Friday, March 27, 2020

Artists in the Time of Coronavirus

In March 2020, two weeks into quarantine lockdown of COVID-19, Artblog Philly sent out this announcement:

OPEN CALL for Virtual Exhibition ‘Artists in the Time of Coronavirus’
By Artblog March 19, 2020
ARTBLOG IS CALLING ALL ARTISTS, yes ALL makers and creators with a connection to Philadelphia, to participate in our online community project: "Artists in the Time of Coronavirus."
Assuming we haven’t all died by the time you read this, you can hit their link here.

I submitted a 250-word piece with some photos and I don’t know if they’ll publish it (I’m not pithy or squee, a doomsayer or a highbrow artist), but I figured I’d publish my submission here so at least you can see it. I’m adding a bit to it, so don’t count the words. Of course, if you can’t buy toilet paper in this corona-era, you probably don’t care much about wordcount anyway.

So, “Art in the Time of Coronavirus…." 

I’ve been a practitioner of social distancing since before it was a thing - I photograph abandoned sites and graveyards. Sometimes I even explore abandoned graveyards. Truly isolated locales. Some of these images were made during such an exploration this past week - the six-foot social distancing rule is rather easy to achieve in a graveyard.

For me, creating art is a personal and solitary experience, but I’ve learned that sharing it with others is vital. Years ago when I began exhibiting my photographs of cemetery angel statues, people would tell me why they were purchasing certain pieces. It scared me that others could find meaning in my work. Greater meaning than what I thought was there. So I appreciate the effort Artblog is making to create an audience for artists at this trying time.

We may think ourselves insular, that we create art only for “ourselves,” but I don’t believe that is true. Creative people in this day and age rely on an audience – and increasingly, that is a web-based audience. If COVID-19 continues, that may be our ONLY audience. Pre-Internet writers, composers, and painters may truly have created work mainly to please themselves. If they had received instant feedback (in the form of Internet silence), some of the “great” work may never have seen the light of day (think of Ulysses or The Great Gatsby, neither of which was well-received at the time of publication, by either the critics or the public).

Death and decay are concepts I gravitate toward, whether denoted by abandoned buildings or made more tangible by cemeteries. These latter reminders of our mortality have seen an upswing in popularity - cemetery visits by “normal” people have increased this past week! The government has issued a “no public gatherings” order and most people don’t have to be at work, so why not enjoy a beautiful spring day in a Victorian sculpture garden? Just enjoy nature - you don't even have to contemplate mortality ...

When you think about it, this was the original purpose of nineteenth century “rural” cemeteries – beautiful getaways from the grimy, noisy city. Philadelphia’s luxuriant garden cemeteries, Mount Moriah, the Woodlands, and Laurel Hill were the go-to open-air art galleries and parks of the Victorian era (there WERE no art galleries or parks back then!).

John and Olivia
My daughter Juli told me she saw at least fifty people in Philly's Woodlands Cemetery last week when she was there walking her dog. I saw several people with little kids at Laurel Hill Cemetery when I stopped by. Last weekend, I happened on my neighbors walking through the graveyard of the Old Swedes’ Church – Gloria Dei – near my house in South Philly. Here’s their little girl running among the gravestones. Graveyards - a last vestige of greenspace.

Currently, all the stores and businesses are closed. Some are even boarding up, expecting the worst. What’s the worst that can happen? Amazon closes all its distribution centers and widespread looting begins? As we look to create Art in the Time of Coronavirus, consider the words of John Lennon: “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” Public gatherings have become non-existent with COVID-19, and so the city’s wonderful graveyard greenspaces have taken on greater value. Visit them – imagine them to be your next artistic muse – their residents are six-feet-under, a safe social distance. Now is a good time to contemplate life in general – not one of us is getting out of this alive. 

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