Art in a time of plague

Wild Orchid (178mm x 127mm acrylic on board 2020)

“When disaster strikes, so does inspiration,” wrote Bryan Appleyard in the (London) Times earlier this month, “Art is what humans do in spite of, often because of, catastrophes.”

I’d been planning a rather grumpy rebuttal of this for the past couple of weeks. Personally, I was finding it difficult to create much of anything at all. My company had asked everyone to work from home so the room I use for drawing and painting now had to be shared with my office computer. After working in there all day, I felt less inclined to spend my evenings and weekends in the same space. But most of all, what was the point of painting fruit or drawing dogs when thousands were dying of Covid-19, and the US and UK governments seemed to be trying to outrank each other in ineptitude? Nobody asks for a story when they’re struggling for breath, as the novelist Sarah Perry said recently.

Then spring arrived. During my officially-sanctioned lockdown daily walks there was birdsong, the smell of fir trees warmed by a strengthening sun, butterflies rising from hidden places underfoot. The climbing rose outside my bedroom window was heavy with buds, the lavender took on a rich green sheen, tulips came and went, bluebells the same, the fruit trees are in blossom.

I started to draw. Then paint – a series of small, stylised flowers: a wild orchid, a rosebud, a sunflower, a poppy. There they all were if I just had eyes to see. An illustration for a friend’s story, a drawing of an old piece of pottery. The blinds were open and the sun was shining in.

It’s easy to feel discouraged. Who knows how long it’ll be until we can hug one another, travel somewhere, sit in a garden with friends and food and wine? And yes, people are dying out there, not surrounded by their family but only by the hissing of ventilators and the beeping of monitors.

I read this quote from writer Olivia Laing on songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Instagram feed at the weekend. Laing is perhaps best known for her study of loneliness, appropriately enough, but this is about the role of creativity in troubled times:

“It’s a feeling of being inducted back into hope, a restoration of faith.  It’s easy to give in to despair.  There’s so much that is frightening, so much that’s wrong. But if this virus shows us anything, it’s that we’re interconnected, just as Dickens said.  We have to keep each other afloat, even when we can’t touch.  Art is a place where that can happen, where ideas and people are made welcome. ⁣It’s a zone of enchantment as well as resistance, and it’s open even now.”⁣

I’m still not sure about the role of small paintings like the one above in the general scheme of things. I just know I have to do them.

Stay safe.

22 thoughts on “Art in a time of plague

  1. On the contrary, Michael – seeing pictures like these, and reading your blog, give hope at a difficult time. That is a wonderful picture. Caroline

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you once again, Michael, for sharing your insight, and those two quotes—you are helping to keep us afloat. Listening to the news can be so disheartening—the callous ineptitude of our moronic US president and the fact that the US this week will reach 100,000 deaths and, some predict, double that statistic by year’s end. It is easy to feel like we’re drowning. But reminding us to turn from the ‘big picture’ to focus, if only temporarily, on the macrocosm of our easels and drafting tables is wise and curative counsel. Not a panacea, but most helpful. Thank you .

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  3. I always enjoy your narratives – talking about art-making isn’t easy and you do it well. Yes, with images like your beautiful painting of a wild orchid to look at, it’s a zone of enchantment, Thank you.

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  4. thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts Michael, I can identify with them (as can many artists right now I suspect). I too have found that this beautiful sunshine and birdsong- filled spring has helped balance the feeling of pointlessness and have found myself making small sketches and collages of some stunning tulips recently, because it’s all I can face. I don’t have the urge (or the nerve) to paint finished work of them just yet, but who knows? take care, best wishes, Mari.

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  5. I can so relate to this post, Michael. I seem to also have this hollowness in my chest, not being able to create (thus my spotty postings). But I know I must to fill my heart with interconnectedness. I so appreciate your art and inspirational prose. Thank you.

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  6. I’ve never struggled for breath, so I don’t know if I’d ask for a story. I think I might, although it’d depend on the story. I hope not to find out. But a friend–a painter, in fact–who had a certifiably terrible childhood told me once that it was storybooks that kept her alive. Art isn’t inherently frivolous, although I suppose some of it is. Our species has been doing this since back when we were barely our species yet. The need and the love must come from some pretty deep place inside us.

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