“Looking at my inability to function in the way I would have liked to... there was so much potential and all of a sudden I felt stuck too.” Tori Benz and other artists reflect on their own experiences influencing their work during the pandemic of 2020.

The global pandemic has disturbed the work spaces of every industry. Social distancing and sanitation rules are being enforced in open businesses while office workers are adjusting to working from home. But working from home is something familiar to many creative industries. Staying home and working in isolation is familiar to artists and writers who work on a freelance basis or independently. Theoretically, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown shouldn’t have affected their output at all. But a global situation affects everyone in society in different ways.

Alex Assan is a comics artist currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel, but at the beginning on 2020 he was living in Edinburgh as he had been for the last several years. When news of COVID-19 hit the UK, he was initially unconcerned. But as the news became more dire, the situation quickly changed and Alex and his family were suddenly rushing to get home. “My mindset went from staying in Edinburgh to getting to Israel as soon as possible in fifteen minutes,” Assan said. “In less than 24 hours we were gone. We ran away.” Leaving without a proper goodbye and many of his possessions, Alex was quick to get back to Israel and enter quarantine before flights became too difficult to catch.

Christina Rycz, illustrator and art teacher, was living in Chicago with her partner at that time. Lockdown and travel restrictions quickly put a hamper on her plans for the year. Plans to travel for conventions and networking opportunities had to be put off. Specialised after-school art programs where she taught were abruptly cancelled. All studio work had to be moved to her small, shared apartment, while she was left watching the rest of the world and thinking it seemed that “everything is falling apart”. With all the stressful factors going on in the world, from the pandemic, to the response, to the protests in the USA, to paying rent, Rycz says that she definitely felt her productivity take a hit. For the first few months she drew less and struggled to share what she did draw with others. “It’s like these constant alarms blaring all around you and you have to try to be like I’m only going to focus on this piece of paper for the next eight hours,” said Rycz, describing her difficulty focusing on artistic practice. She also describes the feeling of helplessness and lack of meaning in her work, while there are so many problems going on in the world demanding attention.

“Could I be doing something more helpful to the world?” Rycz asked. “Obviously there’s so many ways for artists to get involved and drive social change and create work that is actually aiding organisations… but when you’re sitting in your studio and you’re like… okay…”

In Western Australia, the situation was rarely so dire, though we watched the rest of the world with trepidation. Tori Benz, fine artist and educator, was just beginning long service leave from Curtin University to focus on her artistic practice when the news began to come in. That changed when schools and businesses closed and Benz needed to direct attention towards her family at home. “I've got three children,” Benz said, thinking back to the first few months of the global pandemic. “So that overrides a lot of my other time.”

But Tori Benz also found she appreciated how things slowed down in 2020. Though she produced fewer works, what she did create involved more reflection and thought. While commitments to her family were a blow to time meant to be dedicated to her art practice, they also lead to some poignant artworks. Benz and her family began to take daily walks together, observing the outside world and it's eerily quiet streets. When Stala Contemporary briefed artists on the “Refrain. Reflect. Reset (Art in the Time of Corona)” exhibition, Benz produced paintings based on photographs she had taken during these walks. Her focus was on objects that “had the potential to be going places” but were still. “The promise and the potential of what it was going to become lay dormant,” described Tori Benz, speaking of a ship under construction, abandoned. Another painting of a bird laying on the pavement, dead. “All these things that spoke of life but had been paused.” It was a change for Benz, who typically depicts human figures in her work. In this body of work, humans are conspicuously absent.

For Alex Assan, already experienced at communicating and publishing online, work continued mostly as normal even as he was forced to move from location to location. Alex Assan is half of the team behind the award nominated webcomic Shaderunners, published online by Hiveworks Comics, which was able to continue uninterrupted. Assan also produced and published ongoing projects for the Scottish Parliament, published by Magic Torch Comics, with all relevant communication being online. Many illustrators are already adept at managing professional communication and publishing over the internet and felt capable of continuing as they always had over lockdown, Assan included. But while the work itself was done over the internet, that initial connection between Assan and Magic Torch Comics was made in person, at a convention in Edinburgh. “The reason that Magic Torch was aware of me is because the guy who runs it saw me at a convention,” explained Assan. Once restrictions are lowered, that is unlikely to be a possibility for Alex Assan in Tel Aviv. The impact of the pandemic is more likely to hit Assan later, when it's time to make new connections. Plans to tour the UK comics convention circuit to sell old stock and make connections with industry professionals were abruptly cancelled when Assan was compelled to leave Scotland several months before he planned to do so.

The surge in popularity of online communication over the course of the pandemic has, in some ways, been beneficial to artists like Alex Assan who live in countries where the illustration industry is less present. “Right now is this weird time where this is actually my best opportunity to network. Because once [the pandemic] is over, people aren't going to care about doing stuff on Zoom or whatever... There's elements where I'm actually benefiting from this situation.” Assan can also attend industry events happening in the United States from his house in Tel Aviv. “Tomorrow there's an award ceremony I'm nominated for... but now it's on Zoom! I do have to be awake at 4 am, but I'll be there!”

Christina Rycz also admits that, despite the situation, she has also found beneficial aspects in the switch to online communication, as she is able to attend online lectures happening in New York. “From my desk I can still connect in a way, it's just not a personal way,” Christina Rycz said, though “I think the in person communication is something I really miss, and to be honest I miss my friends in New York.” While she is used to working independently in a studio and calls herself an introverted person, Christina Rycz claims that while she lived in New York she frequently forced herself to attend industry events and found them very beneficial to her practice. That can be difficult to replace with online exhibitions and lectures.

Comic Cocoon is a group for comic artists in Scotland that was founded by Alex Assan. While he planned on leaving it in the care of a fellow member before the pandemic began, that plan was rushed as Assan had to leave Scotland much sooner than anticipated. “The thing for me is that I know at this point that I'm not going back... if I had a couple more months, there were relationships that I would have invested more time on.” The group will eventually resume under new leadership and the Scottish comics community will benefit from those connections and support again, but Assan was denied a proper send off or closure as his plans changed so quickly. “I didn't even know it was my last session.”

At the start of the year, Rycz was planning to table at the convention MoCCA Arts Fest in Manhattan to sell her work and pitch her MFA thesis from the previous year to publishers in person. That plan, like so many others, had to be discarded. But other artistic opportunities still remained. The Special Olympics Illinois went on with it's Duck Derby this year, though it took a different shape. The streets of Chicago exhibited twenty-five specially designed ducks, one of which was decorated by Christina Rycz. “That was such a wonderful project to have during COVID... it was also kind of a crazy project to have during COVID.” With her usual studio space at school closed due to restrictions, Rycz needed to bring her duck home to her apartment, where it took up a good portion of her living room. However, there was a slight sense of unease having such a public artwork during a time when people are meant to be staying in their homes. “I was surprised by how many people were sitting on them and touching them... I was like, maybe they should be using hand sanitizer afterwards?” Said Rycz. “But it was pretty cool to see people interacting with it.” Though it was an unusual departure from her regular illustration work, it was an exciting opportunity nevertheless. “I had a lot of tremendous fun making it.”

So these creators all managed to get along with their art practice during the pandemic. But when choosing new projects to work on, how were they influenced by the state of the world? Alex Assan stated that he felt that “inhibitions were a little bit lowered” when it came to choosing ideas. Projects that may otherwise have been set aside due to concerns over practicality or marketability were brought back to the forefront. With everything up in the air, why not focus on something that brings you joy? “Okay, whatever, I'll just do what I want,” explained Alex Assan. “I'll draw this super self-indulgent thing... I might as well, if not now, when? That's the energy I've been feeling in the community, it's not just me.”

Christina Rycz agrees with this sentiment, finding herself focusing on exploring self-indulgent ideas in her sketchbook, saying that she is attempting “one drawing every week that is unrelated to anything else I'm doing and is basically just exploring a new idea.” She has also been returning to her neglected thesis project, a fantastical children's book.

“I think making is really important,” Tori Benz reflected, “but I kind of almost marinated in the experience. I think the experience is sitting with me for a long time.” A period of less making but more reflection was over all beneficial to her arts practice. “I think that thing of the quiet and that deeper thought... I think it was really beneficial.”

Despite hardship and worries for the state of the world, a time of reflection and assessing of creative priorities can be helpful to artist practice.

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