by Lowell Warren
Ever since the start of quarantine, I’ve seen numerous posts on social media about how Shakespeare wrote his famous play King Lear under quarantine during the bubonic plague. Some sources confirm this fact as true, while I’ve seen others argue it’s just a rumor. Either way, it is not a surprise that throughout history great art has come from social seclusion. Solitude can allow a person to reflect on themselves and their surroundings, realize new ideas, experiment with unusual materials, and discover new passions. In this blog post, I will share with you a few artists who produced great work during/because of isolation.
You’ve probably heard of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, whose surrealist paintings mix traditional Mexican folk art styles with elements of realism and fantasy. But what you may not know is that a debilitating injury is what led her to her passion. In 1925, at the age of eighteen, Kahlo was left unable to walk for three months due to a bus accident. Desperate for an activity to fill her time alone, she was given an easel that allowed her to paint from her bed. Through her whimiscal yet sorrowful self portraits, family portraits, and paintings of the Mexican landscape, she was able to express her physical and emotional pain brought on by her injury, her eventual miscarriage, and her tumultuous marriage with artist Diego Rivera. Kahlo would never fully recover from the accident, but art proved to her to be a means of exploring identity, capturing truth and beauty, and making sense of the seemingly random cruelness of life.
In his mid-twenties, drug-addicted Ray Materson was arrested for a string of robberies and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. A year into his incarceration he taught himself how to embroider using thread from unraveled socks, bedsheets, and an acquired sewing needle. He most often stitched 2.5 inch by 3 inch scenes depicting life outside and inside the prison, with subjects ranging from self portraits to baseball players to drug addiction. Over the years, he would trade these baseball-card-sized artworks with other inmates for cigarettes and bags of coffee. After his release in 1995, Materson has continued producing embroidered scenes (which have been featured in numerous art exhibitions around the world), has worked as a teacher and counselor, and has stressed the importance in encouraging and allowing prisoners to develop creative skills while in prison.
In 1967, abstract expressionist Agnes Martin said goodbye to the New York art world and moved to the New Mexican desert where she would live and produce art for the remainder of her life, alone. Influenced by Buddhist thinking, Martin valued quiet and solitude. She believed that art exists outside of “the cares and corruption of the world.” So she turned her back to the world, and created a series of paintings called With My Back To The World. Martin’s paintings often consist of straight bands of subdued colors and gridded patterns. Gentle, quiet, and enveloping, her work was intended not to represent anything in the physical world, but to capture what we can’t see–silence, innocence, pure happiness. By the time of her death at the age of ninety-two, it was said that Martin hadn’t picked up a newspaper in over fifty years. She distanced herself from the rest of the world, and by doing so was able to observe the simplicity of life, which she conveyed in her muted yet powerful paintings.
In the years following World War II, Ruth Asawa’s father, who had lived in America for forty years, was arrested and sent to a Japanese-American internment camp. Ruth, her mother, and her five siblings were ordered to an internment camp in Arkansas, but before that they were sent to live in horse stalls at a California horse race track. They lost nearly all of their belongings and lived in conditions that were crowded and reeked of manure. Living alongside the Asawas were animators from Walt Disney Studios. During her time there, they taught Asawa how to draw. She continued to practice drawing and painting throughout her incarceration, and after her release went on to study art at the accredited Black Mountain College, where she learned basket weaving and began to experiment with abstract, crocheted, wire sculptures. Years later, Asawa said about her struggles: “Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the Internment, and I like who I am.”
Isolation can offer time to think, reflect, and reimagine, which is why creative works often emerge, sometimes unexpectedly, from solitude. With the excess free time many of us are granted due to this pandemic, you may be feeling more inspired than ever to create–to write, draw, cook, write music, build something–but think “I’m not good at this,” or, “I don’t have the right materials.”
I like to think of Bruce Nauman’s 2001 installation Mapping The Studio II with color shift, flip, flop & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage). Struggling to come up with ideas in his studio one day, Nauman decided to focus on what he had to work with. What he had was mice living in his studio walls, a cat who liked to chase mice, and a video camera. Every night for several months he set up his camera in his studio, and using an infrared lens he captured the movements of his cat, the mice, and an occasional moth in the darkness. What began as a mundane set of events was transformed into an artwork about the relationship between humor and violence, predator and prey, action and stillness.
Remember, to make art you don’t have to be a skilled, classically-trained painter. You don’t even need to paint, or draw, or sculpt with clay. You can tear up old clothes and weave a dreamcatcher. Call as many people as you know, have them name an ingredient, then try and make a delicious meal that incorporates every ingredient. Invent a sound you’ve never heard before, then create an accompanying performance. Stack books so that their spines tell a story, like artist Nina Katchadourian does. Arrange the contents of your medicine cabinet or your spice rack in a new, unexpected environment so that the objects take on a completely different meaning. Share your words of wisdom in the form of a colorful flyer and then hang them up around your city. Experiment with controlling the way light flows in through your living room windows.
Look at what you do have and use it. You could create something really cool.