Dispatches from the Plague, Part Three

By May 11, 2020

Over the past six weeks, we’ve asked artists, writers, nonprofit leaders, gallery directors, and others across the South about how they are navigating the dramatic changes to daily life brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this third roundup of Dispatches from the Plague, we hear six additional perspectives on life during COVID-19.

Jim Buchman, Untitled, 1971. Courtesy of Tops Gallery, Memphis.

When the it became clear in the second week of March that all public gatherings would be suspended, I had to cancel the closing events for Corinne Jones’s exhibition Allegory of the Unnamed Cave. This show was a large-scale painting installation conceived as physical space for social connectivity. We had a roundtable and performance planned, along with the closing reception. It was a bummer to have to cancel.

After accepting that this was not going to end any time soon, I changed the gallery’s short-term plans. Tops has two exhibition spaces: the main gallery is in a basement, and few years ago we began to exhibit work in a vitrine-like space in the new Madison Avenue Park. Occasionally, the main gallery and the park space have exhibitions by different artists, but the shows that I had planned were all going to make use of both spaces. I decided that I should put all the shows on hold and formulate impromptu exhibits exclusively for the park space. I had seen Jim Buchman’s untitled 1971 sculpture in his studio and had been wanting to show it for a while. He made the work as a young man and it had never been exhibited. This sculpture evolved from more specifically anti-Vietnam War pieces. This figurative pieces is made from truck tire inner tubes sandwiched between two cold-formed, steel skeletal shapes, which are inflexible and dictate how the flexible rubber might hang to suggest remnants of muscles, tendons and organs. This single figurative work displayed in a visible but sealed space seemed apt for this time.

Also, having the main gallery empty allowed me have an new topcoat applied to the epoxy resin floor. After almost eight years, it need it.

Matt Ducklo, director, Tops Gallery, Memphis

A collage made by Shady Grove Kimzey during quarantine.

I’ve been in quarantine since around March 12. Although corona is happening, it doesn’t feel that different to me. It feels like what living with anxiety and PTSD is like, so normal to me but now other people feel it. The place I like least on earth is the grocery store.

During the first week of quarantine, our non-profit began gearing up for the crisis. Linking with our partners, setting up daily calls for the next two months, gathering lists. We got into our building one last time and grabbed every laptop we had. Over the next two days, we completed around twenty deliveries of essential goods—diapers and food—to families around Durham. We prioritized making sure these families have access to the internet and educational resources. We are reminded this all should have been addressed earlier. We worked ten- to twelve-hour days to keep up with the crisis unfolding. We all had our own crises too, but it didn’t feel like we could stop working to fully care for them. And we maintain a book club on top of all this.

My roommate’s boyfriend moved into our apartment with his cat indefinitely. I moved out to the first place I have ever lived alone. I meet up with my mom outside a Syngenta greenhouse once a week to trade for family stories and produce from her garden.

Shady Grove Kimzey, artist, educator, and nonprofit worker, Durham

Rafael Soldi: A body in transit is now on view at the Frost Museum, Miami through December 4

I am extremely lucky. I work full-time for a large institution, and we moved to teleworking before local officials passed a stay-at-home order. My partner has been following coronavirus news ever since January and had already stocked the pantry. This, I felt certain, was the closest I would ever get to having the freedom to determine how I want to spend my time, actually having the free time to spend on my own interests and creative endeavors while still maintaining a steady income.

So, in spite of the gentle self-care side of the internet assuring us that it’s okay if you don’t Accomplish All the Things during a global pandemic, I felt like this was my only chance to Accomplish All the Things I’m constantly blaming CaPiTaLiSm for making impossible due to the basic exhaustion of having to sell my labor to survive. I sent off a manuscript I’d been sitting on for nearly four years—it’s the end of the world, why not? I started working on the next issue of my zine after a five-year hiatus and on impulse offered online pre-orders just to hold myself accountable to finishing something. Before everything shut down, I bought skeins of floss and fabric for the cross-stitching I’d wanted to learn for ages and replaced the glass in my light table so I could work on a drawing I’d been planning for a year and a half. The air swelled; the wave was going to crest.

We waited. My partner worried and watched too much news. I felt a calm detachment as my locus of control narrowed to the confines of my home. There is a certain relief: I can’t worry about what’s happening Out There, I do not have the qualifications to help Out There, but at least I can offer other kinds of care to those in my home, my neighborhood, my town. In this way, denial can be a very useful coping mechanism.

I joked with my therapist via webcam, “I expect my coronavirus-related grieving to occur in about three to five business years.” But right now, I am numb and focused on the practical, the tangible. Washing dishes, cooking meals, making lists, planting seeds. The fact is I have already had the rug torn out from under me by an indifferent universe; I have already lost everything due to a confluence of malevolent forces, a perfect storm of bullshit, a series of bad decisions, an accident. I’ve had to start over from nothing before, after an unplanned pregnancy, an abusive alcoholic, a car crash. I know that all you can do is put one foot in front of the other and work with what’s in front of you. Bottle up and go.

I write postcards, send gifts, donate to fundraisers and mutual aid organizations. Giving money is the most important way I know how to help right now, so long as I still have a job. It was not that many years ago that food service was my main source of income, and I still sense the precarity of that life. I have the impostor syndrome, I know nothing is guaranteed. Yesterday, a man who makes over half a million dollars a year emailed the staff at my institution to let us know that furloughs and layoffs may be necessary in order to meet the goal of a 14% budget cut ordered by Georgia’s governor. My partner is panicked, but I said, I’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.

The universe doesn’t care about you. The government doesn’t care about you. We have to take care of each other.

I am aggressively—perhaps naively—optimistic, though. The garden is an act of hope. Promising to finish a zine in three months is an act of hope. A belief that we’ll still be here when it’s time to go to press, when it’s time to harvest. I hope desperately that All This will help or enable or force us to rethink our understanding of value, essential, work; reconsider our relationship to productivity, to time, to what is deeply important. I hope we keep talking about the importance of shorter work days, shorter work-weeks, schedule flexibility, telework whenever possible, universal healthcare, universal basic income, just giving a shit about workers as human beings… I hope now is the time for making these changes happen. We can’t go back to normal—normal is what got us here. I hope we can go forward.

S.M. Piotrowski,  librarian, archivist, and zinester, Athens, GA

Exterior street view of Institute 193 in Lexington, KY. Courtesy Liz Glass.

I stepped into the role of gallery director at Institute 193 in late February of this year. Little did I know what was in store for me then. Not only was I tasked with familiarizing myself with the ins and outs of an organization I had previously enjoyed from a visitor’s perspective, but just one month into my tenure, the United States got hit with the pandemic. I had to cancel my first event just a few weeks after planning it. 

Right from the start, I had to rethink everything I was planning on doing. It was overwhelming, but I realized I was in a particularly good spot to move forward because I was still familiarizing myself with how to do my job under normal circumstances. I told myself to buck up, and move forward like this has been the norm all along. 

Institute 193 is lucky in that we did not have to suspend all of our programming. We are in a particularly good spot, on a busy street in Lexington with a huge gallery window facing the street. We’ve turned the gallery into an oversized jewelry box, allowing people to peek at the curiosities inside from the safety of the street in front. The arts nurture our creative minds, and we still need to remind people how important it is to have art in their lives.

Liz Glass, director, Institute 193, Lexington

My brain and productivity are all over the place. I’m doing personal projects like refurbishing chairs from estate sales, building a farm table, casting La Croix cans in concrete, airbrushing teeshirts, designing murals, trying to make a cooking show, and installing street quilts on buildings in downtown Mobile. I’ve also organized a by-mail project where I ship wooden quilt pieces to anyone who wants to participate, they paint them, ship them back to me, then I assemble them into a huge wooden quilt piece.

I have to have a bunch of things happening or I crash. Keeping busy and having a project on the horizon is my sanity. Also, I’m figuring out how to teach drawing, sculpture, and art appreciation online and provide the best teaching methods, projects, and feedback I can for classes that need to be taught in person. I feel for these students. I worry about them and hope that I’m not being a shitty teacher.

The creative explosion coexists with constant anxiety. I’m trying not to think about the state of higher education, what that means for job opportunities, and if I will ever have health insurance. Some of my students have been effected in ways I can’t even imagine, and the consistent barrage of idiotic disheartening news that finds its way onto my phone screen is a constant reality check on the state of our nation and world.

All of these things have forced me to slow down and appreciate just being alive: reaching out to friends and family, forming long-distance communities through art and creativity, having a kiddie pool in our front yard. These little things make us all connected and help us feel like we’re doing alright.

Taylor Shaw, artist, Adjunct Professor of Sculpture, University of South Alabama, Mobile 

Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9

In early March, I traveled to New York to meet with funders following Antenna’s banner year in 2019. The end of 2019 was the most ambitious and stressful time in the fourteen year history of our organization, with our small and extremely dedicated team helping to finally present the Slave Rebellion Reenactment, a culmination of four years of work.

A week after getting back, I was grappling with the idea of calling off all of our public events; a week after that the governor and mayor issued a stay-at-home order for Louisiana and New Orleans. Alongside New York, we were an epicenter of the outbreak, and it felt like we were being mandated to rest on our laurels. But it also felt so crucial for our organization to figure out a way to activate what resources we could in this time of crisis, so we launched a new initiative called Creative Response. We pivoted our entire organization and staff to relief work, asking the artistic community to join us in providing creative activities for families to do at home (printed at our print shop, Paper Machine, which is considered an essential business), and have been distributing kits for the last seven weeks at school lunch sites around the city. We worked with the Warhol Foundation, Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Junebug Productions, and The Weavers Fellowship to provide relief grants to local cultural practitioners. Last week, we dispersed the first round of support. I feel extremely fortunate that our organization has been able to turn on a dime like this, which has allowed us to commit to keeping all of our staff on at the same salary, and that everyone on our team can feel like they are contributing to hope in the midst of this crisis.

A side effect of this work has been a network of nearly seventy arts organizations that gather weekly to share resources, information, and help each other through this moment. In a city where mutual aid is woven into the social fabric of our everyday, it feels odd that a network like this didn’t develop earlier, before this crisis. But our reality before was shaped by the capitalistic approach to the non-profit arts sector, where our successes have been determined by growth and competition for ever-diminishing public resources, or for the grace of philanthropic entities or donors that have made their wealth in a system that champions competition and growth. It seems that when the system goes away and the impact is felt by us all, at least for a moment, a reassessment of priorities occurs and we shift to helping each other as a result. The old way we funded the arts and the way many of us worked was inherently broken already, and we must radically rethink our work and how we fund it.

Bob Snead, executive director, Antenna, New Orleans

During this time of unprecedented uncertainty and public concern, Burnaway has compiled a list of useful resources for artists and their supporters here, as well as a To Do List of upcoming virtual events.

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