During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.
Leslie Kerby works in a variety of media to create thematically interlinked bodies of work. Motivated by social networks at moments of change, she examines the shipping container and medical industries, cemeteries and financial inequality. Represented in collections at Columbia University and Bradbury Art Museum, Arkansas State University, Kerby has received commissions from Norte Maar, BRIC Arts | Media and Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, and was awarded residencies at the American Academy in Rome, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (Virginia and France), and the School of Visual Arts. Her work has also appeared at Verge, Spring Break and AQUA Miami, and has been reviewed by Hyperallergic and Two Coats of Paint.
AS: How are you coping?
LK: It’s week four of the “pause,” and I’m still figuring out how to balance stress, making art, staying healthy and connected. The first week my husband and I checked on 50 immediate family members, and through chaotic Zoom calls, learned about layoffs, and that a nephew and brother-in-law had contracted the virus. Fortunately they’re better and weren’t hospitalized. And one of my daughters was bitten by a dog and had to go the emergency room, so it’s been very stressful. But we’re near several ambulance routes, and the blare of sirens day and night keeps us focused on how lucky we are.
AS: Has your routine changed?
LK: I have a home studio, and thought this could be a very productive time–a residency without distractions! The first few days I was emboldened, but found it increasingly hard to concentrate. Then I realized that in my art I’ve been preparing for this since 2012. In one project I used shipping containers as a construct to analyze our global trade/supply chain. Another project looked at our medical system: the players (financial/industry), providers (doctors/nurses) and end users (all of us). My work on cemeteries considered them as a form of community, but also a shrinking resource as worldwide there is less and less space to bury loved ones in beautiful hillside places. I capped off the year with a series of collages on financial inequality and our propensity to accumulate wealth, debt, and even people for personal and political gain.
Then realizing we were in for a month to a year’s long pause, I wondered if these ideas were still relevant. So I began to paint 3 x 3 inch still lifes of flowers to email to my daughters–a small project I have some control over and can easily complete. I’m asking friends to send flower photos as “evidence of spring,” and it’s becoming a journal.
AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?
LK: I’m hopeful and fearful. Many parts of the COVID-19 story align with elements in my work: greed, money, politics, the medical industrial complex, racial animus, inequality, as well as empathy, community, sacrifice and support. There are good stories and bad, much to learn and reflect upon as we readjust our lives. I limit news consumption because it seems to promote an ugly time in our nation’s story. Yet individuals are making masks, and donating food and supplies to health care workers on the front lines. I’ve donated art, and know positive actions make you feel less helpless.
Career and job losses are tremendous in the arts and will change these communities and narrow opportunities to present work. It’s difficult to talk with fellow artists about projects we were developing. Last summer I collaborated with designer Lianne Arnold on the first phase of an installation titled Closing Ceremony in Brooklyn Bridge Park. We suspended mobiles of basswood, vellum and string from the ceiling, the vellum shapes representing silhouettes of monuments from cemeteries up and down the East Coast. We had two projectors, a series of pen and ink drawings, and photographs, and spent a month creating projections, lighting treatments, animations and sounds; a moving, contemplative narrative to encourage conversations around new ways to memorialize loved ones.
We invited the public in to chat, and had satisfying conversations with people from all over the world and all walks of life. One had never experienced art in installation format, only paintings in museums, and was quite taken with it. Some spoke freely about end of life ideas, while others paused and meditated. It was incredibly rewarding, and I hope we don’t lose these public-facing opportunities.
AS: What matters most right now?
LK: Where we’re headed. Social distancing is an investment in our future. We must be true to ourselves, yet find ways to connect to others and forge common ground. A story:
One day at the laundromat a man came in angry and puffing. He threw his clothes on the floor, sorted and loaded several machines, then accused the owner of skimping on water flow—he was being cheated! The owner’s wife tried to calm him, but retreated to the office, so the angry man turned to me. I said I knew the owners well, that their son had gone to school with one of my daughters. He said the owner wasn’t nice; I explained he was undergoing dialysis. Then the man told me it was his daughter’s birthday and the real reason he was mad was that she refused to talk to him for a month.
“An unexpected gesture might help,” I said. “Buy her a card and tell her how much you miss her.”
He thanked me, and we shook hands and introduced ourselves. He was shocked this conversation took place in a laundromat. “This is where we meet,” I said. Walking home, I thought this is why I love New York. Let’s not lose these connections.
AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?
LK: Last fall during a residency at the American Academy in Rome, I looked at life in the piazzas and what made those public spaces successful. In New York there’ve been attempts to create this same dynamic with privately owned public spaces, some of which I toured this winter. Bryant Park is one of the most successful, and since it was cold, few people were there, but the famous moveable “green chairs” were. Drawing them then and looking at them now while social distancing, I see that though the chairs are empty, they’re still socializing with one another. Though it will be some time before I continue this project, social distancing will add an interesting layer to it. For now, I’ll cling to this statement by David Remnick: “The vacancy of our public spaces, though antithetical to the purpose of a great city, which is defined by the constancy and the poetry of its encounters, is needed for its preservation.” Let’s hope these are places where we all can someday meet again. Be well.