Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Pandemic pops the artistic ‘bubble’

OLD TOOLS LINE up on a mantelpiece in this painting by Kate Gridley.

Someone asked me to talk about what it’s like to paint in a “bubble” during the pandemic. 
A bubble. My studio? My white privileged life? Vermont?
Outside the north window of my studio is the new vegetable garden we have been eating out of for a month now. There’s a chicken house as well, cobbled together out of two coops I found through Front Porch Forum, for six rapidly growing hens (I have wanted chickens for 30 years and it took a pandemic to persuade my partner that now is the time). And there’s a raspberry patch grown from my friend Margy’s extra canes. This summer they will bear fruit.
There are house wrens nesting above the garden. I have heard their courtship, watched them build a nest, feed their young, and sing loudly as the young ones fledge and the cycle restarts.
The grass, once green and humid, turns gold and crackles as we wait for rain.
Inside the studio, the still lives of old agricultural tools and woodworking tools I have set up gather dust, as I paint slowly and question what it is that I am actually doing. Do these paintings matter right now in this time of fear and pain? Why bother? 
The tools are worn, stained, the wooden handles smooth and shiny with the patina of oil from hands. There is a small pitchfork rusted into boney wire fingers; there are handmade planes, drill bits, augurs, tiny saws, pliers, blacksmith tongs. I marvel at the shapes and colors, the shadows cast, the play of light on different surfaces. Who were the people that held these tools, who sculpted the dwellings and the land, farming, logging and mining it into its current habit? If the tools could speak, what stories might they tell?
One of the tools is completely reconfigured. A file that has been fashioned into a chisel (the steel is strong) is attached to a handle made of a small forked branch that fits easily — comfortably — into the palm of my hand. Imagine the excitement at the discovery that the tool fits the handle that fits the hand — as an anonymous woodworker puts it together for themself; unique, personal, random. In the company of other machine-cast tools, this tool stands apart, a “sport” in the biological sense, which is to say, “an animal or plant showing a striking variation from the parent type, especially in form or color as a result of a spontaneous mutation.” 
But does this matter? Inside the pandemic bubble, physically distanced, safely alone, I play with the things I love, shapes, colors, shadows, plus words and imaginary conversations. Will anyone ever see these paintings?
The bubble pops without even a sigh whenever I turn on the radio and listen to the world burn. 
In March, it is the virus and my immediate family: how to be safe, the parsing of how to BE inside the raucous cacophony of endless, politically motivated news cycles, conflicting theories, lies, and, as it turns out, the vacuum of leadership from the White House. 
In April the economy starts its free fall; friends lose jobs. Others deemed essential and on the front lines are in danger as they go about their work to receive the paychecks that our politicians have deemed sufficient to live on, but which in fact are not. I lose all my scheduled work; my partner takes a pay cut. My son in Italy and his partner both take pay cuts.
George Floyd is murdered in real time for everyone to see and hear. Breonna Taylor… and so many more murders of people of color inside the white supremacist structures that shape all our country’s institutions, hewn carefully over time by white people, craving, now desperate to hold on to power. People across the country waken yet again to the violence that is the sick premise of this country. We wear masks because of a virus, and it is time to march, masks on. March we must.
And artists like me, artists across the world — performers, musicians, singers, actors, poets, writers — who depend in some way or another for their practice on having a live audience, or connecting physically, are shut down. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t creating. Even as most artists are out of paid work, we are mobilizing, reacting, interpreting, feeling. But how do we share our work? How to connect? We begin to create new paradigms. 
Back inside my bubble: normally I enjoy my solitude, but now it feels privileged, safe. I want to be of use. I want to help; there is so much pain in the world right now. I am not a health care worker. I cannot even visit my hospice patient. Or go keep my ninety-year-old mother company in another state. In fact, at my age, I am technically in the high-risk group — a novel feeling.
I start two online drawing communities: one for adults, one for kids. While drawing is a practice that requires solitude, it is comforting to draw in the company of others. This imaginary, invisible-for-the-moment company actually helps some folks’ practice. I email a daily prompt, based on early-in-the-morning musing. Folks draw/ paint/collage/photograph if they are able — ten minutes to several hours a day, their choice. We Zoom together one session each week to share what is happening with our art, which means actually we share what is going on with our lives. The groups are open and growing: adults come from Florida, South Carolina, Boston, northern Connecticut, New York City and Vermont. The kids come from Vermont, Boston, different parts of Massachusetts, Philadelphia and Canada.
Isolated, but not alone. Physically distanced and socially connected. The bubble is a chimera. The discovery: For me, there is no bubble. I don’t want to be in a bubble.
Kate Gridley is an artist residing in Middlebury. She is currently working on a new series of paintings, “An Iconography of Memory.”

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