During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.
Through her paintings of high rise constructions sites, Gwyneth Leech expresses the optimism and anxiety of a rapidly changing New York cityscape. She has been in solo and group shows throughout the United States and Great Britain, including Susan Teller Gallery in New York City; Studio 50 Gallery in Los Angeles; Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Art in Houston Texas; and Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum, Scotland. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, American Art Collector Magazine, The Village Voice, and City Realty. She is the subject of a multi-award winning short documentary, The Monolith.
AS: How are you coping?
GM: Sometimes I feel like am coping well and actually enjoy the simplicity of what is required of me – to stay at home with people I love – my husband and daughter. In recent years I have often longed for the world to stop. Everything felt like it was spinning too fast and I had no hope of keeping up. Suddenly, wish came true, as everything has come to a screeching halt.
At other times I do not cope well at all. I don’t watch television news, but I read the NY Times, listen to NPR news, and to Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings. It seems like I am talking about Coronavirus constantly with my husband, friends, and family. This leads to a feeling of anxiety attacks about the present and the future.
Getting outside once a day for a walk or a bike ride keeps the anxiety at bay, as has repainting the apartment room by room with obsessive attention to details – especially filling cracks. It helps to have some small areas under control. The art-making side of me tends to shut down at times of crisis. My muse is far away, possibly hiding under the bed. But as long as I have a brush in my hand and keep my arm moving, I feel relief from the press of fears, even if I am only painting a wall!
AS: Has your routine changed?
GM: I am used to a lot of solitude and work time during the day. Typically, my husband and my 16 year old daughter would leave the house by 7am and not be back until evening. I would work on the computer for a while first thing in the morning, then go to my painting studio 8 blocks away. Once or twice a week I would attend an evening talk or gallery opening. On weekends I had choral work. A good chunk of Sundays was always spent at my paid church choir job, shoulder to shoulder with 20 singers – a counterbalance to working alone that I absolutely love.
Now I am at home in a small apartment with my family almost all the time. No more choral work, no more outings to galleries or events. My husband brought his sound mix gear home from the production house where he works when it closed mid-March (a non-essential business). He is still employed, for which we are extremely grateful, but having him working at home is an adjustment. It does mean we can take turns supervising home school for our daughter who has Down Syndrome and now receives all her special education services remotely. Her teacher has been amazing at translating her curriculum to this new situation They facetime daily, sometimes more than once, but keeping the ball rolling is down to us, as Grace is not an independent learner.
Usually my daughter and I walk west from out apartment on West 47th Street near 10th Avenue. The streets are quieter in that direction and we don’t have to wear masks, which is easier on her. We loop around Dewitt Clinton park and down to the piers along the Hudson River Park. For my sanity, a bike ride around Central Park is everything. I do this every other day and having experienced the full flowering of Spring this year, a sequence of blossoming trees that goes on and on, makes me wonder why I have never managed to experience this so fully every year!
I am fortunate that my studio building is so close and still open, manned by a skeleton staff. But because of the full-on family commitments I get there only once or twice a week instead of the daily routine I am used to. In the studio I feel calmer and more focused, even though I am not sure the artwork I am doing makes much sense in the context of current events. Still, I press on, trying to finish paintings I began before the city shut down, and they do have a new feel. Before, they highlighted the dynamism of the city under construction. Now, the empty skeletal buildings in my compositions feel silent and frozen in time, and I wonder where the work will take me when this is all over.
AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?
GM: My feeling are a contradictory jumble. Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe and I wonder what is wrong with me. Then I realize it is grief – grief for all who have suffered and died, lost livelihoods and opportunities, for the loss of the great New York City bustle. I feel a pervasive sadness that is kept at bay by new routines but is always just below the surface.
There is anxiety that everything is over, making art is meaningless, that exhibitions, art sales and commissions are gone for good. I am impatient. I want to be done with lock-down, to get back to normal, or move on to whatever new normal will be.
I have had the virus, in mild form. It was no picnic, but I recovered at home. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t fear catching it again anytime soon. However, I fear picking it up on my hands when outdoors and transferring it inadvertently to another surface where someone could catch it.
Counterweight to these negative emotions is gratitude – for a comfortable home, being with people I love, having an art studio close by where I can continue to make artwork in some way, and for moments of unexpected joy. There is newly audible birdsong behind my tenement now that the roar of traffic and construction is gone, cleaner air, quieter streets, and a Spring season that seems extraordinarily beautiful.
AS: What matters most right now?
GM: The most important thing for me now is connecting with family and friends by phone and online, making sure they are OK and letting them know I care about them. I have a 24 year old daughter who lives and works in Boston and the hardest part is not knowing when we can be together with her again.
Beyond this, my community of artists matter a lot. For over 20 years I have been involved with the New York Artists Circle, a group that has met monthly without fail to provide mutual support. We held our first ever Zoom meeting in March, attended by over 70 artists. The plus side was that many far-flung members were able to attend for the first time in years. A Zoom component now seems part of our future. In addition, our group had already been working on a new website. We are extremely grateful to our developers at ClearDev for soldiering on through the crisis, and pleased that the site is now live .
In the wider world, I worry about how people will eat in this time of massive unemployment. I donate to several soup kitchens and keep an eye out for volunteer opportunities. The DOE has stepped up its free food program and I try to share information about food resources as I come across it.
AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?
GM: It seems that this crisis will not be over until there is a vaccine in wide distribution in 12 to 18 months. But I try not to think so far ahead. All this is only bearable one day at a time.Still this is also a moment of clarity. Some things I was doing before seem irrelevant. These changed circumstances provide a weirdly welcome off-ramp. I ask myself, having survived the virus how do I want to spend my time going forward?
What the art world will look like after this is a huge question mark. Digital space is more important than ever for artists, but also more crowded. Changing attitudes to online art sales may help artists but the fundamental importance of personal relationships won’t change. Now is a good time to deepen relationships, to reach out and let people know of my concern and that I am thinking about them.
For the last five years, I have been both challenged and inspired by the dynamism of a non-stop building boom across New York City. Seeing the work sites fall silent has been a shock, and a kind of relief from the relentless drive to increase density. What if that building boom has abruptly ended? Will the myriad half-finished projects resume or will some languish unfinished? Will these structures become monuments to resilience or will they fall into ruin? Perhaps if the real estate and construction boom is over, affordable spaces will open up again for artists once the crisis has passed. The future seems full of possibility, as well as of peril.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: email@example.com