This week I have been ringing around my artist friends to see how they are getting on under the Covid-19 lockdown. One of the pleasures in gathering information for this piece is that I need to talk to people, and being currently confined to home we are all available to chat and delighted to share our common experiences.
The question I asked my artist friends was: Are you working on your art right now? Do you feel that this an opportunity or is it a major distraction to art making?
The informal survey was notable for deep thought and empathetic sighs; some fear with underlying excitement and good laughs. After all, artists are not a lot different from anyone else; it’s just that their experiences come filtered through a creative lens.
This Hawke’s Bay group are serious artists but art is part time. This is the reality of being an artist in this country – we don’t have a big enough art market and we all have to pay the rent before we make art. Some are retired living on National Super, while others work and are weekend painters. Only Mary Sullivan of this group is a self-supporting full time artist.
John Eaden is a landscape painter, who under lockdown has experienced very little change to the rhythm of his life, apart from the daily wander into Hastings for a coffee, now rudely stopped. He recently retired from full time work and paints most days. For gentle exercise he walks his old bull mastiff dog, Boisie through the garden orchard in Tollemache Road. “After that I go into my studio and back to my painting. I’m working on a new series for a planned exhibition at SPA_CE, which may never take place. But I’m just going to keep on with what I’m doing – we don’t know what’s going to happen, but I guess it will become clearer. No point in worrying,” he says.
This enviable response is not necessarily typical. Others find themselves fussily procrastinating, cleaning up their studios while trying to regroup their expectations. It is unsurprising. There is deep discomfort in living through radical changes, an uncertain future while struggling to imagine the new normal. It really can disrupt the creative flow.
“My creativity has just stopped,” says ceramics friend, Di Conway, sadly. She is known for her roly-poly ladies and has been producing these distinctive charmers for over 30 years. “I am back to my studio, but reluctantly – my heart just isn’t in it. I think there is a sort of grief happening, so many big changes, such big implications; art making doesn’t feel like a priority to me right now.”
Haumoana-based painter Mary Sullivan was also very thrown at first. When on March 21, New Zealand moved to Covid-19, Alert Level 2, she had a studio full of completed artwork and was looking forward to a year ahead full of promise.
“At the end of February 2020, I was on a high. I’d had a hugely successful summer of sales and a full calendar of scheduled art shows, art trails and paid up workshops ahead of me. This was going to be my year!” she says. By the end of March all that changed – in one fell swoop all her income streams had dried up and New Zealand was in lockdown.
She stopped painting immediately and had a week of discombobulating; then she started regrouping. First, she applied successfully for the Government wage subsidy, receiving twelve weeks lost income in one lump sum that will see her through and she’s anticipating with interest the Creative New Zealand Covid 19 response package for artists and creatives.
Mary is collaborating with a group of artists to promote each others’ work on Instagram, while also separately promoting her own work and learning how to create and deliver paying workshops online. NB. There is an important lesson here for those seeking to make a living as an artist – you really have to work very hard indeed to be ‘discovered’.
Jonathan Brown is the exhibition designer at Hastings City Art Gallery; he is working from home and has always been an evening and weekend painter. As he has a largely physical job, his duties for HCAG have changed, he is still designing but for an online Mental Health programme. “I am feeling grateful for the opportunity to get into my studio and really immersing myself in painting and new ideas.” His wife Caroline is doing essential work and while nothing can be taken for granted he is excited to have the opportunity to focus on his art and is well on the way towards a body of work for an exhibition with SPA_CE – whenever that may be.
John Lancashire calls himself, ‘the Monday painter’ a reference to a snotty gallerist in London who told him to ‘stop painting flowers’ and dismissed him as a Sunday painter.
Lancashire and his wife Deb run a successful hair salon in Napier, but his paintings of beautiful flowers in glass vases are very sought after and painting is beginning to edge out his hairdressing days. His first reaction to the lockdown was “Yay! All this time to paint, thanks Jacinda!” But since then he’s been vacillating between elation and a sense of looming Armageddon. With the passing of days he is feeling hopeful that this will be an opportunity for great and positive change, including how art is marketed, with galleries that are also struggling to survive, exploring innovative ways to keep afloat and the sales happening.
“There is an excitement in making work,” says Lancashire. “Using colour in different ways, experimentation and extending existing ideas. I am continuing what I’m doing and not letting the ‘sales’ factor influence me; sometimes buyers do not appreciate the different avenues I have taken. That’s ok, it’s more important that I keep learning.”
During lockdown the Lancashires’ salon landlord reduced the rent by 50% helping their financial situation and similarly, some private art galleries are having their rents reduced for the same reason.
Kaye McGarva of Muse Gallery says, “We are responding to the crisis by creating online content to stay connected with our audience and hopefully, build a bigger one.” She has been encouraging her artists to record three-minute video tours of their studios that she has been posting on Instagram.
“It has worked really well for us and something that, once this is over we want to keep doing,” she says. Staying connected with the art community and keeping it real is the way forward, she believes.
“Life is simpler,” is a phrase that kept cropping up during the conversations, a recognition that as we relax into the physical confinement of lockdown we are discovering fresh pleasure in being grounded. There is even a feeling that once we have become used to a simpler, less busied way of life, some amazing benefits will emerge. “We are having to amuse ourselves in different ways”, “I love the way we are having online conversations over a glass of wine”, “It might be the answer to climate change.” And, “The art world will change with new ways of celebrating art”.
The overall tone of the conversations reflects an emerging optimism for the future after Covid-19; a tentative hope that our new normal will be something to celebrate. As John Eaden says, ‘We’ll just have to wait and see.”