“Artist in Residence” written by Ed Snyder
I have to thank my artist friend John Benigno for this clever title, something he coined, I believe, to describe the photographic art he created during COVID lockdown in his own home in 2020. I created some of my own lockdown art, but being a healthcare worker, I was allowed limited access to the open road. So I created both types of work during 2020.
Most of my mobile work was done in cemeteries – one of only a handful of public spaces people could visit in the spring and summer. I frequently stopped by Walt Whitman’s mausoleum in Camden, New Jersey, for inspiration. One of the things he wrote was – and continues to be – apropos of our collective experience in 2020:
“re-examine all you have been told … dismiss whatever insults your own soul…”
COVID is like an entropy puzzle, a puzzle we have to assemble without the benefit of having a picture on the box showing the end result. And just when some of the pieces seem to fit together, they magically change, so they no longer link. Who knew the pandemic would continue into August, then through to the end of the year? Now it’s early 2021, and we barely have the vaccine border of the puzzle complete. Perhaps like “distance learning” (two words that have proven to be mutually exclusive for our school children), many artists were forced to create out of their own heads, in their own space, unable to rely on multi-dimensional external experience for stimulation.
Some artists were stalled during COVID. And still are. Some were euphoric at the opportunities. Public exhibition dried up and artists who depended on such for income were devastated. Wonderfully, sites like The Absynthe Gallery reached out to artists willing to be featured with examples of their work, in an online venue.
Luckily for me, art sales are not my main source of income. I am a healthcare worker and my job only got busier, leaving less time for art. A day in the life ranged from emergency Zoom meetings about PPE to dealing with State Police helicopters landing on the roof of the hospital dropping off pallets of ventilators. Whatever creativity was left after I got home from work was channeled into writing my blog (The Cemetery Traveler) or creating new photographic work. There would again be a time for physical, public display of art, but for now, why not just hunker down and document?
We all create art in private anyway, right? During lockdown (when was that, mid-March to June in Philadelphia?), we were forced to work in private, and forced to use whatever we had on hand to create. Like Whitman said, re-examine everything. That might imply using photo editing software to create new work with old photographic images (yet another advantage of digital over film photography – otherwise we’d all be stuck with bags of undeveloped film). Hopefully, artists had supplies, which due to shipping constraints during COVID, precluded painters from getting that overnight drop-shipped tube of burnt umber oil paint they so desperately needed. My friend Bob began experimenting with new abstract watercolor designs; luckily, he already had the materials on hand. He would take walks around his neighborhood just for a change of scenery and to photograph what he saw. Elizabeth painted huge canvases in her home studio. George blogged and worked feverishly on his new book. Many artists became much more driven, more industrious.
So while I did some on-site cemetery photography, I did spend quite a bit of time shooting skulls in a light tent in my basement. I was an artist in residence – my own literal residence. One day during lockdown (four words I never expected to string together) I was walking up my street, masked, coming home from work. A few neighbors were outside their homes chatting to each other from their respective stoops – I live on a tiny street of row homes in an old nineteenth-century Philadelphia neighborhood. My neighbor Michael, who lives around the block, addressed me in a relatively loud voice, “Hey Ed, I returned your skulls … left them with your wife.” Ok, that’s a wee bit embarrassing – but in a good way, lol.
I had loaned Michael my animal skulls a week or so prior. He was stuck in his house, but using his time creatively. He does digital composite photographic art. He wanted to include some skull images into his work. Need animal skulls? I’m your man. I pick them up in abandoned graveyards, mostly, but that’s another story. Pitbull, deer, bird, groundhog, cat – even a lovely fox skull, though the flesh had not completely rotted off the bone. I knew at some point I would use these in some artistic composition but had not yet done so.
I did not have the problem of limited material. I did lack a light tent, however. Michael has an elaborate one set up in his garage, and I was able to procure a cheaper version through Amazon. Amazon, social media, computers, the Internet – all that technology and people who run it made life more tolerable during COVID than folks had it during the Black Death. In fact, through social media, I became closer to a few artist friends during COVID than I had been in the past. The images they were creating and posting on Instagram were profoundly different from their pre-COVID work. Stronger, more forceful. It was encouraging to see the work of others evolve.
Both my field work as well as my in-residence artwork became grittier. I pissed people off by forcibly masking cemetery statues (temporarily) and blogging about it. Posted photos of angel statues with face masks. Face masks turned out to be an incredibly contentious issue during the pandemic. So why not document this in some way? No one alive now has lived through a pandemic of this magnitude. So why not explore the experience?
Here you see one of my first in-residence experiments, based on the rainbows everyone had hanging from their homes during the Summer of COVID. Finding and counting rainbows was a thing – a way to pretend that you maybe had some control over your life, and that there was eventually going to be a positive outcome. This image represents both possible outcomes – “Rainbow Death.” The black and white “Gem Skull” image at top is a variant of this, a more powerful image, in my opinion. Something glistens under all this darkness.
Death is always on the horizon, which is one reason I spend so much time photographing cemeteries. I think it is a way for me to relate to mortality. Its concrete. Or at least the vaults are, the ones they lower the coffin into. Hopefully I will not lose my own mortality for a while yet (I did receive the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 30, for what it’s worth) – I’ve got way too much art to create, blogs to post, and people to love in this life. The year 2021, I hope, will be the year that hatred goes on hiatus.
Has COVID changed the way I create? And what I create? Of course it has. My oeuvre is still death-centric, but perhaps more courageous, purposeful, and less anonymous. Also, I feel that more people appreciate it now than they did before before COVID. As artists, we sometimes need to get out of our wheelhouse – we need a kick in the ass to get those creative juices flowing. For some artists, COVID is that KITA.
Psychologist Frederick Hertzberg referred to KITA as a short term motivator in his Two-Factor Theory of Motivation (1959). So for some artists (including myself), the pandemic caused a KITA, providing me with short-term motivation, through loss, or deprivation of creature comforts. However, it perhaps will also become a long-term motivator for some due to the personal growth and achievement it can foster.
I’d be insensitive to refer to COVID as a muse, due to the death and destruction it has caused. But maybe it brought people closer to the idea of accepting their own mortality. Death used to be all around us, in the time before childhood vaccines, antibiotics, and sterile medical technique. Now when death seems to be closing in, we are more aware of its presence. I have friend, an artist and writer, who is also a funeral director, who has gone through hell burying so many people this past year – including her friends.
So while the impact of COVID and its destructive force is not lost on me, creativity knows no bounds – even in a pandemic. It’s not just about art. Its about bringing genuine feeling – empathy and compassion – creativity, to everything you do. Its about turning your restaurant into a take-out only business. In August, I had to create an on-line version of a college course that I’d been physically teaching for the past five years, and then had to present it for the fall semester. Is any of this comfortable or easy for anyone? No, but sometimes you just attack – without time to strategize – you resort to your tactical skills. You’ll never have enough information to make a totally informed decision. So when I created art in my residence, and stumbled, I did not try to conjure grandiose schemes. I stuck to the knitting as much as possible. And people who saw the work responded. As Jaron Lanier, the creator of Virtual Reality says, less is often more because attention isn’t infinite.
This is Ed Snyder’s first contribution to the Absynthe Gallery Perspective Blog.
Thank you, Ed.
More information about Ed can be found on our About Us page.
You can also follow him on IG @mourningarts