Local artists respond to these tumultuous times
In March, 2020, the world changed. Here in the United States, along with elsewhere across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses, schools, and even natural spaces like beaches and parks. With the exception of healthcare and other essential workers, most of us hunkered down and lived our lives moving very little and in small orbits. But, traumatic events were still unfolding as spring turned to summer, and new tragedies of racial injustice took place that sparked a surge in protests for equity. Within this swirl of inaction meeting action, artists everywhere were commenting on the times just as they have historically done. Art is a response to life. Artists give voice to events, feelings, perspectives, and actions. Here in Jacksonville, many followed the work of local artists on social media, finding connection to it, inspiration and validation from it, and using it to keep in touch with the pulse of life beating through this unprecedented upheaval from our norms.
We asked six local artists about their recent work. The insight of these artists is invaluable now, and will be equally so in the historical record of 2020.
Thank you to artists Shawana Brooks, Laura Evans, Ed Hall, Malcolm Jackson, Hope McMath, Renee Parenteau, and Toni Smailagic for sharing your perspectives.
How would you summarize your artistic response to the events of 2020?
Brooks: In the spring, I had just finished opening an exhibition at Yellow House exploring Black motherhood when COVID-19 shut everything down. I was so excited for all the programming for that exhibition, there was so much rich content, but it all vanished with the pandemic. It was heartbreaking. I was a little lost, depressed, and struggling with writer’s block. In quarantine, we began cleaning up our house and my husband’s studio. The idea for 6 Ft. Away Gallery came from us discussing the connection art brings and how that is gone now, combined with the need to tire out my toddler by running around in the yard. The outdoor gallery is a place where you can find a safe space to vent your frustrations, talk out your trauma, or just be still. The current exhibition with works by my husband, Roosevelt Watson III, on display provides a sense of shared frustration for what is not a new occurrence of injustice against Black Americans. The gallery launched at the end of April, and people came from everywhere to explore it. It made me realize that I wanted to engage more Black artists, and I felt like I had a duty and a voice to make this happen. Artists are really struggling right now, and so we had a fundraiser to support Black artists. I thought about how I could best support Black artists with this opportunity and our community. The quarantine gave me a bit of pause. I
was always out on the town. Now I was riding bikes around our neighborhood, and I realized that there was a real lack of public art in my community. I also saw a lot of yard signs and to be frank, they are ugly for the most part. It all came together and Color Jax Blue launched in July. We need to be the change we need, and hiring Black artists to raise awareness about voting just made sense.
Evans: I’ve been doing portraits on location and a bit of documentary coverage examining and reflecting on the unique reality of this intense and interesting year.
Hall: My approach to politics and art hasn’t really changed in 2020. What has changed is the political environment and the outside influences affecting change. COVID-19 has turned everything upside down, causing long-simmering conflicts, insecurities, and anxieties to bubble to the top of our everyday experiences. I have approached the pandemic as a once in a lifetime event that must be combated through science and facts. The recorded killings of unarmed African Americans, spawning the Black Lives Matter movement has been another event put strongly into focus. I have explored the issue of racism from the White House all the way down to the streets; looking at our entire history, rather than the somewhat narrow view of current events. In terms of quarantine and isolation, I have embarked upon a new series of oil paintings focusing on the self, viewed through the lens of seclusion and quarantine. These involve views through open windows to the outside world, while also focusing upon the inside world that we all now inhabit.
Jackson: While 2020 hasn’t changed my views on how I photograph my community, I have taken the slower times during COVID-19 to turn the camera on myself for self-reflection. I created a series of self-portraits titled “Demon Jit” which was the beginning opening myself up and dealing with mental health.
McMath: My earliest response was difficult and that was the decision to close Yellow House, only four days after opening our new exhibit and on the cusp of what promised to be a meaningful and full season of art and activist programming. Once home in lockdown and adapting my curatorial work and UNF art history class to online, I began a daily discipline of making art in my studio. It began with creating a COVID-19 abecedarium, or alphabet. Using small linocuts and letterpress, I attempted to process the chaos and uncertainty into an organized set of words and symbols that were emerging as part of the pandemic. Some were new concepts, specific to the moment, and others were symbols and terms that gained new meaning—flattening the curve, asymptomatic, PPE, coronavirus. They all became words in a new mainstream conversation about public health, the lack of political leadership, and community care. Who knew such mundane objects like toilet paper rolls and masks would become the symbols of 2020?
In the hours after George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, I found myself needing to channel my rage. I finally came out of the house to be present at historic demonstrations in downtown Jacksonville. To stand in solidarity. To leave the space of being an ally with a printmaking brayer and stand as an accomplice. As we all witnessed the additional brutality against protestors, I took to the studio again. This time making a letterpress poster with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the hues of fire. This work became more than ink on paper, but a means to raise money for bail funds to release those demonstrators that were arrested. It felt small, in a moment where we are still needing to proclaim loudly that Black Lives Matter, but it was something. A way to do
what I consistently articulate to the world … that art can create change and has a place in the movement for racial justice.
Smailagic: The first few months were trickier as I began a quarantine series where I invited artists and creatives into my home for a portrait among the lights I had in the house. Most were shot in silhouette playing with the ideas of “coming into the light” or “facing shadows.”
That all shifted after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, where my focus shifted from personalized portraits to photojournalism and showcasing the protests here over a five-week period.
How does art connect you to others?
Brooks: Art can play a crucial role in helping us talk to each other more openly about the historical roots and contemporary manifestations of social inequality, and discrimination. It helps in aiding us to communicate about such topics as racism, white privilege, police violence, economic inequality and mass incarceration. Difficult conversations that demand courage, regardless of who we are, can feel taxing online. Art has the ability to change minds and hearts.
Evans: Art illuminates the mystical web woven into and between everything. On a personal level as a portrait photographer, I highlight and record the unique beauty and dignity of the subject in that moment. To succeed, I have to create an immediate bond of trust so we can work together for an insightful image.
Hall: As a political cartoonist, my art is meant to inform, start a dialogue and connect us all. I use my art to get my message out, and serve as an agent for change.
Jackson: I’m not much of a speaker, so photography allows me to create a language that can be universally understood. I speak of my joys and my pain all through my camera.
McMath: I hold strongly the belief that art helps us see one another. Through images, words, music, and performance we can find truths that actually seem elusive when delivered only through the statistics and information of the day. To feel and understand the weight of a life, the impact of an event, the emotion of a moment, and the ripple effects across time and place I often look to art as my guide and my translator. And when done communally, it can open dialogue that creates fertile ground for change…on the individual and collective levels.
Parenteau: Portrait photography is a very personal art form. I need to connect with my subject to bring out their personality or a certain look in their session. Through the end of April I participated in The Front Steps Project started by Cara Soulia in Boston. I photographed Springfield families on their porches during quarantine from a safe social distance on the sidewalk. All I asked for in return was that they purchase meals or gift cards from Springfield businesses. My studio is located in Springfield and I was worried about our businesses going out of business during the pandemic. It was a wonderful way to be social and get to know new Springfield neighbors safely. It was a highlight for them to have a family photo during this time. Some would dress in costume and others in pajamas. A highlight was photographing a pregnant woman during a quarantine maternity session then later, but still during quarantine, with her baby, and in the same dress from the first session.
Smailagic: My specific line of work, photography, is literally that: A way to connect others through visual representation. It allows me to step into other people’s lives and showcase them to a group of people who may never get to meet or work with them. It humanizes people and calls for an emphatic connection.