Artists on Coping: Meryl Meisler

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


Meryl Meisler studied photography at the University of Wisconsin, and with Lisette Model in New York where she began to capture the city’s street life and infamous nightlife. A 1978 C.E.T.A. Artist Grant supported her portfolio on Jewish identity, after which she began a three-decade career as a NYC public school art teacher. Upon retirement, she began releasing large bodies of previously unseen work, including two books, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick, and Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City. She is currently working on her next monograph, New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco, and is represented by CLAMPART.

AS: How are you coping?

MM: One day at a time in this Covid-19 Twilight Zone. March came in like a lion and evolved into a monster. The first three weeks I was very depressed and anxious. Sometimes, it felt like Novocain was shot throughout my body while functioning in a state of shock.

I’m very fortunate to be with my spouse, Patricia O’Brien, and our dog, Via, as we shelter at our home in Woodstock, NY. We are not in a war zone. We are healthy, have plentiful food, shelter, and means of communication while social distancing.

The nightmare has been compounded by deaths of family and friends during the pandemic. When my mother-in-law, Kathleen O’Brien, passed away on March 4th, our family was able to gather for her funeral mass. When my dear friend, the incredible painter Judy Somerville, passed away unexpectedly on March 19th, family and friends could not come together because of the danger. We have to wait till it is safe to hug, kiss, cry, laugh, share stories, and honor her blessed memory. Another friend, the wonderful photographer Robert. Herman, succumbed to depression and took his life on March 19th. Although their deaths were not directly from Covid-19, news of friends of friends, relatives of community members dying from the virus started coming in. I was headed for despair and reached out for professional help. I contacted my therapist who was out of the country for vacation. We are now doing sessions by ZOOM because in-office visits are no longer possible.

Patricia and I are striving to stay healthy while social distancing by sleeping, eating and doing our artwork. She’s working on a graphic novel; I’m working on my next monograph, New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco. I walk the dog around the block or on a trail. I contact at least two people a day, by telephone, text and/or email to check in and let them know even if solitary, they are not alone. Mundane tasks–housecleaning, laundry, and doing my taxes (crazy, yes)–things I ordinarily avoid and abhor, help too. I’m more diligent than ever about taking my prescription medicine and vitamins, brushing and flossing to avoid dental problems. All of us need to social distance and stay as healthy as possible so as not to further burden healthcare professionals and facilities focusing on life and death situations.


Zoom Passover

AS: Has your routine changed?

MM: Each morning I write a list of 10 or more things I am grateful for. They always start off by being thankful to sleep at night and wake up in the morning and then (inspired by The Artists Way) finish 3 pages by long hand of whatever crosses my mind. I’m trying to establish more routines to help curb comfort overeating and sleeping too much. I sit down to work on my book project a couple of hours each day. Focusing is challenging but very necessary, for me. When finished working on the book, I will return to an unfinished mixed media self-portrait as The Woman in Gold. I’m not a multi-tasker, preferring to focus on one project at a time. Boredom has never been an issue for me, other than long-winded faculty meetings.

Other changes in my routine include using ZOOM and Livestream. In the last week, I’ve attended Shabbat services, made a Shiva call, danced and exercised with strangers, and had two cocktail parties. Most likely we will be celebrating holidays with family via ZOOM too. How bizarre.


Work in progress: New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco

AS: Have you had a show or other creative opportunities canceled?

MM: March was scheduled to be a month long artists residency at The Virginia Center for The Creative Arts. When my mother-in-law became ill three days into the residency, we returned to New York. March 11th was the opening reception of Studio54 Night Magic at the Brooklyn Museum, where I have work on exhibit. Throughout the fabulous reception, I sensed this might be the last big opening for quite some time. The next day NYC museums, Broadway theaters and other cultural institutions announced closings. Pattie and I abandoned our plans to return back south and drove up to Woodstock instead. Studio54 Night Magic, scheduled through July 5th, has yet to open to the public nor does anyone know if it will. The Brooklyn Museum exhibit and a group show at Foley Gallery are now frozen in time. So far this spring: a group exhibit Grace Before Jones: Camera, Disco, Studio at Nottingham Contemporary, UK is postponed. From Acid to Ecstasy at Lockwood Contemporary Gallery in Kingston, NY might go only online.

Three presentations have been cancelled or postponed until further notice: DC Street Photography Collective; TOURISTS, a small hotel and riverside retreat in North Adams, MA; and Photo Café in Bushwick. My participation as an off key singer in Jaime Warren’s installation The Miracle, The Musical at Pioneer Works is cancelled.


Work in progress: New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

MM: I’m disgusted the Trump administration dismantled the pandemic team, pared down the CDC, discredited scientists and journalists, and downgraded our health and education system. On February 29th at a MAGA rally, Trump downplayed the virus by saying “this is their new hoax.” At the April 23rd White House briefing, he suggested that injecting disinfectants could treat COVID-19.


Work in progress: New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco

AS: What matters most right now?

MM: People. I make it a point to call at least one person a day to rekindle connections and let them know though isolated, they are never alone. Others I reach out to by email or, last choice, text.


Work in progress: New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

MM: It will be a long road to recovery. Imagine the sweetness of again being physically close to a friend, being among community or even strangers; to hug, kiss, touch a hand, share a meal, dance, rejoice, celebrate, travel, shop, go to galleries, museums, theaters, school, spiritual practice, recreation and parks without fear of spreading a deadly disease. May we come out of this with a renewed appreciation for the simple joys of life and for being part of a wider, vibrant society.


Grandchildren social distance visiting with their recently widowed grandmother in Woodstock, NY
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.