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The Artists Who Found Inspiration in Isolation

In the age of “social distancing,” reflecting on works by a number of artists who found themselves isolated, detained, or bed-ridden for various reasons.

Alberto Blanco, “Quality Time 2” (2009), gouache on Arches paper, 9 x 12 1/5 inches (courtesy of Alberto Blanco and Proxyco Gallery)

In somber times, art can provide a respite from reality. For a number of artists who, under different circumstances, found themselves isolated, detained, or bed-ridden, taking distance from the world provided fertile ground for creative discovery. During these days of social distancing, their stories offer a glimmer of hope.

Barbara Ess (b. 1948)

Barbara Ess, “Fire Escape (Shut-In Series)” (2018/2019), archival pigment print, 23 x 22 inches (courtesy of Barbara Ess and Magenta Plains)

In 2018, the American photographer Barbara Ess, known for uncannily poignant images created with a pin-hole camera, came down with a case of bronchitis that lasted over a month. Her field of view suddenly circumscribed to the confines of her home, Ess shifted her focus to the immediate space around her. In a group of photographs aptly titled Shut-In Series, she captured domestic objects and moments: the sheen of metal silverware, an abstracted staircase, an air conditioning unit, the lights and shadows falling on a fire escape viewed from her window. The prints, first enhanced with silver, black, and white crayons and then scanned and enlarged, convey tranquil solitude.

Ruth Asawa (1926–2013)

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (BMC.76, BMC laundry stamp), c. 1948-1949 (© The Estate of Ruth Asawa; courtesy The Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner)

Ruth Asawa, sculptor of enigmatic woven baskets, had some of her earliest artistic experiences in detention camps. Along with her family and other Japanese Americans unjustly arrested after the outbreak of World War II in 1942, she was held for five months in the Santa Anita race track in California before being sent to an internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas for the remainder of her 18-month detention period. Asawa lived in horse stalls and in tar paper-covered barracks, with limited resources, privacy, and provisions. Amid the hardship, she found a silver lining: assisted by several Disney cartoonists who were also internees, she began to draw and paint. “Sometimes good comes through adversity,” Asawa reflected, decades later. “I would not be who I am today had it not been for the Internment, and I like who I am.”

Zehra Doğan (b. 1989)

A smartphone drawing by Zehra Doğan of Nusaybin, Turkey destroyed by military forces (all over the Internet)

To Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Doğan, enforced isolation is not a novel concept. In the midst of the war between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in 2016, Doğan was under house arrest in the Turkish city of Nusaybin; a strictly-imposed curfew meant she could rarely leave the apartment. Doğan began drawing on her smartphone, and one work in particular went viral: a drawing based on a photograph of the Kurdish City of Mardin as it was being destroyed by Turkish military operations that ultimately landed her in prison for nearly three years. She remained committed to creating art during her detainment, often struggling to find any materials to work with. “I had to continue drawing,” Doğan said after her release. “It’s that simple. There was nothing else that I could do to express my existence.”

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Frida Kahlo, “Henry Ford Hospital (la camo volando)” (1932), collection of Dolores Olmedo Mexico City, Mexico (courtesy of Colección Dolores Olmedo)

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone,” said Frida Kahlo. In 1926, at the age of 19, a tragic tram accident fractured Kahlo’s spine and left her bed-ridden for months, compelled to wear a plaster corset. It was during her convalescence that the Mexican surrealist found painting: encouraged by her family, she set up an easel in her bed, creating works that often spoke to the disability that would accompany her during her lifetime. In many later self-portraits, Kahlo depicted herself in bed, in vast and barren landscapes devoid of other figures.

Alberto Blanco (b. 1952)

Alberto Blanco, “Quality Time 4” (2009), gouache on arches paper, 9 x 12 1/5 inches (courtesy of Alberto Blanco and Proxyco Gallery)

Painting was not Alberto Blanco’s primary medium. But in 2009, as Mexico shuttered schools and public buildings in an effort to contain the swine flu pandemic and the poet was stuck at his home in Mexico City, he found the motivation to experiment. The title of the series of gouaches he painted during those solitary but artistically fruitful days, Quality Time (2009), puts an optimistic and even humorous twist on social distancing. 

Ray Materson (b. 1954)

Ray Materson, “Til Death Due Us Part,” (courtesy of Ray Materson)

Sentenced to 15 years in a state penitentiary after committing a series of robberies, Ray Materson taught himself to embroider in prison. He used the threads of unraveled socks and a sewing needle borrowed from a guard to stitch tiny tapestries — most measured two and a half by three inches and contained around 1,200 stitches per square inch. While many of them imagined life outside bars, others depicted the harsh realities of his drug addiction. “I had to remind myself of the prison, so to speak, that got me literally locked up. That was my addiction to drugs,” he told Hyperallergic. The Midwestern artist’s story is among the most astonishing and hope-inspiring examples of creativity flourishing under improbable circumstances.

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