twentytwenty arts is a nonprofit arts organization with a mission to bring awareness and visibility to pressing social issues. Mental health, homelessness, and addiction are themes that they continuously spotlight, and we’ve shared some of their poignant initiatives before. Right now, they are exploring how COVID-19 has affected Toronto’s artists, specifically when it comes to social isolation—how does it affect the mind, and what impact does it have on creativity?
“Artists draw inspiration from everything, from the texture of a cement wall to an interaction with someone on an elevator, anything can be a source of inspiration. But how does that relationship change during social isolation?” says Megan Kee, founder and director of twentytwenty arts. “I wanted to know I am also trying to push myself to explore new ideas and content, elevating artists in any way that I can.”
So Megan, along with twentytwenty arts Project Manager Stella Melchiori, connected with a several artists that twentytwenty represents, and had them take photos of themselves in their art studios, in isolation, and share how this pandemic experience is affecting them.
Yayoi Kusama once said, “I am afraid of loneliness”, and yet she has always preferred to work in solitude. Isolation leaves a different imprint on all of us, changing shape from one day to the next. It can be a delicate dance between creativity and boredom, reflection and loneliness, or healing and madness. Days feels like weeks, weeks feel like months, and months feel like years. Similar to other forms of distress, social isolation presents us with the choice: to thrive or crumble under the pressure. For local Toronto artists Alex Garant, Graham Robinson, Kelly Rose Adams, Cam Champ, Michael Rennick, Florence Solis, Christina Mazzulla, and Ella Mazur, resilience is the only option.
Solitude has been a recurrent theme throughout art history. Agnes Martin, an abstract painter of the late 20th century, was known to live and work alone. During a period of mental anguish and artistic turmoil, the only thing that returned Martin to her practice was solitude. Martin once stated: “The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone”. Louise Bourgeois, known for her large-scale sculpture and installation work, had interwoven solitude into her practice. Louise Bourgeois starkly believed that you are born alone and you die alone, explaining: “Solitude, even prolonged solitude, can only be of very great benefit”.
COVID-19 has presented us all with a set of extraordinary challenges. From being laid off, to cancelling events, and enduring social isolation, there is an underlying uneasiness around solitude. Whether it is the discomfort of boredom, the agitation of being locked indoors, or the never ending time dilation, it is a matter of adapting to a new set of conditions. For artists who drew inspiration from their social interactions and physical environment, COVID-19 has forced them to get creative—even more so than usual. From playing with their work spaces, to leaning into experimentation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness, these Toronto artists are getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“April 2020, a different life rhythm than expected.
For the past 4 years, I have been very lucky to work from home, I am able to remain self-motivated with painting hours and implement some administrative discipline. Aside from the obvious adjustments such as not allowing studio visits from collectors, what changed the most for me is the overall lifestyle that supports my mental health.
Every day, I used to start my day by going to the gym for an hour as soon as I woke up, and by stopping by the grocery store next door to pick up whatever I felt like eating that day. Two little things, but once removed from my daily schedule, totally troubled my mood. For the past 3 weeks, it has been more difficult to stay focused and energized.
One of the big element I recently changed is to move my painting station from the studio to my dining room. By doing so, I have access to way more light and view of my backyard from the patio door. Once every couple of hours, I try to go outside for a few minutes, take a breath and repeat to myself that I need to focus on today. Today is today and it is all it needs to be.”
“Making art can be a lonely vocation. It is a difficult balance to strike when deciding to work from home. Since my studio is also my living room, I end up spending most of my days in that one room. My wife Niky and I live and work in our two bedroom basement apartment in a heritage house in Parkdale. I have two work stations set up between my kitchen and the only window is in the front of my apartment. Additionally, I also share this space with my wife, who also now works from home. She has an office in our second bedroom at the other end of the apartment. We have had to make adjustments and compromises to make things work.
I have to be able to feel free and open when I’m working on art and then quickly pack up and put away my workspace so my wife and I can cook and relax and use our living room. This is a learning experience for us both, and is one that requires constant revision and improvement. That’s our work/home situation normally. Now, because of the quarantine we are required to both be at home basically 23 hours a day. Things have only slightly changed. We have already worked out enough of the kinks, so this is much easier than it would have been even a year ago.
I am able to work at the same capacity as before quarantine. My wife is able to share the space and live here life out around the studio/living room, though it’s not ideal. This is just the least-worst option for us. We would both love more space. I would love a proper studio separate from my home. For now, that is what we can afford and we make it work for us.
Life, work and my marriage to Niky is not changed too much by the quarantine. We love each other very much and we are happy to be accommodating for each other’s needs. This is how our lives were before quarantine. Niky started working from home a few days a week about 2 months before the quarantine, so we were already adjusting to this lifestyle. The military term SNAFU is quite fitting: “Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.” Is pretty much business as usual for us here.”
Kelly Rose Adams
“I’ve spent most of my time this past week cross-legged on my bedroom floor, this is my make shift at-home studio space. Painting used to be an activity reserved for the stolen hours after my full time job. Lately, as all of our worlds have gotten smaller, painting has taken up an increasingly large part of my life. Painting has become the anchor of my days. It has given be a sense of routine in otherwise disorienting, “what day is it even?” kind of weeks.
Painting has grounded me in more unexpected ways as well; it’s helped me to relate to those outside of my studio bubble, despite the social distancing. My paintings are often about shared human experience, emotion, and identity. Never before in my lifetime has our shared reality been so widespread and clear. I think it is important to remember that this shared reality was present even before this pandemic. We all experience grief, doubt, fear, and anxiety, though usually in much more private ways. These feelings can be easy to hide in our regular busy routines. Our recent circumstances have made these universal feelings much more obvious and relatable.
Finding ways to visually express these shared feelings in my paintings has helped me to feel connected and hopeful. We will soon return back to normal, and as we do, I hope to remember how similar we all are in our vulnerability. We, for this unique moment, all have something in common, and that comforts me and feels like something worth painting about.”
“The most notable change my work has taken on in the time of social distancing is the involvement of colour. As an historically mostly-monochromatic painter, and someone who believes colour to be a distracting and frivolous ingredient in art, these are exciting developments. In a sort of “don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” mentality, I’ve been looking at and studying the photos in my phone—sunsets, beaches, forests—and the way colours work with and against each other.
However, I’ve recently run out of paint, so I’ve turned to making lot of digital paintings on my iPhone, just trying to get the hang of colour theory and the moods they can help to create.
Among my recent interest in colour, I have also been looking more at nature as a source of dualism; a remarkably abstract place, yet stunningly organized at the same time. This realization has gotten me thinking about the ways in which we (as a species) interact with and change these landscapes. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the work I’m doing now fosters a balance between abstraction and representation.”
“I am fortunate to have my studio located in my apartment, so it is easy for me to work on things when the mood strikes, without having to travel.
I am currently laid off from my job (I manage an art supply store) it’s been nice to have extra time to work on projects. However I am used to being able to pick up supplies as needed, rather than planning too far ahead, so that has been a bit of a challenge.
I found myself super productive during the first week of isolation. I think because I didn’t know if it would only be for a few days or not but now admittedly I find myself in there less often than I’d like and playing Animal Crossing a bit more than I should be. My time feels less restricted.
The uncertainty is definitely scary, but the new found time is exciting!”
“I would say social distancing hasn’t changed how I work, but it did change how I feel about it. I’ve always been a home-body and relished my alone time to paint so with that said, social distancing is kind of part of how I create. The situation with Covid-19 however, postponed a few of my upcoming projects that I’ve been looking forward to therefore giving me more time to develop ideas conceptually. Having a few projects lined up for the following months and having them cancelled/postponed was obviously not the greatest feeling but in turn it got me excited for the breathing room to just create for now and not think about deadlines.
I still work a full-time job as a designer along with practicing art, so my life is usually full of deadlines and lists of things to do. The lack of pressure I felt, allowed me to explore new ideas that I haven’t had time to further develop. I’ve also been taking the time to think about and take in constructive criticism from past shows and use that in the new work that I’m preparing. Before social distancing, I would normally keep on creating, produce work and not let it sit for a moment. Now, I’m using this time to just really enjoy my work more and its process.
“Social distancing has altered my practice drastically for the time being. Due to Covid-19 my work place has closed down. I was working full time as a tattoo artist in a downtown studio. Although I have continued to create designs for myself and clients, I have completely stopped tattooing during this period.
With this extra time I have shifted my creative direction to oil painting. I have been painting for a while now, but was previously using oils combined with other materials, to create intricate mixed media cut-out paintings. However, now that I am no longer able to work in my studio, nor have the luxury of such a complex set up, I have cut down my material use to the bare minimum; oil paint, and panel. I am temporarily working out of my partners kitchen, with few supplies, so you can imagine how drastically different this simplified “studio” setup is.
Although this sudden change has put me in a challenging working environment, it is allowing me to get back to the basics, really hone in on my weaknesses, explore and develop my direction to one that is the most genuine for me in this moment. During this period I’m hoping to really develop my understanding of who and where I am as an artist, and other questions I had previously overlooked.”
“I started freelancing full-time last year. This January, I finally started to see my hard work pay off with a number of exciting opportunities and paid projects. Then the pandemic hit.
I’ve lost most of my projects, as many of us have, and more importantly, I lost the momentum I had built up. Financially, things will be stretched thin. As an extrovert, it is tough to lose the chance to get out and see my friends and family. As a nature-lover, it is hard to be inside all day. Painting used to be an activity reserved for the stolen hours after my full time job. Lately, as all of our worlds have gotten smaller, painting has taken up an increasingly large part of my life. Painting has become the anchor of my days. There is no denying that this whole pandemic sucks, and we are all going to lose a lot before it’s over. But the overwhelming feeling I have is gratitude. I’m lucky that, besides murals, the work I do can be done from home. I’m lucky I worked from home before the pandemic, so I’ve already got a cozy studio set up. I’m incredibly lucky to have one long-term project that will keep me focused and productive during this time. I’m lucky to have time to create more for myself and work on business projects that never take priority when I’m juggling multiple client projects. I’m lucky to have as much access to the internet as I want to chat with my friends and family. I’m lucky to have a balcony to get some fresh air.
I may not have money to save or buy anything outside of necessities, but I will be able to buy food and have a roof over my head. So I will keep creating and help out wherever I can.”
Artists have been hit hard by this crisis. The twentytwenty arts website is full of striking affordable art that you can purchase, and with each purchase you make, you are helping a local Toronto artist.