Artists on Coping: Deanna Lee

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

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Deanna Lee was born in Putnam County, New York, to parents from China and Taiwan, and raised in suburban Boston. She grew up spending time in her mother’s biology lab and taking classical music lessons on several instruments for 14 years. Comprising drawings, paintings, site-specific installations, and public artworks, her art interprets everyday traces of transformation in natural systems and the built environment. Numerous venues have shown her work, including Robert Henry Contemporary, Wave Hill, the Drawing Center, and the New York Hall of Science. Among her honors are awards from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Asia Society, National Academy, Millay Colony, and Saltonstall Foundation. In addition to her visual art practice, Lee is a member of the Balinese ensemble, Gamelan Dharma Swara.

AS: How are you coping?

DL: Inconsistently. The pandemic arrived almost as a logical culmination of a four-year siege on my sense of wellbeing, with a daily flood of information that presents fresh assaults on my psyche. I feel I’m in a perpetual state of crisis management. At first, after all my freelance art-handling jobs were cancelled, I was giddy at the prospect of newly freed time, like I’d been granted a surprise residency. But my ability to be productive is generally quashed by erratic periods of emotional turmoil, a high level of distraction, and an inability to focus. (It’s been a challenge to articulate my thoughts; I am responding to these questions almost a month after receiving them.) I was able to start receiving some unemployment benefits, but have deep anxiety over the looming financial collapse, and compulsively check lists of resources and scramble to find and apply for new emergency funds. It’s wonderful and dispiriting that such lists are proliferating, as they illustrate the benevolent desire of so many offers of assistance and the profound inadequacy of these measures to meet the overwhelming need.

Certain practices (in no particular order) that help me cope, find solace and inspiration are: hearing and reading others’ stories (like the ones on this blog) with their commonality of feelings; turning to works of art and music for demonstrations of human goodness (especially the Bach choral motets); participating with online resources with social-justice activists; keeping in regular touch with loved ones; paying attention to the trees and watching nearby birds; listening to intelligently critical voices on broadcast radio and podcasts; cycling 30 minutes each way between my home and studio (exercise has never felt more essential); and being with my life partner.

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Drawing from House 5B Inspection Scrolls: A (2018; 12 x 9 inches; ink-on-vellum drawing, based on a wall rubbing, temporarily installed on a different wall)

AS: Has your routine changed?

DL: Thankfully, I can still access my studio, and it is reliably a place of refuge. Even though I have no deadlines to work toward, the act of making marks on a surface with my hands is therapeutic, a calming and positive distraction. I’m returning to some large drawings I began at least five years ago. The lapse of activity between then and now make these drawings non-precious sites for experiments, which is good for working on within the context of deep uncertainty. The freedom they offer will hopefully yield worthwhile results; I have faith they will, for better work often comes out of projects that are not overly planned.

Prior to the pandemic, my art-making routine was typically in a state of flux, determined by the presence of freelance jobs or lack of them. After I ran my bank account down during 2018 to support a number of exhibitions and public-art projects, I began a prolonged hiatus from the studio in spring 2019, to focus on jobs. Now, without any jobs, I’m able to be in the studio almost every day, and when I am there I strive to draw for at least two hours.

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Voice Graph Drawing (2017; 24 x 35 inches; ink, gouache, and marker on paper)

Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

Rage, fear, despair—and some blind clinging to hope.

As a U.S.-born person of Chinese heritage, I have since childhood been a victim of casually (and lazily) racist verbal insults and attacks. The racist interpretation of the cause of the pandemic follows the Yellow Peril narrative that was invented by this country in the 19th century, and I feel endless disappointment that nothing, in this regard, has changed.

A few years ago, I experienced what at first seemed to be a life-shattering medical condition, caused by a virus. This initiated a slow growing capacity to accept the possibility of unexpected and destabilizing events as a constant presence. I try to take an historical view, to remind myself of previous plagues, human resilience, and my own family’s experience of survival, escaping China in 1950 and immigrating to the United States.

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Foram Facet B (2018; 10 x 10 inches; gouache and acrylic on wood)

AS: What matters most right now?

DL: Health and confirming my loved ones are safe. Aside from struggling to combat my anxiety and negativity, I’m focused on the paramount importance of caring, kindness, and tolerance; the need for collective action to ensure desperately needed progressive outcomes of this disaster; actively expressing gratitude for the sacrifices that essential workers are making every day.

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Foram Facet J (2018; 10 x 10 inches; gouache and acrylic on wood)

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

We must prepare for future pandemics; given the global economic and environmental conditions, more novel pathogens will come. I hope that the vicious shock of this pandemic will not be quickly forgotten with a return to business as usual and political inertia. Nationalist agendas and neoliberal capitalism are what brought us this catastrophe. Change may be unpredictable, but change will inevitably occur; what matters is whether changes will happen to us or be determined by us. We have to mobilize against the efforts of the murderous authoritarians, who will craft the outcome of this pandemic to further the destruction of the people.

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Detail of a work in process (Vertical Drawing 2; 66 x 18 inches; ink on paper)

Regarding my artistic practice: In recent years, I have been shifting toward making fewer objects and more site-generated temporary drawing installations. At the beginning of March, I was still feeling optimistic about attending three artist residencies that I was very fortunate to have been invited to. Whether these programs will occur as planned, from July through October, is entirely unknown, but I do hope that I will be able to participate with them at a later date. Otherwise, I will continue to make objects in my studio for as long as I can.

In terms of how we think about the economic system: I believe there is a great need to organize workers in all industries—including artists and arts workers—toward collective action, in order to grow more humane structures of financial support and sustainability (for example, less-hierarchical models of organizing labor, like worker co-ops), to move away from dependency on private and corporate largess, and to better manifest the ever-more-crucial goals of environmental and social justice.

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After Eagle 15 (2015; 8 x 7 inches; ink on paper)
Catherine Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer based in New York. She wrote the introductions to Meryl Meisler’s two books, and is currently working on an oral history about recent changes in photography.