LONELY PALETTE (part one)

A Survey of Visual Artists in Lockdown

You may have recently heard on the radio about how the Italian Renaissance began during the bubonic plague, or learned from an online think-piece that Edvard Munch painted a self-portrait while ill with the Spanish flu. There are a lot of these kinds of stories in the media right now, anecdotes that remind us this isn’t the first time humanity has made it through a pandemic, and that even in the midst of horror there is still creation so rich it is immortal. Artists have always carried on making things in times of illness and isolation, and they are doing it all around us still. 

The visual artists of our own time are frequently people who work contract jobs, rely on large gatherings to exhibit work, and often live on small incomes with no health insurance, so this pandemic has hit many of them at multiple vulnerable points. But as we live more and more of our lives online, it is easy to see how artists are responding to the pandemic and ensuing shutdown in transformative ways. Some of these artists are fundraising to help their community, some are participating in projects that get necessities into the hands of those that need them, and some are sharing pandemic-specific work, or using this time to explore new ideas in their practice. 

These interviews with both emerging and established artists is the first in a series that checks in with the people who have been instrumental in molding New Orleans’ visual landscape over the years as they wrestle with the new shape of the world. 


photo by Marianna Massey

OSA ATOE 

Osa Atoe is a Baton Rouge-based ceramicist (and past ANTIGRAVITY contributor) who makes elegant vessels out of red stoneware (terracotta, pictured above). She has been contributing her work to fundraising causes since long before the pandemic began, and her practice connects fine art, craft, and community support. 

How are you holding up? 

I’m doing fine under the circumstances. 

Are you still doing any work that requires you to leave the house? 

Not really. I work from home but have gone out twice over the last month or so to get supplies. 

Have you lost any opportunities due to the pandemic, or had craft fairs or other exhibition or sales events cancelled? 

Yes. All of my spring events have been cancelled. Fortunately, online sales have picked up, replacing much of what I would have lost. That is not something I was expecting and there’s no telling if that might shift in the future. 

Have you applied for any relief, and have you gotten it? 

I have not applied for relief. 

Has your pottery practice had to make any adjustment in response to the pandemic? 

I don’t have event deadlines chasing me anymore, so I feel a little bit less organized and focused than usual, but I think that’s an OK way to respond to how weird everything feels right now. There’s also more of a desire to share more of the money I make from pottery with individuals and organizations that need it. That’s something I try to do anyway, but I’ve seen lots of makers, artists, and other folks wanting to give more than we usually do during this crisis. 

Do you have any pandemic specific projects that you want to talk about? 

I’m planning a fundraiser for a people of color owned and run clay studio in L.A. called POT. I taught a workshop there in January. I really believe in their mission; and as a person of color in a predominantly white ceramics world, I want them to be able to survive this. They are the only POC owned and operated ceramics studio in the country and they’ve had to stop all classes and shut down, just like every other non-essential business. They were in the middle of transitioning to a different space, and so they have two rents to pay at the moment, not to mention a full-time staff to pay. My idea is to offer a custom cup with a short, personalized message on it—a way for people to make a personal connection with someone they care about during this isolating time—with all of the proceeds going to POT. 

What is making you happy right now? 

The weather, my partner, plants and flowers, music, texting and FaceTiming my friends and family. 

More about Osa Atoe’s work can be found at potterybyosa.com. More information about POT can be found at potstudiola.com. 


KATE LACOUR 

Kate Lacour is an illustrator and cartoonist (and past ANTIGRAVITY contributor). The author of Vivisectionary, her work typically explores the surreal mechanisms of living bodies. Since the middle of March, she has been posting daily comic strips on Instagram in which she responds to the pandemic. 

How are you holding up? 

Doing OK. I have lots of resources to fall back on: family, food, savings, outdoor space. I’m just tired all the time. I have three very small children we’re homebound with, now that schools and daycares have closed. And it’s a lot. A whole lot. 

Are you still doing any work that requires you to leave the house? 

None. 

Have you lost any jobs or opportunities due to the pandemic? 

Yes. I’ve had to request a furlough from my (remote) day job so that I can care for the kids, since getting a babysitter isn’t an option with social distancing. For the same reason, I can’t really do any illustration work. Not to mention, I’ve been doing a lot of illustration work for hotels, which are obviously putting their marketing on hold for the foreseeable future. 

Have you applied for any relief, and have you gotten it? 

I’ve been given to understand that 1099 workers in my situation are eligible for unemployment, so I’ve applied, with no word yet. The application forms all reflect traditional, non-epidemic unemployment scenarios, so it becomes difficult to convey the information they probably need, a lot of jotting in the margins. 

You have been posting comics that respond to the pandemic on Instagram. How does this work relate to—or differ from—your normal practice? 

It’s the exact opposite of the way I like to work—I like to be thoughtful, careful, elaborate, and impersonal. These are quickly drawn about the local news, or my personal experience, or both.  So they’re rough and loose, and autobiographical. I feel pretty self-conscious getting very opinionated and personal in that space, but it’s been a great release valve for me. I keep things as normal and positive as possible for the kids all day. After they go to bed, I get to have time to acknowledge that things are not OK.

What is making you happy right now? 

I’m too busy putting out fires to dwell on anything, which helps. I also have a lot of outdoor access, which is awesome for my mental health—a lot of neighborhood green space, and a sweet little yard with chickens, vegetables, and milkweed. Lately I’ve been scavenging scrap wood from the curb to build a teeny playground for the little ones behind the shed. Soon enough it will be too hot to spend time outside, though. We’ll see if I lose my mind at that point. 

 Find Kate Lacour’s comics on Instagram @katelacourart, and see more of her work at katelacour.com. 


JANE TARDO 

Jane Tardo is an inventor, sculptor, and designer who creates sewn tapestries and gamelike sculptural installations. She recently earned her MFA from the University of New Orleans. 

How are you holding up? 

Myself, family, and household are all in good health. There is some concern about rent and bills and other life affairs, but overall holding up OK—just feeling strange and hazy. Often I feel like I have so much energy and then sit down to work and feel completely drained before I even start. Time has ceased to matter. However I’ve had a lot of past experiences with these sort of limbo stages before, so I’m fighting to make the most of it. 

Are you still doing any work that requires you to leave the house? 

No. Not leaving the house except for small, well-planned store runs. 

Your MFA show was scheduled to open on March 14, and was cancelled. Can you talk about the work you made, and the installation? 

photo by Hannah Patterson

My MFA thesis exhibition, Snake Tube Adventure Racing… and more!, was canceled at the last minute, so it’s still just sitting in the gallery completely installed and ready to go. At first the plan was to have a closing in April, then maybe an opening in June, then to the first opening in the fall or vaguely before Prospect, but now it’s just in limbo. The bright side is that it’s in line to be the longest running exhibition in the UNO St. Claude Gallery’s history! My thesis exhibition is a completely new body of work, all created in the past year. My most successful inventions are on view: Polly and Pauly Pumice: the premier DIY carve-it-yourself genital exfoliator; Touch-Less, a toy for breaking barriers of intimacy and communication; and Spermalive: a doll for men and boy sperm carriers to aid in nurturing respect for their own life potential. Also on view are several of my sewn tapestries which depict sock puppets in scenes of crisis. However, my title piece, Snake Tube Adventure Racing, is really something to behold. It’s the world’s first quilted radio-controlled tube-car racetrack. Audiences are invited to select a snake and pilot it through 24 feet of quilted dystopian landscapes while using their personal phones to record a virtual experience of the race. At 172 square feet (or 10’ x 17’ laid out flat), it’s composed of multiple panels hand-sewn together using nylon thread. Each panel contains a wide variety of fiber art techniques, including piece, applique and free motion quilting, machine and hand embroidery, free standing lace, crochet, textile collage, and fabric transfers. The installation also includes a check-in booth for registering racers and mechanical maintenance. In addition to the interactive design of the piece, there exists a performative component of the work as well. A “Pit Crew” of five performers were trained in receiving racers, running races, and maintaining the experience.

A lot of artists’ work has been shifted to online exhibition, and I know you have posted a lot of images of your work on social media. What has been your experience of online art presentation? 

I created an Instagram account to post the professional photos I had taken by Hannah Patterson. Also, I was the first featured artist on @socialdistancegallery (an account that popped up to showcase canceled BFA and MFA student exhibitions). It’s OK. I guess it’s better than not having your work seen. But I’m sure that people don’t spend the same amount of time with it online as they would in a gallery setting. In general, I don’t think fiber work (or at least my brand of it) transfers well into photographs. It’s really the sort of work that you HAVE to experience and even touch and interact with. It’s not a very good time for hands-on, interactive work, but luckily I have a good sense of humor so I can see the irony of having made such insanely relevant work that has to remain unexperienced during this pandemic. 

Have you lost any other jobs or opportunities due to the pandemic? 

A few local gigs fell through, but mainly I was so excited and honored to be invited to work as a production designer for Caravan Circus Network in Vancouver starting in May. I bought a cute as heck little camper situation that my partner and I were moving into to travel up there and work out of. I foresaw years of residencies and apprenticeship work ahead of me as a nomadic artist-type as I continued to build my portfolio and skill set as a post-grad. I’m not sure what the plan is anymore… I’m from New Orleans so I’m feeling really nervous about doing an isolated hurricane season during a pandemic. 

Have you applied for any relief, and have you gotten it? 

Despite being 35 with rent and bills, technically I’m still a student until May, so I don’t qualify for many of the artist-specific relief programs. I applied to the Platforms Fund but haven’t heard back yet. 

Are you able to continue your practice during the stay-at-home order? 

Sort of. I knew the day of having to leave my cushy graduate studios was coming, but I wasn’t planning on having to vacate with such short notice and in a few-hour window. Some of the things I need are still in my studio, but I was able to get most of my tools and materials out before the full lockdown. My practice is very studio-based because fiber art takes A LOT of space and organization. It took a couple of weeks to get my bearings again. I spread out in the kitchen, mostly working on the floor (ouch!) and then pack everything—well most stuff anyway—back in every evening. 

Do you have any pandemic-specific projects you want to talk about? 

I’m using this time to learn new skills: brushing up on my languages, trying some new sewing techniques, making gifts to cheer up friends, reluctantly using some of my fabric stash to make masks, making curtains and coverings for the camper, learning how to think about color theory, how to draw, and how to use digital art programs to plan my next big projects. I’m thinking about pretty things like cats and flowers. I’m thinking about metronomes and using rhythms as units of time—all new things for me and perhaps pandemic related. 

See images from Snake Tube Adventure Racing… and more! on Instagram @janetardo, and see more of Jane Tardo’s work at janetardo.com. 


BRENT HOUZENGA 

Brent Houzenga is a New Orleans artist who paints colorful, fractured stencil portraits on a variety of surfaces. 

How are you holding up? 

I’m doing really well. The first few weeks were pretty scary, but I’ve been keeping really busy. 

Are you still doing any work that requires you to leave the house? 

Yes. I’ve been delivering for Feed The Front Line—and more recently heading up the street team to promote that cause. 

Have you lost any jobs or opportunities due to the pandemic? 

Not specifically—but when it first set in I was super broke and freaking out. Like, is anyone going to buy art right now? 

Have you applied for any relief, and have you gotten it? 

I have applied for some assistance and gotten a few. 

I have seen prints you made for a Krewe of Red Beans project. Can you describe what the project is and what role art plays in the project? 

photo by Katie Sikora

Krewe of Red Beans started Feed The Front Line project to boost morale at the hospitals and also keep New Orleans restaurants and musicians working. The project is crowd-funded and the organization buys food from local restaurants and pays musicians and artists to deliver the food. It’s an incredible project which is keeping a lot of people working. Devin [De Wulf, Krewe of Red Beans founder] wanted to keep some artists employed too, so he commissioned a few artists to create artwork for posters, which is now being used to promote the campaign.

Do you have any other pandemic-specific projects that you want to talk about? 

I have been trying to promote Tres Bon Food Fund as well. I created some graphics for him. He’s also crowdfunding to create free meals for service industry folks and anyone else who is in need at the moment. 

How has your practice changed since the stay-at-home order? 

It’s been a curve ball for sure. My son is out of school. His mom is still working. So our schedule is totally thrown off and it’s honestly been hard to find time to paint. During the first few weeks I was doing some quicker things—some collage works that I could do rather quickly and revisiting some of my left-handed drawing—which can usually be done in about an hour. Having Red Beans contact me about the poster really put some fire under me—especially to get behind a cause—and to act quickly. I made seven paintings in under a week before I designed the poster. And it looks like we’re gearing up for round two. 

More about Brent Houzenga’s work can be found at houzenga.com, and more about the Feed the Front Line project can be found at feedthefrontlinenola.org. 


JACQ GROVES 

Jacq Groves is a New Orleans-based conceptual artist. They use wood, ceramics, and fiber in their work to explore ideas about bodies and biology. 

How are you holding up?

Early on, I realized it’s easier to ride the ups/downs than push against reality. Though today I’m feeling confused about my future plans.

Are you still doing any work that requires you to leave the house? 

No paid work, but I’ve been lucky enough to escape to my studio occasionally. 

You had an exhibit that was scheduled to open on March 14, and was cancelled. Can you talk about the work you made for that? 

My show Corporal Conundrums is comprised of two series of work. The bright, undulating, and at times visceral sculptures abstractly explore bodily discord and disconnection. I laboriously manipulated simple, often naturally derived materials such as wood, clay, and fiber into biomorphic forms. Each piece acts as a vignette, visually articulate sensorial experiences and disjointed spatial relations of the body. Some works explore conflicting aspects of non-binary gender expression whereas others investigate disembodiment stemming from my temporary loss of proprioception (the ability to know where one’s body is in space) caused by a traumatic brain injury.

Have you lost any other jobs or opportunities due to the pandemic? 

Yes, I had gig work lined up throughout the spring that got canceled. In addition to these short-term jobs, I am a studio assistant for an established New Orleans-based painter. Her husband is immunocompromised; so early in March, before the city shut down, I made the decision to stop working for her. Longterm, I’m also supposed to begin a MFA program next year at Columbia and move to New York this summer. The school’s administration remains optimistic, but if courses remain online and the studio space restricted, I don’t think I will go. 

Have you applied for any relief, and have you gotten it? 

I applied to unemployment, but got denied. Since I’m a gig worker and Louisiana’s system has been so slow to catch up with the CARES Act, I haven’t seen any assistance. 

A lot of artists’ work has been shifted to online exhibition, and I have seen some of your new work on social media. What has been your experience of online art presentation? 

I initially hoped to show Corporal Conundrums in an online exhibition. Honestly though, my energy has been directed to other more pressing matters (untimely housing upheaval, decisions about upcoming MFA programs); and I haven’t found the time, motivation, or support to create a new viewing platform or resolve my lack of videography knowledge. This lack of motivation to learn is also stemming from the fact that these sculptures have been viewable on Instagram and my website since January. I saw this show as an opportunity for my New Orleans community to view this new work in person. Online exhibitions give the public a glimpse into the show, but so much of my sculptural works’ nuanced details, as well as curatorial decisions, are lost in digital form. It feels futile to create a new digital archive of work that already has a basic online presence. 

Are you able to continue your practice during the stay-at-home order? 

Yes, I’ve been heavily leaning on my practice to provide some structure to my life right now. Much of my work is supported by in-depth research, so I’ve been reading related articles, writing, and brainstorming new projects. To ease my anxiety I love immersing myself in labor-intensive projects, so I’ve been working on a new series exploring naturally-forming omens of the plague. 

Do you have any pandemic-specific projects you want to talk about? 

Related to the project mentioned, I’m investigating naturally-occurring apocalyptic symbols. Frequently my work references my previous research background in infectious disease and immunology, so of course while amidst a pandemic, I’m exploring this subject matter. Without [going] too deep into a nerdy tangent, I’ll mention that I’m currently sculpting a rat king from clay. A rat king is a group of rats whose tails have become knotted and bound together. This phenomenon was frequently viewed as an omen of a coming plague. 

More about Jacq’s work can be found at jacqgroves.com.