Persistence of Creativity

Art during the “Great Pause”

by Elizabeth Demaray | July 17, 2020

The first official case of coronavirus was confirmed in New York State on March 1, 2020. On March 20, the governor’s office issued an executive order closing non-essential businesses in New York City. Overnight, the country’s most densely populated megalopolis ground to a halt. Our museums, office buildings, restaurants, and streets emptied as residents were told to shelter in place and without any ceremony, the “great pause” began. As a resident of NYC, I remember thinking, “Wow, this quarantine is going to be hard on everybody.” As an artist in NYC, my second thought was, “Wow, this quarantine might be great for my art-making.”

I wasn’t alone in this consideration. A number of the students in my Conceptual Art Making[1] workshop at the Art Students League had the same thought: the “great pause” might be a great moment for art. As artists know, art is a unique activity. Untethered to commerce, it requires time, reflection, and effort—all things that are usually in short supply in New York’s fast-paced, market-driven economy. Because it allows us to communicate intense, complex qualities, art is also uniquely positioned to speak in this time of uncertainty, mourning, and change. It enables us to talk to an audience across social and physical distance. Heck, it even lets us communicate across time and history, potentially facilitating communion with those who may not be present now but who may need our input in the future.

So, how have artists, our first responders on the cultural front lines, reacted to these unprecedented circumstances? What can the art we’ve made tell us about life in quarantine? In the spirit of inquiry, Hugo Bastidas and I embarked on curating The Persistence of Creativity: Art during the Great Pause at the Art Students League in New York City. A follow-up to the Life Under the Pandemic Moon[2] exhibition curated by Bastidas, this show explores what appears to be a lull: the time between the onslaught of the great pandemic and the dawn of the great reckoning.

Leslie Kerby, Please Stand By,
3-color photolithograph with 16 piece chine collé, 22 x 30 in.

"Speaking to our current times and our different levels of communication through our screens and with new realities."

Margaret McCann, Guest Room, oil on masonite, 16 x 20 in.

"Guest Room is part of a convict series I started around 2005. It humorously references the not uncomfortable, voluntary, self-confinement artists form to their studios and craft, and is an homage to Van Gogh."

Diana Shephard, Daytime, digital photo.

"In a time when days and dates no longer matter, we must mark the passing of the suns rotation and my body becomes my medium because it is the only animate object I physically contact in a day. How to mark the days and myself as real. I want to know what is real."

Andres J. Hoyos, Solitude in the City,
recycled postage stamps, watercolor on canvas, 48 in x 72 in.

"It’s weird to look through a window and see no one on the streets. Taking the quarantine time to work on my artwork has been quite the experience. It has given me the possibility to disconnect from the real world. I have to admit that although it’s concerning and sad, I am enjoying more than ever the walks to the supermarket, the calm of the city, it cleanliness, the clean air, the fact I can hear the birds, the spirit of unity and solidarity."

V.H. McKenzie, MetroCard Pandemic Mask No. 1,
oil on MetroCard, 3 x 2 1/2 in.

Abigail He, Cheers to the Uncertainty: In Response to the Global Pandemic
Video link[4]

A video made by the Art Theory class in response to the global pandemic.

Simona Zampa, Andrea, oil on canvas, 47 1/2 x 39 3/8 in.

"My hometown is Ticino, a Swiss canton at the border with Italy, which was one of the first regions struck by the pandemic. The lockdown to me meant taking shelter in the Alps in a quite isolated hamlet. I spent a long time with my husband and my five children, listening to their thoughts, observing their expressions, and dreaming about our future lives. I discovered different sides of their personalities that I tried to capture with my oil paintings and paper collages. I also discovered the moving beauty of many small things that have always gone unnoticed in my active life. Most of all I discovered the joy of everyday life that I have taken for granted for too long. While painting my old philodendron, it unconsciously took a frightening shape and it ended up resembling more and more the devastating virus that has been sweeping away all our lives in the past months."

Elaine Kurie, Wake Me When This Is Over, oil, 24 x 36 in.

"This painting reflects the themes of loneliness and isolation resulting from social distancing. Life has been disrupted and has left a void, an empty hole. The idea of emptiness can be strongly felt in this work. The female figure sleeping on the sofa suggests a detachment from the uncomfortable situation as well as an unwillingness to fret over the unknown. It is suggestive of someone who has decided to cope by relaxing and accepting the situation. Just wake me when it's over."

Ahuva Zaslavsky, The Carriers, acrylic, graphite, and gold leaf, 16 x 16 in.

"This piece explores the individual's existence in the social, spiritual, religious, and health context in times of crisis and difficulty."

Maria Halkias, Kiss of Death, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has brought fear, uncertainty, and sadness into our lives. The ever-present threat of death is lessened by a passionate immersion in artwork."

Elaine Clayman, Dignity, oil on linen, 24 x 18 in.

Joseph Murphy, Atmosphere, 2014, ink, gouache, acrylic, oil, tar, bee's wax, 11 x 15 in.

"At its foundation, nature is vastly sublime. If we stand in its presence, we notice subtleties that go unnoticed because nature inherently presents itself both with and without an exemplification of religion. This, in turn, creates a struggle with the participant due to symbolism and developed language. To approach nature, thus, is to empty oneself of partisan beliefs and learned behavior. Through water, a natural element with mystical associations in literary text and an integral part of the cycle of natural life, it brings a changing of atmosphere that may awaken unique, individual feelings within us, like a religious experience. By considering atmosphere and the cycle of water as ways to explore the world’s limitlessness, they become guides in bringing ourselves closer to atonement. Thus, I invite the viewer to stand in a presence outside of themselves."

Holly Metzger, Social Distancing, charcoal, pastel, 12 x 9 in.

"I don’t mind staying at home; I certainly have enough to do. But for some reason with the two of us mandated to stay at home, the place began to seem very small. As an artist, I like solitude in which to work."

Alessandro Paiano, M+E in Do something!
Video link[6]

"M and E two in one sharing the quarantine time. The perception of time is different during the quarantine. It feels like a single long day since all this started. You can take some time to look deeper into your self and take out some thoughts and ideas and record them. In this way, once all this will be over, something will remind us that rhythm can be broken without any explanation..."

Deborah A. Meyer, Landline, pen, 9 x 12 in.

"I decided that I wanted to draw objects in my apartment that I take for granted. I think this crisis has taught me, among other things, to appreciate the things I am truly fortunate to have. Not everyone has these things, and I wish I could give to those less fortunate not only these objects but much more."

Chemin Hsiao, Solitary Exercise, watercolor on paper, 11 x 15 in.

"This painting was created in a daily ritual and humble meditation to communicate the feeling of comfort, sorrow, hope, or calmness, knowing many others are putting their life out there to allow me keep doing my part as an artist. The practice helps keep me centered at the moment, and not stress over how long this crisis will last and all the associated outcomes there might be."

Valeri Larko, Welcome to the Bronx, 2020, oil on linen, 12 x 36 in.

"Art in the age of Covid 19: I started this painting in mid-April and finished it on May 25, Memorial Day. During these challenging times with so many businesses shuttered, the streets are mostly deserted and sites that normally would be too busy for me to paint are quiet. I've been attracted to this colorful building, along with the "Welcome to the Bronx" billboard for years, but this is the first time I've been able to set up my easel for over a month and do a detailed painting of this scene. There's usually way too much truck traffic and nowhere to park during the week, but all that has changed in the last two months. Social distancing is easy with so few people out and about. Before the pandemic there wasn't any graffiti on this building, but now there's an explosion of tags."

Bob Palevitz, Floral Contemplation, oil on linen, 20 x 28 in.

"For me flowers are of delicate beauty, complexity and a source of calming contemplation to look at, to smell, to paint. to give to others as a relief in times of crisis."

Uli Minoggio, Masked Ball in the Sistine Chapel, 2020, water color, acrylic, ink pen, marker on xeroxed photo, 10 x 8 in.

"I enjoy giving existing photos or artwork a different narrative."

Tom Hooper Seaman, Untitled, 2020, mixed media, 30 x 40 in.

Therese Mulgrew, Liz & Luke, oil on Canvas, 60 x 48 in.

"I painted this image of two close friends that will be included in a series I'm currently working on that explores vulnerability and intimacy, which, at the moment, are two ideas being universally reconsidered and redefined."

Tasha Goldblum, USNS COMFORT,
acrylic and heavy medium on canvas, 12 x 8 in.

"There is an unnameable emotion that I experienced when I saw images of the ship docking in NYC."

Susan Rosenfeld, Hatshepsut,
digital print, 19 x 5 in.

"I live alone with my thoughts. I think of Hatshepsut’s statutes. I don’t see them as they are. I don’t see them as they stood in past millennia. I see them through my isolation. Before they were beautiful. Now they are twisted and garish and crumbling. This never seems to end."

Susan Cirigliano, Duke/Grammy Collaborations.
Each drawing is finished with assorted drawing materials, watercolor, on 11 x 7 in. paper.

"I have been isolated with my four-year-old grandson. We began doing a series of collaborative drawings; as of today there are over sixty of them."

Stephanie Anna Jauss, from the series Aside.

"Art is always displayed in a context, and the context influences and changes the perception of the art."

Sachin Pannuri, Untitled, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in.

"A reflection of the times we live in ..."

Miranda Michael, House on a Cliff, acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 in.

"Three steps out the door and you're over the edge."

Michele Maletta Spiegel, tossUp, stencil and spray paint, 4 x 9 in.

"In this image I used stencil and spray paint to produce a quality of what is seen or not. The ability to repeat an image was important to the work. The form is familiar yet unfamiliar."

Melissa Frost, Sequestered on Cobalt, from the series Corona.

"How long have I been stuck in here? Marking time by working on a series of potatoes sprouting. Noticing how many things are looking just like the Covid."

Matilde Alessandra, In the Dark, ink on paper, 43 x 58 in.

"I was stranded back in my hometown when the pandemic begun, and I started this drawing the very day Italy went into lockdown. I've found myself working on it obsessively, way too much, making it far more charged and darker than I initially intended. Took me eight weeks to finish it. I put so much love and too much sadness in it."

Maria Stephens, My Brain on Quarantine, mixed media, 21 x 13 x 16 in.

"Being isolated is making me sad. I miss people, I miss places, I miss experiences. I can’t focus on anything long. This work is a product of a bit of casting, a bit of marble carving, a bit of collage, a bit of experimenting with the packaging that I’ve found in the building’s recycling room. A set of headphones that I used when trying to distract myself with running. Specks of gold leaf reminding me of the bright moments. It is a Frankenstein of thoughts and memories that are swirling in my brain."

Marcelle Rosewater, Sylvan Lake, oil on linen, 30 x 30 in.

"The quarantine got me imagining what a dystopian future would look like. Picturing climate change and the inability to go outside, I envisioned people creating shrines or dioramas using objects at hand that could stand in symbolically for nature. I see these 'interior landscapes’ as a loving acknowledgement of what is no longer available."

Linda Maassen, Overcome, watercolor, 24 x 18 in.

"Feeling the weight of what I cannot change."

June Kosloff, Resilient Love #1,
silkscreen, acrylic, and pen on newspaper, 22 x 12 in.

"Resilient Love #1 is a new pc that is currently on a door in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I learned silkscreening in 2019 and have incorporated silkscreening into my recent wheat-paste art. My work symbolizes the strength and love that I am trying to find within myself to get through these very difficult times in crisis in so many ways. And, sharing my artwork in this way is more powerful than I have ever imagined."

Joshua R. Evans, Self Portrait, oil paint, 40 x 30 in.

"I played around with linseed oil and paint."

John Dorish, Confined in Time, aqua media on paper, 22 1/2 x 17 in.

"Past, present and future. Outside the window is the unknown. Inside is hope. The sea has the answers."

Janet Fekete, New Steel/Glass,
magnetite rock, steel, magnets, glass, marker, 8 x 5 x 5 in.

"Continuing my exploration in Nature utilizing elements found around me in upstate New York. Still very much attached to steel, magnets and magnetite for my work but have added glass and marker. For this piece I didn’t have a glass cutter so I just decided to break the glass."

Jacque White, Be Wise, Sanitize, oil on fabric with sewn mask, 14 x 11 in.

"A glance over the shoulder, someone has passed too close. "Are they practicing social distancing?" you ask. Suddenly the heavens open from above. A beautiful angel flies down to you, Saint Purell. You nod wisely as you both say in unison, 'Be Wise, Sanitize.'"

Heather Drayzen, Self-Portrait After Bonnard 1889,
oil on canvas, 12 x 9 in.

"Since quarantine, I have been exploring the portraits of Pierre Bonnard further. Inspired by the #museumchallenge, I assumed the pose from Bonnard's 1889 self-portrait for this small oil on canvas work. I painted myself as the renowned painter, thereby inserting myself into Bonnard's universe and playfully into art history."

Gail Kennedy, I'm still here...somewhere in pandemica,
acrylic and collage on ten A3 paper panels.

"Thank you for this opportunity to air thoughts, feelings, moods and experiences of the global pandemic lockdown via my work. This raw 'make do' assemblage reflects the times...use 'what you have' with all its imperfections, bizarreness and unconscious reflection."

Frédéric Lere, Waiting on Line on West 37th, oil on canvas, 20 x 17 in.

"Like most people, since January, I had been following the coronavirus progress, from China to Europe, and then the United States. By Sunday 22 March, one in five Americans were ordered to stay home. As a visual artist based in Manhattan, during this “house arrest”, I produced a number of paintings dealing with COVID-19. It was enough to look out my window to see the impact of the pandemic on our daily life, as evidenced by the line of customers waiting on line to get into the grocery store across the street."

Francine Fanali, Nest on Branch, 2020, oil on canvas board, 16 x 12 in.

"Using the tactile quality of paint, color and brush strokes, I want to celebrate the marks and intricacies of the nest by searching in and out of its woven structure, paying close attention to its shape, form, and the materials used in the building of the nest. Due to the Covid-19 virus and having to shelter in place, nests have become even more significant. Implying safety, love, and nurturing, the birds feel safe in their nest/home. Painting allows me to convey the metaphoric nature as I contemplate the mystery and wonder of the nest and its previous occupants; in doing so, I am reminded of the feeling of safety in my own home."

Ever Blanco Valverde, The Other America.

"The pandemic came during an artist residency in Mexico City by the time I came back to NY I found a completely different city. As for many of us quarantine was a responsibility and art making a way to keep sane."

Doug Brown, Vons Loading Dock,
acrylic on canvas panel, 24 x 18 in.

"This painting is based on a photo I took of the loading dock behind my neighborhood grocery store on April 18th during the shelter in place order. While people were panic buying inside, the loading dock in the back was eerily empty."

Dianne Athey, What to Paint, oil, 20 x 17 in.

"My friend in the UK was in a similar frame of mind... 'Oh, what will I paint, nothing’s coming.' She challenged me to a two-hour self portrait. Why refuse? I sent her mine right on time. She was a little late with hers..."

Dee Shapiro, It's Covid Everywhere, 2020,
mixed media on panel, 24 x 18 in.

"I incorporated images of the Corona viruses which are colorfully attractive yet deadly, with my own geometric inventions. Ink running through the piece in an uncontrolled way along with formal patterns reminding me of the way the virus behaves."

Daniel De Raey, Caffeinated, paper collage, 12 x 9 in.

"Coffee cup mosaic."

Deborah Ugoretz, The Story of a Bear,
cut paper, 37 x 16 1/2 in.

The Story of a Bear harks back to a time of fairy tales and childhood, offering comfort at a time when it is so needed during this pandemic. As I created it, I hoped it would touch that part of our culture that seems long dormant- that of storytelling. The act of making up stories is life affirming and hopeful. It diverts us from dwelling on sickness and death. It can also help us process what is painful. It is a way to share our thoughts and feelings with others in a playful way."

Charles van Horne, Equivalents 122, 123, acrylic on board, 14 x 20 in.

"Myth-making story-telling creatures searching for messages and meaning in patterns of nothing."

Candace Browne, Painter Working, acrylic and collage, 44 x 45 in.

"Stay-at-home painter... working to get deeper and more connected in the paintings- it feels more chaotic necessary, and more beautiful to be together but not."

Bertrand Desmaricaux, The Teacher's Wife,
oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in.

"Ricky Mujica immediately started with zoom classes during the quarantine, and began to teach from home in a very structured and interesting way. One day he asked us to use a pose of his wife to do our homework. This portrait I made back then will always remind me of that flexibility of our teacher and the strong connection between people with the same passion for art."

Alejandra Yancey, Faint Smile, oil, 12 x 9 in.

"Portrait of self, using red, white, black, and ochre paint. The look I was attempting to capture that moment when someone wants to say something but she can’t put In words and ends up falling to expression."

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Apparently, creativity has persisted. Our call for submissions garnered hundreds of works, and we were overwhelmed by the response. The pieces we received comment on isolation, beauty, obsession, interiority, stillness, stress, anger, depression, and transcendence.

In describing Leslie Kerby’s Please Stand By, a work in which the artist depicts sixteen television sets in a grid-like format, Bastidas writes, “In both form and content, Leslie Kerby’s Please Stand By reflects the great pause we are enduring. The work consists of a repeated still of a TV screen showing conflicting and disjointed information/misinformation. This work reminds us that as we carelessly or carefully sift through information, it remains nearly the same every day. The captions are about our daily routines, which are noticeably amplified due to the self-confinement we endure for safety. Kerby’s reductive visualization of our complex state makes our condition even more painfully apparent; we’ve lost our illusion of independence and realized our strength in numbers and dependence upon each other.”

Another work exemplifying how many of us may have felt in quarantine is Margaret McCann’s Guest Room. Based on a painting by Van Gogh, McCann amplifies the work’s themes of isolation and confinement with humor and a deft ability to editorialize. Creating an overtly tiny domicile through a flattened extreme perspective, she suggests that our spaces have become smaller as our familiarity with each inch becomes painfully more noticeable. In Guest Room, the open window to the outside world is a small TV screen. With the slightest turn of the head, the painting’s protagonist watches uncomfortably from the bed. Besides the head, the only other viewable body part is an arm that concludes in a hand gripping a remote control. The discomfort of the scene seems to communicate the intense desire to push the button on the remote and be somewhere else.

Linked in the text here and represented by stills in the gallery, video works by Abigail He and Alessandro Paiano also stood out in the way that they utilized time-based media. Graceful in its pace, He’s Zoom capture video Cheers to the Uncertainty: In Response to the Global Pandemic rifts on the practice of the exquisite corpse. Using the theme of an interactive drawing the work both interrogates and illustrates an attempt to stay in touch beyond the screen. Despite the illusion of ease, the act must have required a high level of cooperation amongst the performers. What He achieves is the magic of virtual reality and the connection we share with others through ideas, art making and community.

Paiano’s hilarious M+E in “Do Something!”[7] also deals with the magical aspects of suspended belief. The artist seems to ask “what happens when we are left with ourselves to work undistracted, without the concern of critical, curious, or intrusive eyes?” Using spot on timing, camera shots, and satire, Paiano shares his internal battle, and the almost universal artist experience, of being creatively distracted by our own distractions.

In making our selections for Persistence, we chose artworks that distilled the essence of our existence while sheltering in place. Produced in what may be our first and hopefully our last citywide pause, these works testify to the indomitable nature of artists and to art’s ability to communicate a spectrum of emotion that may be difficult to convey in any other modality. We are grateful for the support of the amazing staff at the Art Students League and to all the artists who submitted works. Thank you for collapsing our social and physical distance in order to share in this collective moment of pause.

  1. Conceptual Art Making:
  2. Life Under the Pandemic Moon:
  3. Video link:
  4. Video link:
  5. Video link:“Do-something”.mp4
  6. Video link:“Do-something”.mp4
  7. M+E in “Do Something!”:“Do-something”.mp4