Reflections on the Pandemic: how 2020-21 has altered and informed my creative process.
Fri 16th Jul 2021
In March 2020 an unprecedented global event overturned our lives. Plans, diary dates, work and home life were all turned upside down. My usual pattern of weekly life had been to spend at least two days in Leicester, making art at two studios there; Leicester Print Workshop and Bishopdale Adult Learning Hub ceramic studio. Since the arrival of the virus I have only been to the Print Workshop twice and have started to make ceramics in my home studio. I have bought clay and glazes and utilised kilns scattered across the east midlands (though I’m now having my home produced pieces fired back at Bishopdale).
Along with every other person in the United Kingdom during the first lockdown I found myself at home. I am lucky; my house has studio space and a garden, I have an allotment, my children have grown and flown, my husband’s work continued uninterrupted, albeit now from a table in our sitting room. But none of us have experienced such a sudden forced retreat into our domestic realm before. It has been very strange and, over a year on, it continues to be.
The 2020-2021 pandemic affected and changed everything. We have been jolted out of what were the standard and expected ways of being and doing. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to revaluate work life balance and fundamentally reassess what we do with our life.
UK’s lockdown officially started on March 23th 2020. But for many, me included, life had already altered inexorably a whole week earlier when my husband ensconced himself at home where he would, it turned out, remain for evermore.
Slowly reality dawned on us all, even the unreality of it all. Silence descended as all traffic vanished. Plans, event, cinema tickets, birthdays, visits, vanished leaving only ghosts in form of unused tickets and unfulfilled diary appointments.
As an artist I am used to generating ideas and being busy, working without a known outcome, financial recompense or audience for my output. I make because I am driven to do so, but this does not mean there are not moments of wavering or doubt. My previous routine of working in the two studios in Leicester for two days every week meant I wasn’t used to spending extended periods in my home studio. It had become more of a storage facility for materials and work in progress rather than a space for actual making.
Initially I tried to continue pre-lockdown projects, principally a piece of writing about a triptych of reduction lino prints that I’d planned to exhibit during summer 2020. But my writing productivity dwindled as the full impact of what was actually happening, and what it really meant for future plans, struck me. The blithe rhetoric that it would all be over in three months was evidently the first of many a false promises.
My preparations for the exhibition stalled with a presumption that it would be rescheduled rather than cancelled altogether. Of course I wasn’t unique in having my plans upended; in fact what was unprecedented about the situation was that it was a simultaneous global experience. Rather than being part of the fortunate majority who looked on from afar to tragedies such as tsunami, volcanoes, landslides, heat waves, forest fires, Ebola and Novichok poisonings, this event befell everyone everywhere. We were all witnesses and victims, caught in the midst of widespread fear, massive upheavals to normal life, and possible death.
Slowly I had the realisation that the impetus to make, do and see is driven by a timetable. Whether actual or artificial we are all governed by schedules. Days of the week, months, work, and life’s essential tasks. Everything plots and organises time. Tickets for a film, play, concert, festival or exhibition dictate when one does that activity. Work is a series of deadlines and goals, whether self-generated or imposed by clients or employers.
Suddenly I found myself deprived of all motivation. There was no more importance to do one thing over another. I reassessed, tidied and re-arranged my studio, re-painted my table-top and allowed myself to sew during the day rather than only in the evenings. I made quilts; three doubles, one single, one for a cot and two for a Moses basket. I made pillowcases and three shirts. I wore out slippers but not the heels of my shoes. Restrained and tethered to the home I fluctuated between movement and inertia as I found it hard to determine relevance of any one task.
Back in my studio I tentatively started working. Small commissions came in and, when Covid restrictions eased over the summer months, the planed exhibition was allowed to go ahead in it original time slot.
I kept busy and doing. I was more flexible with my time particularly in the first lockdown. I was generous to myself, I adapted, I found materials and means to do things with what was available. I listened to podcasts, attended online talks, streamed films and theatre through the TV. I was involved in a call-out from galleries to make work related to the pandemic, such as Extraordinary Postcards for Extraordinary Times, at the Newlyn Art Gallery & Exchange in Cornwall.
The year turned into a time of self-reflection and re-evaluation of what is important. Like many artists my work is a weaving together of the personal and universal. I inquire into the everyday, the ordinary and the extraordinary. My work is a conflation of what I have seen, read, heard. It is my interpretation of the outside world, viewed from my domestic space. The pandemic has given me time to think, to write, to listen, to reflect, but has also snatched away time and meaning by removing many of the cultural reference points from which I usually fed.
I have always found starting easier than finishing. I am drawn to mindless tasks over profound thought. If something involves steps beyond my comfort zone, outside my capacity, I detour around them until hopefully, they vanish. Many things remain daydreams.
Simultaneously I seemed to have a sense of loneliness and a sense of self-location. I had to re-learn being in my own company and the domestic space with which I was very familiar. Home was altered physically by rearrangement of furniture to suit new working from home requirements, and metaphorically by being the space of continuous occupation.
What might have previously been an external conversation with friends and colleagues became a kind of soliloquy. And generally conversations with ones self are not productive; they are circulatory and fruitless. It is difficult to ask oneself searching awkward questions or to see things from a different perspective. Divested of the normal avenues of conversation we all turned to the virtual world.
What would the pandemic have been like without technology? To have been without computers, mobiles, WhatsApp, social media, Zoom, Teams, Skype or any of the myriad forms of communication is unthinkable. We had to learn new ways of presenting ourselves, the etiquette of not speaking over one another, turning our mikes on and off, and engaging with a screen version of ourselves and others.
Digital communications has brought challenges but also many positives. On-line engagement has brought equality to meetings and ability to attend events. Suddenly it was as easy to attend a seminar in America as one in a nearby town. Once this new means of doing things was adopted by institutions the audience reaped the benefits. Speakers were kept to time, break-out group sessions didn’t overrun as participants were whisked back into the main-room by electronic force.
On screen everyone is visible in their own individual square; hierarchy is removed. The shy ones are not left standing in a corner whilst the gregarious huddle together, and those who know each other have no advantage. There is less exclusion in the virtual shared space.
But the digital interface does have its drawbacks and pitfalls. Gazing at oneself on screen is uncomfortable. We are programmed to read body language for encouragement and compatibility, but viewing everyone from the waist up we are deprived of many clues. Two of the peer mentoring groups in which I participate adjusted well to new online presentation, another less so. Working collaboratively is very difficult but like everything it is about learning news ways of doing, developing strategies, being kind, patient and forgiving.
I have always found social situations stressful. I cannot ‘work the room’, I’m struck dumb when quizzed about my work and I fumble for words when confronted with people I don’t know. Afterwards I scrutinize these conversations regretfully. Ironically the pandemic has meant fewer painful encounters, a bit of time to reflect upon this personality trait and to work on strategies to overcome it.
So the pandemic became a time for reflection as well as stultification. It has presented opportunities for invention, re-invention and for stillness. The studio clear-out revealed half finished projects and notes made but not used. Files were formed, materials unified and priority given to pieces of work that held most promise.
However more time does not necessarily result in productive ideas or meaningful progress with work. I don’t think I am alone in prevarication, or in believing that some future point will be the right moment to write that first novel, learn Japanese or crack the art of cooking Baked Alaska. The reality is that the perfect moment never comes. But then it did, collectively we all had time on our hands. And some people really did achieve flawless sourdough, or learnt to play the oboe. Though many of us were simply flummoxed.
This in itself was a revelation. Finding that, when presented with the perfect opportunity to do that big project, long planned piece of writing, in depth piece of research, I still could not focus and do. A few years ago I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It is a memoir and instruction manual to writing and life. The title Bird by Bird is the directive, start where you find yourself and work methodically till you reach the end. It is insightful, affirming and humorously honest. I have been slowly implementing the book’s wise words but the situation presented by the pandemic brought the advice to the fore and made it imperative to impose.
I have always wanted to utilize the inspiration I get from what I read and see more effectively. I have squandered ideas and opportunities, repeatedly half finishing a piece of work only to lose the impetus to complete it. I have started research without ever reaching any conclusion. Now I want to do, to make and engage with purpose and urgency.
I feel I have grown as a person due to the pandemic. I have learnt to value friendships and colleagues more, to cherish family and time spent with others. I missed seeing live performance, films on a big screen and exhibitions. Discovering what I miss has been of equal benefit as discovering what I don’t miss.
The pandemic has presented me with an opportunity to shift and re-calibrate. Ask questions and focus on the what, why and how. It has been a galvanizing force to make me rethink, re-order and apply myself to what I want to make happen. To discover I want to be proactive rather than reactive.
I am writing this at the end of July 2021, a full fifteen months from the first lockdown. Maybe it is too early to reflect upon what has just passed or too late to really remember what that first lockdown was like.
An idiom, particularly loved by politician’s, has suggested a post-pandemic time when we return to normality. However it is pretty clear that we won’t go back to exactly how it was before. Many have lost their jobs, particularly in the service sector, and those who service the service sector. Many more will never return to an office environment, or at least to a full time office situation. A desk somewhere in the home has replaced the daily commute to and from place of work. Flexible working hours have been adopted that fit better with domestic chores and caring roles. It took a global crisis to make the change that many had clamoured for.
Employers in the past did not believe their employees could be trusted and had them corralled into a single supervised space. They now remotely monitor their employees via work computers but have discovered not only that the employees can be trusted to work, but that they often perform better, more efficiently, more constructively and happily because they can take the time out to take and deliver children to school, see mum, do a bit of shopping or cooking as and when needed rather than squeezed onto hours outside of work and commute.
A true post-pandemic state is yet to be realised. There has been easing, 2nd and 3rdlockdowns, U-turns, road maps, traffic light systems and currently we are on route to Freedom Day, but with hummocks and temporary road blocks to be expected on the way. There have been both prescriptive and suggested ways to behave. We have received conflicting and contradictory information, and some blatant misinformation resulting in general befuddlement. Everyone’s mood and behaviours has meandered from shock, confusion, disbelief, anger, resignation, sadness, joy and everything in between.
These Pandemic times have resulted in social shrinkage. I am no longer quite sure how social interaction works. The dance around mini-hugs and kisses on cheeks has been replaced by a slightly distanced two-step and bump of elbows.
Collectively we have all experienced a loss of time, a loss of purpose and the loss of friends and family both actual and figuratively. Particularly during the first lockdown time became fluid. Distinguishing days of the week, weekday from weekend, months and even seasons became impossible. Spring 2020 was unseasonably warm, sunny and nice, luckily. Spring to early summer 2021 the reverse, unseasonably cold, wet and gloomy. We all felt the confusion and fluidity of not knowing what was happening when nothing was happening. Without the usual markers of work and leisure activities and points of reference such as holidays, visits, celebration in groups, time became an unsolidified entity. Bereft of the usual indicators of time passing it was difficult tell whether it was March or already April. Or, inconceivably, May.
The customary rhythm to our lives became a rotation of essential shopping, exercise in the form of walks directly from front door and the home environment on continuous loop. Suddenly we were persistently with or without family, friends and loved one.
As a consequence of this many of us have lost a degree of nerve, sociability and stamina for going out and about, and doing stuff. Our relationship with others has also altered. We value close friends and family more, and have less tolerance for those we dislike or those who we feel undermine us.
We have been exposed as being vulnerable, scared, churlish, prejudiced reckless, courageous, adverse, hesitant, generous, thoughtful, reluctant, brave, anxious, nervy, arrogant, stubborn, flexible, or a fine blend of all of these traits.
We are not over or even through it yet, and the future is unknown. I am returning to Leicester Print Workshop to do a print project but doubt I will return to making work there as frequently as I did pre-pandemic. The whole nature of my working pattern and the materials I am using has shifted. I am very happily commuting less and making more from my home studio.