Dispatch From the Sticks

by Hannah Dean April 24, 2020

Photo by the author

The social distancing measures and cancellation of events and classes due to COVID-19 sucks for everyone. (Or worse: For essential employees, the illness itself sucks.) There is a special problem of turning to live-streams and online formats for the visual arts. As I near my one-year anniversary of moving from Texas to rural New Mexico, I am struck by how these new measures won’t affect my art practice all that much, and that’s pretty disheartening.

To be fair, I’m still able to work, but living this far out means that doing research, seeing other artists’ work in person, studio visits, and attending openings are a thing of the past unless I drive a three-hour round trip (or 23 if I want to go to Houston), book a hotel, childcare, and the like.

Or, like everyone else right now, I can just go online. 

The internet obviously has its advantages. I’m able to sell my work through third parties that do a lot of the work, apply to exhibitions, and write news stories that require only online research. Occasionally I get in to one of these shows I apply to, or get to write the catalogue for an exhibition — and then I have to figure out if I’m able to actually attend the event. None of this is new: every artist who is a mother of young kids, or artist who works a regular job, or is a caretaker, or doesn’t have a car (or any other variable that life throws at them) has to deal with these kinds of issues. Still, nothing can replace the counsel and grace that comes with finding the right gallerist or talking to a curator about your work in the flesh. There is more than just merit to “being there.”  

In some ways, I’m in the same boat I was in Lubbock. For the sake of affordability, my husband and I have always chosen to live in more rural areas. Lubbock is a university town, with galleries and museums and cultural institutions, but for the most part, if I wanted to see blockbuster art by the likes of Kehinde Wiley or Yayoi Kusama, I’d have to make a pilgrimage to Dallas-Fort Worth.

I loved Lubbock, though. I lived there for 15 years, since I was 17 and dropped out of high school in New Mexico and moved there. Frankly, I’m scared by the notion that Lubbock will be my first, and last, city. I tried to allay these fears in writing about my decisions and desires in light of my exposure to the genius of Christie Blizard, but I’m just not sure how an artist can stay engaged with big city energy from a hermitage. But I’ll be dammed if I’m not going to try and figure it out.

And when I see an opportunity to apply for residencies and grants that would take me to the bigger cities, I choose family first. Here’s the big secret, though: there is good art everywhere. Thanks to living in “fringe” cities of Texas like Lubbock, and Corpus Christi, I’ve learned that there’s excellent programming available in the unlikeliest parts of the country. I’ve seen gobs of Rembrandt etchings in a town of 1,700 out in the middle of (seemingly) nowhere. That is encouraging. 

Photo by the author

I do miss the Texas scene. In Lubbock, with the First Friday Art Trail and Texas Tech University programming (as well as pop-ups by students and professors alike), it felt like there was always something new to see. Where I live now, I really have to go looking for it. I live in a town of 680 residents that’s touristy on the weekends and sleepy during the week. I can’t blame the move to the middle of nowhere for my slowed professional pace. My daughter is four years old now, and has a knack for asking questions in public spaces that make other people uncomfortable. It’s a lot of emotional and creative work to give honest and appropriate answers to a budding mind. And it takes a lot of physical energy to chase an energetic and spontaneous nudist along a hiking trail (or, depending on the day, drudge through a short hike to the cries of “I’m borrrred” for what seems like hours).

I also have done the opposite of Jerry Saltz’s advice to artists: I am in regular contact with my immediate family, and I go to counseling. (Jerry is of the opinion that if these things interfere with your art making, discard them. Of course I feel like I *should* be working more.) I don’t paint much now that I’ve moved “home,” unless it’s a commission.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s these relationships and this life that make my work worth making. I wasn’t an exhibiting artist or writer before I had my daughter. I became pregnant a month after my MFA thesis exhibition at Texas Tech, and my work since then is much less history-necrophelia, and much more personal. Motherhood has made me much more honest in the public sphere than I had previously allowed myself. I went from repainting old Western European dead guys’ works to writing out my pregnancy-related anxious Google searches like: “What does clear jelly-like vaginal discharge mean?” and “Can you get listeria from refried beans?” That kind of honesty. My first published writings happened, and most still do, with a sleeping child in the backseat of my car while I thumb away on my phone. (This, too, is being written on my phone in the car while I wait in a Walmart curbside pickup stall.) 

Back to the novel coronavirus. I don’t know how long the distancing measures are going to last, and how things will be when we come out of this. But I do believe, for artists, one solution to our current shared problem is this: 

Keep working. 

Take advantage of the internet. Follow Instagram accounts that post the kind of works you find in the corners or basement of an institution. (Peter Shear in my favorite.) Also, now is the time to really get into artists who use the internet as their platform. Then check the “screen time” tracking on your phone to occasionally give yourself an existential crisis. 

And remember: this isn’t forever. I know there will come a time when I will drop my kid off at school, and I’ll have enough hours to get into the studio, or make a day trip to El Paso to see a museum show. But COVID-19 and social distancing will not be the thing that makes or breaks my career. 

And on that note, do the things that don’t boost your production, but hold other value: take a hike, pet your cat, sleep, try a new recipe, call your grandma. (I love the video walk-throughs Glasstire is running right now.)

Photo by the author

And revisit your books. Keep in mind that there are studies that show your kid’s brain lights up like a fireworks display when reading a book, and glows like a dull night light when taking in a screen. I imagine it’s the same for adults. My current favorite is Maira Kalman’s Ah-hA to Zig-Zag: 31 Objects from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where she pairs paintings in the museum with silly thoughts, a bathroom break, and genuinely sage advice. For example: “Keep your shirt on And Please Be Kind. And walk the dog.” 

And then get back to work. 

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