We’ve been romanticizing the value of me-time for artists for centuries — from the mountaintop musings of the Tang dynasty poet and hermit Hanshan to the novel stylings of the famously low-profile Thomas Pynchon, for whom my only visual reference remains his animated appearance on “The Simpsons” with a paper bag over his head. Some of the divine strangeness we assign to a poem by Emily Dickinson, or a canvas by Agnes Martin or a musical meditation by Arvo Pärt, we attribute to their creators’ sublime detachment from the mundane.
But this notion that isolation from society is the truest way for artists to “suck out all the marrow of life,” as Thoreau somewhat grossly put it, seems painfully anachronistic. We’ve never been more connected, more wired, more social-but-not. Gradual erosions of privacy have wiped out quaint old notions about “private lives.” Today, the idea of an artist making a big show about being absent would seem as hammy and performative as an artist making a big show about being present.
Much like everyone else, artists of all kinds are experiencing the uncertainties of the coronavirus and their place in society very deeply — albeit with some particular challenges: How to create amid such destruction? How to connect with audiences from complete isolation? And what to make of these times, not to mention all of this . . . time. I wanted to know how artists are dealing with our new condition of collective isolation — which, ironically enough, has made everyone easier to reach.
The Berlin-based interdisciplinary artist Nina Katchadourian, 52, specializes in works that find a kind of majesty in the mundane, relying on overlooked materials and finding big ideas in curious details. (She’s created an entire body of work from her seat on a plane — or its lavatory.)
“I’m a believer that there’s a lot you can do with nothing,” she tells me, “but certainly, the circumstances have made me say, ‘Okay, you’ve been saying this, what are you doing about it right now? How true does this turn out to be for me?’ ”
On a day-to-day level, she’s been trying to maintain connection by smiling and making eye contact with her fellow Berliners, even as she keeps her distance on the street (“It’s not a very Berlin thing to do.”)
And while her practice as an artist usually benefits from her happy balance of extremes — she lives and works in New York and Berlin, but spends a portion of each year in a remote town in Finland — this new, compulsory isolation has altered the course of her creativity.
“I have felt a familiar feeling the last couple weeks,” she says, “which is this really strong impulse to make things, but not things that I think of as art — things that I think of as stuff I want to give to other people. Like, gifts. I want to sew some dumb thing and mail it to my friend.”
To satisfy this impulse she created Stickies Art School — or, rather, Stickies did. That’s her cat.
From his comfy-looking perch on the couch, Stickies has led a weekly series of drawing assignments for kids around the world. Voiced and virtually pupeteered by Katchadourian (and notably more grumpy), Stickies has inspired and critiqued dozens of drawings (of himself). He’s also kept Katchadourian busy — she spent all week sewing and stamping 32 official Stickies Art School pillows to trade for the drawings.
“Stickies Art School was this little project that I would not call an art project,” she says. “I just found it so relaxing to do this repetitive thing. I’m making something, but it’s not this burdensome feeling of making art — of needing to have a point to make.”
For Nolan Williams Jr., 51, a composer and one of the Kennedy Center’s recent Social Impact Arts residents, keeping to himself and maintaining social distance hasn’t been too big an adjustment. The hard part has been not having any way to share his artistry in person.
“We move between those two spaces,” he says, “isolation and introspection on one side, and the sociality of needing to interact with other artists and wanting our work to be presented before audiences.”
Williams was also hit hard by the sudden collapse of projects he’s spent years fine-tuning. The virus threw two of his most ambitious projects into limbo: a touring production of his “Stirring the Waters Across America,” a musical exploration of the civil rights movement, was cut short after its opening performance in Nashville. And, after six years in development, his fourth musical, “Grace,” was called off as they were building the set for its March premiere at the 2020 Humana Festival of American Plays in Louisville. On the day “Grace” would have opened, Williams instead invited cast members to record their individual vocal parts from one of the play’s central numbers, “When Gran’Me Cooked.” He plans to release it online Sunday.
“Walking back from the theater to the hotel that day [in Louisville] was probably one of the saddest, loneliest walks that I can actually remember,” he says. “And when I came back to D.C., for the first several days, in an uncharacteristic manner, I found myself binge-watching television shows like crazy and sleeping.”
All isolation is not the same. When it’s a choice made for you, you can only respond with choices of your own.
“Even though this is imposed,” Williams says, “you can establish a level of normalcy for yourself. It’s been a very slow and very intentional process of working through the melancholy that comes with the uncertainty. You’ve got to find in this new normal a place, and create space to be creative.”
“I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be a composer right now,” says Sarah Darling, 40, a Boston-based violist and violinist who splits her time between musical eras and outfits as a member of Boston Baroque and the conductorless orchestra A Far Cry.
During the first few weeks of the crisis, Darling and the other 15 members of A Far Cry had so many emergency meetings and family obligations to attend to, there was barely time to worry about the art part. Strangely, this flurry of activity at the outset of the pandemic felt familiar — reminiscent of the feast-or-famine nature of working in music.
“Right now I’m feeling very grateful to be well-versed in those feelings,” she says. “In a way, this still feels normal, it feels like a fallow period. And we know what we do during fallow periods: We get together and program and talk about what’s coming next and we plan.”
Like many other ensembles, A Far Cry replaced its docket of canceled concerts (including its March 31 debut at the Kennedy Center) with intimate living room webcasts and assorted online offerings — though Darling has quickly developed an allergy for the orchestral montages currently sweeping the Internet. The trick has been finding ways to feel like their creative unit is staying true to itself, despite its members being scattered around and stowed away.
“We’re looking for the things that feel the most complete for us, artistically,” says Darling.
She’s been struck by the sense of comfort and closeness that has characterized the mass-migration of artists and listeners to virtuality — where everyone is in the same boat, or at least in the same live stream; but the unblinking eye of the webcam is itself a far cry from the presence of an audience. It doesn’t quite fill the void between her, her fellow players and their listeners. It is the void.
“It is so hard to play for a little camera,” she says. “It’s so different than playing to an audience. . . . I know I have to believe it’s reaching people, but I can’t feel it. I just can’t feel it. People who are good at this know how to look beyond the eye. We’ve just all got to get there, but it’s going to take a lot of generosity of spirit to get there.”
It’s also going to take some endurance. As artists of all sorts adapt to a world removed from the world they make art about, the challenge of day-to-day isolation seems less of a concern than the long-term question of what their art will become — or what will become of their art.
“I don’t know if you run at all,” Darling says. (I don’t.) “But in a way it’s the same thing as starting a symphony. You sort of know at the beginning that you’re going to be onstage for an hour; you’re going to be out on the course for a few miles. And no matter how you feel at the beginning, you know this whole thing is coming. The way you feel at the beginning probably won’t have a lot to do with the way that you feel later on in the process.”
Of course, this is a race with no finish line. Or an unfinished symphony.
“That is true,” she says, and we share a sigh over the phone. “All you know is that you’re going to be running for a while.”