How Artists Are Bringing Us Together While Staying Apart

By Shantay Robinson 

When asked about what made Candace Hunter start offering art lessons online via Facebook, she stated, “Because the entire world seemed to be going stir crazy at the same time, I thought that I would offer all who cared, a respite from what was going on in their lives.” Though the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in the scale that it is affecting the world, if it weren’t for the technology so many of us have our disposal, the world would much less connected as we all shelter in place. Our governments have requested that we perform social distancing for several months by this point, so a large number of people are not able to work or socialize the way they normally would. Artists might be one of the groups hardest hit by the shelter in place mandate. Art exhibitions have been postponed as museums and gallery spaces are closed to the public. So many artists who had exhibitions scheduled for 2020, are uncertain about when those exhibitions are postponed until or if they will ever happen. The year 2020, that we thought would be filled with enacting perfect vision, has turned out to be the year when we all have to re-envision our perspectives.  What does the artworld look like when practicing social distancing? Well, several artists, curators, and enthusiasts are viewing an alternative especially for these times.

Curator and scholar, Kelli Morgan, states, “I’ve been urged by much of my social media audience for years to provide online content of both my scholarly and curatorial work. However, it was only after I gave a recent lecture at the Flint Institute of Arts, where I received an overwhelming response to my work that I decided to share short videos about how I interpret the art in my galleries at [Indianapolis Museum of Art] and African American art history.” Morgan realizes with the visibility of African American art in popular media like Empire, Insecure, and The Photograph, and with the presence of high profile African American art collectors like Alicia Keys, Swizz Beats, Tina Knowles, P. Diddy, Jay Z and Beyonce, younger audiences are becoming privier to visual art. While sheltering in place she notes that people are engaging more now although she’s been active on Facebook for years. She had never shared live or recorded videos, but because we’re all more attentive to our media and have time to engage, she’s been publishing videos that can be viewed on the Black Art in America website and social media sites. She primarily wants to give her audience, “a deeper interest in African American art and art history, particularly its connections to their lives and family histories, as well as how connected it is to Black music, Black literature, and Black struggle.”

Printmaker, Steve Prince, created the YouTube Virtual Art Lesson Series called Muscarelle in the House to engage with a global community especially in response to the changes in our world. Prince has already connected with home school programs, high schools, and some universities who are eager to see more episodes. His multi-layered video content is reminiscent of popular public broadcasting series like The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company that provide programming that is rich with creativity. Prince wants to reach an audience of multiple generations. He says, “I want the 10-year-old and the 80-year-old alike to enjoy the content and feel the cathartic power of art filling their homes every Wednesday.” While Prince had not conducted his art lessons virtually before social distancing, he plans to expand on his already engaging and high energy video lessons with a virtual summer camp. Muscarelle in the House: Virtual Summer Camp for the youth will happen every Wednesday and Friday at noon in June, July, and August on YouTube where they will be exposed to do-it-yourself activities using inexpensive materials. 

Tokie Rome-Taylor was sitting on her sofa and something told her to make a post about conducting a Photoshop live bootcamp. And she did it. The next morning, she had more than 30 comments of interest. Rome-Taylor states, “I hope people feel connected. I hope they feel seen and heard, I hope they feel like there is a sliver of a silver lining in this tragic uncertain time.” She conducted five Photoshop bootcamps so far. Not only has she conducted bootcamps, she’s developed an affinity for virtual studio visits. Pre-COVID- 19, she was scheduled to have a studio visit with a curator, and instead of rescheduling they did it virtually. Rome-Taylor thinks, “virtual studio visits should happen way more often. There is this ability to see and interact around the artwork that has the barrier of geography removed.” Rome-Taylor is also busy creating a virtual summit to help fine art photographers make connections in the artworld – the business side of being an artist. She says, “I really want to share and pull up artists because all of what I know I learned from a wonderful network.” 

Printmaker and Studio Noize podcaster, Jamaal Barber, empathizes with all of those who are experiencing a hard time social distancing. Barber concedes that it is so easy to be down in spirits at this time surrounded by problems, but he wants his listeners to know they are not alone. He offers, “In these times of uncertainty nothing could be more devastating than going through times like this, where opportunities are gone, anxiety is through the roof, where we can feel so isolated in our own homes away from each other, we need to know that we are not alone. We need to know that the same community that was there for you before this is still there.” The podcast Studio Noize has been airing for almost two years now and is committed to their mission of highlighting and archiving contemporary black artists. According to Barber, the podcast brings listeners “conversations with black contemporary artist that you want to hear from and that you need to hear from.” 

Though Candace Hunter is an artist and not a teacher by trade, she started lessons online for the “art curious,” those who aren’t artists but are interested in art. Hunter was a director of an art summer camp of about 400 children. After each project, the parents of the campers would respond they also wanted to make art. So, before the quarantine, Hunter conducted Totem Art Salons four times a year at her studio. She would set up a gourmet lunch, offer champagne, and allowed adults the freedom to make their own masterpieces. In addition to the delicacies, Hunter would provide a lecture about process and start a discussion about family and history. Through her online sessions Hunter hopes to offer an understanding of the labor involved in creating art.

Andrew W. Grant is offering a behind the scenes look at his creative and technical process.  He’s also offering mentorship and coaching to emerging artists via Zoom. In order to reach his audience, he’s creating a dialogue that is decipherable to those viewers who have never picked up a paintbrush. He’s taking advantage of people’s attention to their well-being. Because more people have time on their hands, because they aren’t sitting in traffic, picking children up from school, and socializing on the weekends, artists who have online content to share have a rare opportunity to engage viewers and listeners in a way that is unprecedented in the information age.  He says, “It’s my hope that in sharing the process, fans of my work will appreciate the final product even more. For me, creating a painting is a logical process but it takes time to master the individual steps involved. There is planning and research involved prior to me even touching any paint and I want to shine more light on the work that goes into each one.” Grant is also committed to mentoring artists who are taking their artistic careers seriously by encouraging their skill and creativity.

Given our current situation there is so much to be concerned about. Our lives are literally hanging in the balance. Every step outside of our homes is a risk. But even in these dire times, artists are finding beauty in the moment. Without artists, including visual artists, there would be less to look forward to each day we spend sheltered in our homes. People around the world are becoming privy to a virtual world that can connect people instantly and globally. While this is a very destitute time, it is rich with creativity. As artists create more and more engaging ways to connect the world, we see a future on the other side of the pandemic that many of us didn’t realize was here before. Coming out of this pandemic, many of us will be thankful for the physical time we can share with loved ones, but we also come to know how we can connect with like-minded people without the limitations of geography. All of the artists I heard from said they would like to continue their virtual work after the quarantine. With this attitude there will be more personal growth, more appreciation for the arts, and a wider audience for artists.   

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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