Artists on Coping: Renee Robbins

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

Renee Robins in her studio

Renee Robbins is a Chicago-based visual artist who layers biomorphic forms to create detailed otherworldly environments. She has been awarded public art commissions with Chicago Public Art Group, Wabash Arts Corridor, and Illinois’ Art-In-Architecture program. She has exhibited widely, including exhibitions at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL; Lois Lambert Gallery, Santa Monica, CA; Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL; Firecat Projects, Chicago, IL; and the Alden B Dow Museum of Science and Art, Midland, MI. Her work has been featured in the Chicago Gallery News, PBS WTTW, and Ahtcast. Robbins has been working in Chicago for over a decade.

Siren Song, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 72”

AS: How are you coping?

RR: The world has turned upside down. It’s been difficult to concentrate and do things that I would normally do. I’ve been journaling, meditating, and cooking. Fortunately, my studio is in my home so I have a place to create with lots of materials. On April Fools Day 2020, I decided to bring back a Daily Drawing project that I began on April 1, 2011 and worked on until March 31, 2012.

The project will be different this time as I plan to approach it a new way. I’m giving myself permission but allowing some flexibility in my process. Flexibility is the name of the game. These drawings don’t have to be finished works like the last time I did the daily drawing project for a year. I wrote about the rules and parameters for the new daily drawing project on my blog. It’s been hard for me to paint and create work during the pandemic so far. I hope that can change and I can get into a rhythm.

Studio View, Daily Drawing Project Take Two, April 1. 2020 & April 2, 2020, watercolor on paper

AS: Has your routine changed?

RR: I’ve been in the studio every weekday but not always painting. Painting has now become stressful and not providing much relief or calm. The nights are long, filled with anxiety, and I’m having trouble sleeping. We eat meals and clean the house more intensely. My partner is working from home as well so it’s been different having him here but going ok so far. We are safe, healthy, and have tasks to keep us busy.

My partner is a musician and does a weekly radio show called Electric Beach Blanket. Radio Nope is an online radio site run by a bunch of our musician friends. He has been doing longer radio shows for the pandemic. I’ve been doing some fitness routines indoors. We have attempted a few walks in our neighborhood but it’s hard to social distance, as many people in Chicago are not doing it. We have to go out of our way on the sidewalk or jump into the street where there are moving cars driving on the road to keep the 6 feet apart. A walk even seems stressful during the pandemic.

We live by a park and forest preserve on the Northwest side of Chicago about 5 miles from O’Hare airport. I’ve found if you can get to the park, which is only ½ mile away from our place, the social distance game is a little easier on the grass versus the paved path. This path is the North Branch Trail, which is much less populated than the Lakeshore Trail that has been closed by our mayor on March 27, 2020. The North Branch Trail is one the best-kept secrets of Chicago. I love it very much and glad to be living in Albany Park, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. You really see the neighborhood diversity in the businesses located here and also in hearing all the different languages spoken in our parks. I have however been appalled by the lack of social distancing behavior on our North Branch Trail. Our playgrounds have all been closed. I hope the parks do not close but that might be the next step.

Daily Drawings / Color Meditations, Nov 2019 – March 2020

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

RR: I feel like we are losing so much of our great city with each day that we are shuttered in place. Many of the art spaces I used to visit and attend receptions at will not open back up. This fills me with intense sadness and grief. The restaurants will be shuttered and many will not recuperate. So many people are now unemployed and in pain. I wonder how so many places and people can start again from scratch after this pandemic. I want to wake up from this nightmare. It feels like a bad dream.

Lost Lens, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 60” x 52”

AS: What matters most right now?

RR: My partner, family, and cat Yeti. I’ve been trying to take it one day at a time so I don’t get overwhelmed. Additionally, I’ve been trying to listen to music I’m also trying to get though the audio book How to Do Nothing; Resisting the Attention Economy. Anthony Lewellen recommended it and I checked it out from the Chicago Public Library. Lewellen lives in my neighborhood but we’ve never met in real life as we are only acquainted online. I enjoy seeing his art in Chicago and following his work online. I hope to invite him for a studio visit some day when ART opens back up.

Studio view with initial layers for a new work in process in the CRESZENT ZOOM series, 2020

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

RR: I hope that this time will pass so we can emerge and attempt to rebuilt a place that is even better than before. With so much uncertainty, it’s difficult to imagine how that can take place. We don’t know how long we will be ordered to stay at home. The earth will continue to rotate, the sun will continue to rise and set each day. There is still beauty in our world. I hope to use my artistic mindset to remind others that there is still beauty present. I will be here dreaming about when the world can open back up. Do not give up hope!

Rise, 2020 acrylic on canvas, 60” x 52”
Melissa Stern is an artist and journalist living in NYC. She has written for Hyperallergic, The New York Press, CityArts and The Weeklings. Her work has been shown all over the US and can be seen here at her websites-