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A View From the Easel During Times of Quarantine

This week, artists reflect on quarantining from their studios in Illinois, Maine, Oregon, and New York.

This is the 168th installment of a series in which artists send in a photo and a description of their workspace. In light of COVID-19, we’ve asked participants to reflect on how the pandemic has changed their studio space and/or if they are focusing on particular projects while quarantining. Want to take part? Submit your studio — just check out the submission guidelines.

Mark Addison Smith, Chicago, Illinois

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Much of my time in quarantine has been spent at this dining room table, where I’ve been virtually calling strangers across the world and turning dialogue from our conversations into visual-narrative drawings that chronicle their lives in isolation.

For the past 11 years, I’ve been eavesdropping on strangers out-and-about and drawing their words every single day (I’ve never missed a day). My daily practice is an equal measure of human connection and ink-on-paper. When human contact suddenly became forbidden during the COVID-19 outbreak, my practice had to change.

A stranger reached out to me on social media voicing concern as to how I was overhearing dialogue during isolation. Without overthinking it, I invited her to screen-chat with me for material. Our Zoom call provided profound insight into a decade-long, in-person artistic practice: virtual connections are real connections … and the words I’ve exchanged with strangers from locations including Spain, Ecuador, France, Belgium, Sweden, and the United States, have inspired an abundance of the most personal drawings I’ve made in over a decade. All this life from my laptop screen, ink pens, and Bristol board, while sitting alone at this dining room table in Chicago.

Marcie Jan Bronstein, Belfast, Maine

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For the past 25 years my studio has been on the ground floor of the reconstructed barn where I live with my family on the coast of Maine. (My husband is also an artist whose studio is on the top floor.) Since March, we’ve been isolated here with our cat Bacio. And while I’ve continued to paint, I’ve spent more time repainting the studio floor, cleaning out years of accumulated stuff, playing and listening to music, reading, talking on the phone. The two books you see on my table are two that never move, that I constantly return to. During these bewildering, anxiety-laden months, the physical presence of The Book of Symbols, whether I open it or not, has been calming. And Celebrating the Negative, truly one of the most beautiful books of photographs (which greatly inspired me 20 years ago), took on new meaning: Sadly, John Loengard passed away on May 24 at the age of 85. One of the gifts of living the solitary life of an artist is the deep connection we feel with artists we greatly admire, past or present. Countless hours alone in the pandemic have renewed my gratitude for these vital affinities.

Leanne Ellis, Eugene, Oregon

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Guess who’s coming to dinner. No one. Welcome to my dinner table studio during COVID-19. No guest will be joining us during these times, so, I decided to use the space as a way to bring a little creative energy into my home during slowdown.

My garden, just steps away, and the pathway down the hillside to the dog park are my hunting grounds, providing an abundance of flowers and leaves for pressing. Once home I pluck petals and de-stem leaves.

Art books and old phonebooks weighed down with stone pavers work well as flower/leaf presses. It’s a slow process taking two-to-four weeks for the plant material to dry. I practice patience and feel the excitement of having something to look forward to. Eventually, time works its magic, transforming the freshly plucked petals of the red poppy and blue hydrangea into a transparent, delicate and crisp tissue paper.

I’m starting my first collages soon on paper and glass.

Wendy Deutelbaum, Manhattan, New York

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Things have changed in my studio. Before the pandemic, I made collages and boxes that were mostly black and white, dark in form and content, using images that are compressed, confined, and curtailed. Today they seem premonitions, glimpses forward toward trouble to come.

Since the lockdown, I have made a series of drawings of rooms in our apartment. They are full of color — kitchen, living room, bedroom, studio, library — each facing out, some across hallways, all to windows that open on a drawn but colorless cityscape. I call the series Inside Out.

Perhaps before the pandemic I cut and pasted because I didn’t think I could draw. I had not done so since 1959, when our mother took my sisters and me to Chicago’s Art Institute for Saturday children’s art lessons. When I showed her the new series, she reported that her father — an engineer-turned-retailer who weathered the Depression by putting his extended family to work in his clothing  stores — drew well … what was in front of him.

If the black-and-white pre-pandemic work struggles to capture a dark future, the drawings record an intimate present, perspectives on a now which is, in itself, at least momentarily, sufficient. Drawn, colored, inside, out.

Jennifer Mannebach, Oak Park, Illinois

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I work with material fragments in my basement studio. When I talk about a piece in progress, I sometimes refer to a section of something that I’m trying out, emphasizing its impermanence with “Oh that’s just a placeholder,”  especially if I’m having a studio visit, and someone is drawn to something that I’m not ready to talk about. If I incorporate an element as a spontaneous attempt to communicate an idea (for lack of a better thing, I’m using this), I imply that this is a temporary fix and the real thing will come later. I hear echos of this from artists working within this pandemic space, those who don’t have access to their usual studios, materials, or conditions of privacy. Sometimes we become bound to specific materials and methods, perhaps too faithfully because we already know what they do. I’m trying to think about this as an opportunity to become more open to my impulsive gestures, closer to the spirit of play and inquiry-driven practice. I’m considering how this stack of wooden boxes, remnants from my beekeeping hobby, might formally and conceptually correspond to aspects of my work.

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