Interview by T.K. Mills - All images copyright of the artists (Interviews have been edited for concision and clarity)
With the global Covid-19 pandemic forcing national lock-downs, the artistic community has been adapting to quarantine in creative ways. Despite postponed art shows, lost commissions, and drastic lifestyle shifts, artists are coping and learning to find the silver-linings, even under the extreme circumstances. We spoke with 13 artists. In this edition, we spoke with Erin Ko, Janz (who responded in poetry), Phoebenewyork, Will Power, and Acool55 to discuss how they are faring during these tough times.
WIll Power - La Madonna
How have you been spending your time in isolation? Has it made you more or less creative?
Erin Ko: I’m splitting my time between catching up on things I was neglecting before. This includes the most fundamental things, sleeping, eating, more mundane things like doing my taxes, as well as attending to client projects. I have not touched any of my own work yet, which is the big thing I have been ignoring for quite some time. I think ultimately this pause is a well needed recharge time. So aside from the obvious horrors of a global pandemic, I’d say it’s been favorable in terms of being more creative, just not in this moment.
behind the curve
bursting with grief
bracing for change
but little insight
Phoebenewyork: I’ve just been trying to adjust to the isolation. The first week I was pretty resistant to it and found it hard to accept that this could go on a long time, but then I started to find myself motivated again once I established a routine. Routine for me is everything. I wouldn’t say the quarantine has made me any more or less creative because, fortunately, I find I’m always creative. I think that is what an artist does, they get to work and go to the desk or find inspiration to create wherever they can.
Will Power: During these quarantine times, I spend most of my days trying to stick to the normal routines of regular daily life. So as to not have my mind focusing elsewhere towards all of the sadness surrounding me, due the loss and suffering of life from this pandemic. I’m focused on taking better care of my health with daily exercise, and better care of my spiritual health with daily prayers. I don’t know if this makes me more creative. But it has made me more in tune with my production. I’m painting every piece as if it is my last.
Acool55: I spent the first couple of weeks in a strange ‘suspended’ state, during which my brain went on ‘pause.’ There was a lot of random thinking and many odd memories coming back. But I embraced it and waited…
Phoebenewyork - Stay at Home
Has quarantine affected your mental health? If so, in what ways?
Erin Ko: I’m very good at spending time with my own thoughts. I can be alone - in fact it's my preferred state. Normally I feel a lot of frustration at the necessity to go out to events, in order to remain in people's minds. So I’m actually feeling a lot more chill these days. For this I’m endlessly grateful, I feel I’ve had a lifetime of training for this situation (having worked from home a long time) and I recognize I’m not being challenged in ways some other people are.
In prison by
in sanity of systems
in mobile by
in reality of
in capacity of
Phoebenewyork: In the beginning I felt anxious, confused, and out of control. It was hard to figure out how to direct these emotions. That is why art is so important to me. I’ve been through some very bad times before and art has always been the answer. I am committed to my purpose as an artist, it saves me and at the same time it helps other people (I hope!).
Will Power: I don’t believe the quarantine itself affected my mental health. As an artist we all live in our own little world. To be a skilled artist, you have to learn to be by yourself to perfect your craft. Empathy and fear of current situations are more of a drain on my mental health.
Acool55: Yes. I have a family to take care of, and it was stressful to show calm as everybody else was in panic mode. I had to suppress and forget my own issues to address theirs, which is normal, of course, but it forced me to be two different people and it took a (minor) toll. My younger son was sick, probably with the virus, but we could not get him tested and that, as you can imagine, threw us all over the edge. Sanity, right now, it’s a privilege. There is just too much pain out there.
Erin Ko - Self Portrait
What projects are you working on? Have you had to adapt/shift things around due to the shut down?
Erin Ko: Yes, everything has shifted a bit. I was working on installation sand live event stuff. So, what was a VR piece or a responsive projection mapping room, might now have to be re-imagined as an AR piece.
much the biggest
mistake of all
Phoebenewyork: I was working on my first solo museum show in Europe. It was supposed to open May 16th, my flight was scheduled for April 22nd, and I planned to stay one month to set it all up. All of that energy and build came to a halt, which admittedly feels strange and almost indescribable due to all the planning and my sense of expectation. Now I have to prepare again, so I’m focused on rebuilding the ideas and recognizing that putting this show on hold is only an opportunity to make it better, work harder, and to also find a way to incorporate my new art into our new world.
Will Power: Currently I’m working on the GRITTY CITY STYLES project, which is a joint venture between myself and Albertus Joseph. Gritty City Styles is a term use by us to describe the contemporary urban art movement in which we combined graffiti, street art, and academic art techniques to create a raw new art style that is straight out of New York! I have had to adapt from being able to paint in a studio or simply painting outdoors to painting in my home. Painting with spray paint and oil in your living quarters is not an easy task. Especially working on large scale painting. It takes a lot of WILL POWER to get things done.
Acool55: My tendency, being an environmental artist, is to always look at nature for inspiration. That did not change. I had the good fortune to have access to one of the NYC beaches until it got shut down. During that time, I took a bunch of solitary walks where I collected things to re-purpose into art.
Acool55 - Drifters
What do you think is the best way to stay connected to each other and the art community during self-isolation?
Erin Ko: I might be the wrong person to ask, as I have a hard time staying connected to people in the best of times! I’m really a “handful of friends” kind of person. The people I interact with regularly are still the same people. I can count them on one hand. Maybe with a couple of extra fingers... On the other hand, I did join a friend’s WhatsApp drawing group. There’s a daily prompt and people share their work. I haven’t done it every day, but it’s still fun. And my studio mates (there are 7 other artists) hold a Zoom call once a week. We give ourselves little art exercises and tell each other what it’s like in different parts of the city where we live. I think this kind of lightweight stuff can be massively therapeutic for people.
trees desert wind
trunks bent with
Phoebenewyork: I have to say social media. Instagram is the place I go to, to see what is going on and what people are doing. It doesn’t make me feel entirely connected, but it keeps me active and motivated. There is a lot of art being made right now, and I’m trying to make art that we can relate to at this time--I am focused on current feelings I have as a result of the pandemic and trying to find an artistic way to express them. I feel better after I share something.
Will Power: Social media, for me, is the best way to stay connected with my friends and my art community. Social media is a gift and a curse. But if you see it as a tool, you can learn to simply disconnect from the negative stuff.
Acool55: I suppose social media and video calls are the best human surrogates in a situation like this, but, strangely enough, I found myself wanting to isolate ‘more’ rather than communicate. For quite a while I thought Instagram was a useless tool. Pretty much everything we use digitally, has been void of any meaning for a while. I had a hard time being motivated to start posting again. I found myself doing a lot of trees-staring… I thought it would be nice to name each tree and give them an ID card. And then find a fair way for them to be represented. Earth, as a living entity, should in fact be considered like a nation and it should be admitted at the UN. Utopia is a good coping mechanism…
Robert Janz - Wonder
Where have you been finding inspiration in a quarantined environment?
Erin Ko: For me, the big message in the pandemic is STOP. If I can get hippie for a minute, the powers that be, the Earth, however you want to describe it, has given us a big time out, like bad children. We’ve pushed things too far, and now it’s time to just fucking STOP. And not to simply start up again like the same brats we’ve been, as soon as we’re let out of the corner. I find this deeply inspirational. It’s like watching a parent finally discipline that awful kid who's been throwing his food and screaming and smashing things, but on a global level. So a lot of my inspiration is in stopping regrouping, and recharging. It would be crazy, for me personally and especially as an artist, to plow ahead, business as usual.
gladen the morning
golden bursts of yellow
glory for all learn from
glorimg flowers to
Phoebenewyork: Books, paintings, the internet, almost anything that catches my eye can inspire me. I just need to be open to it and ideas will come. Once I get an idea, I try to bring it to life. I am also writing a lot and using my words to create new art—drawings in particular.
Will Power: If anyone knows me, they know that I am really spiritual. God is first. With God all things are possible. Being in quarantine and with the state of the world, you have to succumb to the fact that you can be here today and gone tomorrow. That being said, most of my original concepts are spiritual and symbolic. The more things are beyond my control, the more I lean on God, the better my creativity manifests.
Acool55: Aside from nature, I spend time in a suburban environment near JFK with my family and take trips to my studio in the East Village. These have been strange journeys through so many different manifestations of this crisis. I have wandered off path just driving randomly to find unknown places where humans had disappeared… This emptiness has been, in a sobering way, inspiring. I've been looking for new 'words', and sounds that we do not hear when these spaces are overcrowded.
Phoebenewyork - Stand Tall
What are you looking forward to the most, after all of this is over?
Erin Ko: I’d like to be outside and relaxed at the same time, not stressed out about other people maybe killing me with their germs because they just don’t feel like wearing a mask. What’s with all these dumb asses walking around with their noses poking free? Don’t they know air goes in and out of their noses? It gives “mouth breather” a whole new context…
On a more serious note, I’m hoping this time convinces at least some of us that we are all in this together, all the time, and that we have a vested interest in taking care of each other. There’s a fable about a monk witnessing the difference between heaven and hell. He first visits hell, where there's an endless banquet with more than enough for everyone, but people have these super long chopsticks, too long to reach their own mouths, so they can’t actually get to any of the food. They are starving and suffering. Then he visits heaven. It’s the exact same scene, except the people are using the long chopsticks to feed each other, and of course everyone is happy and even less alone. I think human life (and a lot of life on Earth) has evolved to flourish under this dynamic. We already have this knowledge, but now is the time to embrace it.
serious lacking in
Phoebenewyork: Honestly, I really don’t know. I’m not sure I can think that far ahead, in terms of when all of this is over. I don’t think this will be over for a long time, honestly. So I need to stick to the day I am in, and feel grateful to have it.
Will Power: I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends the most, after this all over. Praying and wishing that everyone will be safe.
Acool55: I am not sure ‘this is over’ applies to this crisis. The trauma to society has been so deep and unsettling. Of course, we will all want to act normal again, have fun, go to events, concerts etc. But… maybe, this was a higher wake-up call and I’m not certain we will be allowed back to our lives ‘as usual’ without implementing some radical changes. Part of me wants to forget and put all this behind, but the message was, and is, so powerful… We have overstayed our welcome on this planet. We need to revise our behavior. But, for now, I am so very happy to be alive.
Erin Ko - Post Human
Stay tuned for Episode 3 of 'Creativity in Quarantine'
Will Power - The Garden
Robert Janz - Aware - Water Painting