“People are dying that have never died before”

Victoria Ward

The above quote is from the President of the United States in the midst of a pandemic here in 2020, by far the craziest year I have ever spent as a human. And it’s only April.

My brother, who is at home with his two  children, both under ten, having to still work and essentially be on permanent summer – poor, poor parents, this is not what they signed up for –  has been prodding me to perhaps get back to my blog.  Maybe my writing could help someone in some way.  I doubt it. But here I am writing solely out of anxiety because I too feel existential dread even though for the most part I am pretty cheery.  I mean, my life in the woods is not really going to change.  I can still go outside, hike, paint, write, watch movies, drink wine, eat food, hang out with my wonderful partner, have epic chats with family and glorious phone calls with my artist BFF Kirsten, and frankly, just enjoy myself if I want to.  As someone who has scraped by on nothing but fumes for decades, having no income and nothing expected doesn’t scare me. At. All.

Unfortunately this epoch has created unease in the art community and I feel seriously under equipped to help.  I don’t think anything I say will help anybody.  Not just because I don’t have anything to say (and of course that’s debatable LOL) but because I have been crying out about income inequality and the sustainability in my community for years now.  I used to spend a lot of time discussing how I think the arts is subsidizing the culture and not the other way around. I still think that is true.  Today though, given how much confusion there seems to be about government support and what artists should be doing for each other, I hardly think any topic other than how do I budget for life without an income would be welcome (hint: you can’t be a hipster).

Resilience and survival have replaced all efforts of activism.

Notre Dame caught fire April 15, 2019 I had really difficult conversations with friends about this; it became a symbol of 1%er priorities.

It’s truly remarkable that it has taken a pandemic for most of my community to realize that without capital, without institutional support we are in trouble.  I have already been living this. I began this profession with no resources and continue with no resources.  Frankly the recovery scares me more than the pandemic. There are too many variables.  What is in store for the arts down the road is anybody’s guess.

Creativity however can’t be stopped. There is a lot of social media art making; it’s like everyone is on hyper drive to share their art. There are memes about rising from the ashes, hopeful stuff about how we’re all coming together out of love and stuff that shows the truly remarkable ability of humans to make their lives mean something.  A short scan of bestiary in the middle ages (it’s where I go when I panic ok?)  and myths that abounded due to plagues proves to me that we are fairly adaptable. But we’ll need to capture the narrative in a way that is lasting.  It’s where the arts will shine.  I have every expectation this will happen.

Eternity.  Thought about that recently?

People who have a strong sense of the eternal, that feel we are temporary, a blip really in the grand scheme of things; these people are handling the pandemic far easier than those who don’t feel that way. Personal responsibility is also the mantra now. Our Prime Minister says it over and over, every day in his briefings.  Believing that you are not that significant in the universe and also have a strong sense of personal accountability will go far in things like a pandemic.

A year ago a fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral went viral on social media in real time. People in Paris stood in horror watching this 1000+ year building, the site of so much of their culture burn.  As it turns out, the damage was not so horrifying, and the global response was swift and massive which lead to a lot of people thinking, why can’t we rally money for the homeless/climate change this fast? I got into loads of trouble reminding people that Notre Dame wasn’t just a building on fire but a symbol,  an iconic manifestation of stone and glass that held within it’s very materials a collective vision of who we are and who we think we are. When we are all dead, things we make have a chance to send our ingenuity into eternity.  We don’t or can’t think this way.

Survival takes over in times of panic like now, and we muster our ancient techniques of fight or flight.  We take action. We live in the moment. We push our selves into hope, into the light.  But there is always a niggling issue: our lives end and what we leave matters.  My friend artist John Brown died in the middle of this pandemic. It’s tragic. Horrible. But he was and will continue to be one of the greatest painters this country has ever seen. He spent his time here pushing toward eternity.  We are luckier for it.

Please take a look at John’s work.  I will miss you my dear friend.

Look, draw, be moved

Victoria Ward

“Now if you can draw a stone, everything within reach of art is also within yours.” John Ruskin, 1819 – 1900

Ruskin was explaining observation and how the act of looking is really all one needs to understand how to draw. Drawing, that much maligned skill which the contemporary art world gatekeepers feel is sad, tired, colonial and probably at this point racist and sexist is an activity that has been with us for tens of thousands of years. I think the earliest known drawings are 40,000 years old, but the medium could be much, much older. I am not very skilled at drawing and have avoided it for many years. Instead I’ve tuned my pickier brain skills onto technology, learning code, SEO and other endless machinations of Google and social media; at times it all seems for naught, as once you think you’ve mastered an idea, a module, plug in or program some software comes along and erases your skills set altogether.

And so, when I get particularly mired in how small I’ve made my universe – 19 inches to be exact, the size of my laptop screen, I tend to walk over to my studio and try to draw something. As kids my brother and I drew monsters and stories for each other. His were great, all fire, fangs and teeth – mine, well I constantly made mine cute, friendly and fun looking. I’ve always tried to find the best in things. His critique at age six was that I drew curvy lines – straight jagged lines were scarier. Why he is not the artist in my family is beyond me – he continues to be my best and most brilliant critic.
Drawing is a fantastic discipline. It makes you slow down, even if you draw quickly. You must observe, think, put line to paper, control your hands and, mix your intentions with actions in a way that gets somewhere – so that when you look back at your drawing you see something. A face. A house. A tree. A rock. It doesn’t matter really; all subject matter can make incredible drawings. It’s a fierce, personal and exciting act. I believe it also to be something we are inclined to do, not just as artists but just as humans. We are inclined to draw the world around us.

Wild rose running in a cleft of Derbyshire limestone by John Ruskin. From the site Ashmolean, the Elements of Drawing, Oxford U.

I’ve found that drawing is something a lot of us share. I can’t count the times I’ve entered someone’s home and found that they too have done masterful little ink/water colour drawings that are secretly but in full view on their walls. “You did this?” I ask like some idiot pretending not to be one. “Yes” is usually the answer along with a brief explanation said to the floor and not me about how they were just having fun. Almost all these people are better than me at drawing. It’s humbling to say the least. And it gives credence to that axiom about how talent isn’t all you need to persevere as an artist. Most of the time you just need perseverance.

Ruskin was himself an amateur at drawing, but his work is truly lovely and revelatory. For his observance of things like lichen, rock faces, tree bark are all so astoundingly detailed without the intense scrutiny of scientific examination; they are intense from his passion for them. Pouring passion into drawing is something I’ve come to realize can be a salve. Especially today in a world wired for fake – drawing is real.

For fun go outside and get a plant, flower or rock from your backyard. Put it on the table. Get a sharpened pencil, an eraser and some nice white paper. Draw the thing. Keep drawing until you get what you want. Draw slowly or quickly, draw in big sloppy loops or tight little lines, draw toward the thing that you see, those ineffable borders of life that shape us, keep us in some kind of assembly and see what you have when you stop. Every drawing is a bit of information that keeps us who we are – lost mammals scratching on cave walls.