How 10 Artists Are Staying Creative through COVID-19

Scott Indrisek
Mar 23, 2020 5:12PM

Katherine Bernhardt’s new public mural painted in Guatemala, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

How else to describe these past few weeks other than surreal? Seemingly overnight, the entire fabric of daily life has been turned upside down. And yet—between trying to order groceries online and refreshing the New York Times homepage—it’s important that we keep ourselves optimistic, energized, and entertained (and, perhaps, a little distracted).

For help in this department, we decided to turn to artists to see how they’re faring during this crisis. As many of them mentioned, a certain amount of “social distancing” was already a part of their routine, with long days spent in the studio. But how are they coping with the broader effects of COVID-19? And what sort of things are they doing to keep their spirits up in these anxious times?

Read on to find out.

Shara Hughes
Peace in Pieces, 2019
Pilar Corrias Gallery

Portrait of Shara Hughes. Courtesy of the artist.


For this young artist⁠—a standout of the 2017 Whitney Biennial⁠—COVID-19 has meant a reorganization of her practice. On one level, that has involved a transition from larger-scale paintings to drawings. “I’m actually using my studio as a gym in the mornings, and then leaving and going back home to organize what I can in the house (and on the computer), and then making drawings in a little area in my office,” she explained.

Hughes said she was grateful that her most recent exhibition, at London’s Pilar Corrias, opened before the pandemic began shutting down daily life. The show is now open by appointment only. And a dual solo exhibition that she has planned with her partner, Austin Eddy⁠—originally set to open April 2nd at Sabine Knust in Munich⁠—will almost definitely be postponed. Despite these personal hurdles, Hughes is taking a broader view of the crisis.

“I don’t have a problem with social distancing,” she reflected. “I feel like the majority of my regular life is distanced from most people. I’m more concerned with those who are losing their jobs, and businesses closing, and so much more over the next year. It’s really overwhelming and scary.”

Shara Hughes, installation view of “Unmanageable” at Pilar Corrias, London, 2020. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

What has she been doing to keep her spirits up? Hughes has found unexpected solace in an app, Marco Polo, which she’s been using to keep in touch with a sprawling network of friends she met in high school. “You record a little video of what you’re up to, and send it out to the group,” she said. “It’s not like FaceTime, since you can pick it up and put it down when you want to. It’s been very funny to see everyone’s coronavirus precautions in different states, but also really nice to know we aren’t in this alone.”

While Hughes said she’s been eager to read, she’s not “calm enough” for that kind of quiet focus. Housecleaning, working out, artmaking, stand-up comedy, and podcasts have helped fill her days. Also: puzzles.

“There’s something about putting a puzzle together that gives my anxiety a place of rest,” she offered. “I think I need to see something change, and see something completed. Ravensburger puzzles are the best, and you can get them on Amazon, right to your doorstep.”

Portrait of Sanford Biggers by Jeannette Montgomery Barron. Courtesy of Sanford Biggers studio.

Sanford Biggers
Moon River, 2019
Marianne Boesky Gallery

This politically charged multimedia artist’s most recognizable piece might be Laocoön (2015), a gigantic inflatable sculpture depicting the cartoon character Fat Albert. In the wake of COVID-19, Biggers has had to scale down his practice from such epic gestures. “Luckily, I’ve always had a ‘mobile’ studio environment as a result of shifting New York City studio real estate and various residencies abroad,” he explained. “So my staff and I are used to working with each other remotely. Creatively, I’m using this moment for small works on paper, video, and sound pieces with analog and digital instruments, [plus] deepening my MIDI and sound-production software skills.”

Sanford Biggers
Laocoön, 2016

The artist’s upcoming exhibition calendar has been hit hard by the virus, with various cancellations or postponements. That includes his work as a set designer for an opera; the film premiere of Antebellum, for which he served as a consultant; and exhibitions at the Bronx Museum and Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York. The bright side? “It’s been a great but complicated reminder to continually be altruistic, and to not spend so much time in our heads,” he said, “because so much is beyond our control.”

Sanford’s social-distancing reading list includes John Kennedy Toole’s classic A Confederacy of Dunces, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Fran Ross’s Oreo, and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionists. In terms of TV binge-watching, he’s just made it through HBO’s Watchmen, and is looking forward to episodes of Altered Carbon and The Last OG. Meanwhile, he nodded to Mike Judge’s biting futuristic farce Idiocracy: “More prescient than ever, if you’ve never seen it.” And he’s been listening to bands like Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Tame Impala, and Jay Electronica, as well as the music of friends and peers, from André Cymone to DJ Jahi Sundance and Eridan.

Portrait of Sarah Slappey by Lori Cannava. Courtesy of the artist.

Sarah Slappey
Double Burn Study, 2019
Sargent's Daughters

In an age of frantic hand-washing, Slappey’s surreal, sensuous paintings of hands (and other body parts) take on a strange new resonance. The artist is still busily working away.

A self-described “podcast junkie,” Slappey used to listen to The Daily and PBS NewsHour while commuting to the studio, but she said that “lately I’ve been trying not to get bogged down in the panic, and have been listening to lighter discussions.” That includes The Happiness Lab, Freakonomics, Reply All, Radiolab, This American Life, and “too many true-crime podcasts,” including My Favorite Murder and Last Podcast on the Left. The latter shows, Slappey mused, make her cringe-laugh, “a response that I’m realizing extends into my paintings, as well.”

Heidi Hahn, Folded Venus / Pomaded Sweater #5, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Nathalie Karg Gallery.

Portrait of Heidi Hahn. Courtesy of the artist.

“Two weeks ago, I had a lot of deadlines and no time,” Hahn said. “Now, I have time and no real deadlines.” She recently opened a solo exhibition at Nathalie Karg Gallery in New York and while the gallery is currently closed, the show has been extended until further notice. How does an artist keep going when the gallery system that supports her seems on the verge of temporary collapse? “I think the only benefit of this is that it’s a reset, a reprieve of the expectations the art market puts on artists to produce, to have to share everything we make,” she added. “I’m fine making work in my own bubble because I make it for myself, regardless of if I show it or not.”

Of course, making things you love, for their own sake, doesn’t pay your monthly rent. Beyond the precariousness of the current art market, Hahn’s role as an assistant professor at Alfred University has been thrown into disarray. All classes are now being held virtually. “How do I teach painting to students living at home without any studios or supplies?” she pondered. “This is something that I’m working on now: teaching painting without paint.”

In terms of the media Hahn is consuming during these anxious days, she’s looking for “things that have strict parameters and are devoid of adventure.” Her literary picks include: My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh; the collected works of Jean Rhys, “because she is stuck in emotional prison, so her surroundings are blurred and sequestered from pleasure”; Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary; and books by Banana Yoshimoto, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, and Kazou Ishiguro. “For some reason Japanese literature soothes me, even when it’s translated,” she offered. “I think it’s the elegance of their language structure.”

Hahn also recommends checking out interviews with Fran Lebowitz on YouTube (“her attitude inspires me”) and said that she can glean something productive from even the worst movies (“I learn from the things I dislike”). Social distancing, she added, can also have its upsides. “I don’t mind being bored, I’ve gotten really good at it,” Hahn said. “It slows time and you can really just observe everything⁠—which is good for being a sort of representational painter.”

Katherine Bernhardt
Mr Coffee with Cup, 2015
Carl Freedman Gallery
Katherine Bernhardt
Gold Pepsi Eyes, 2019
Xavier Hufkens

Nada es como antes,” Bernhardt told me, quoting the rapper Bad Bunny. “‘Nothing is like before’⁠—and he’s right.”

The artist’s COVID-19 saga is more dramatic than most. “I came to Guatemala last week on spring break hoping and knowing that I would get locked out of Los Estados Unidos,” said the painter, who traveled with her young son. “On arrival here at the Aurora airport in Guatemala, our temperatures were checked at a distance, and we passed the entry test coming in. When we arrived there were zero known cases here, so we felt safe and lucky to be here.…Yesterday we went to the supermarket, which was total chaos, and we also bought art supplies for a 15-day lockdown. I bought paper, acrylic, watercolors, and some notebooks, erasers, and pencils for my son who has no more school this year. I have set up a studio in the amazing patio area of my hotel, the Porto Antigua, and will be making work from here until further notice.”

Katherine Bernhardt with her new public mural painted in Guatemala, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Bernhardt is likely there until at least May, since as far as she can tell, there aren’t any flights from Guatemala back to the States before then. Meanwhile, “all my galleries have closed,” she said (that includes Canada in New York, Xavier Hufkens in Brussels, and Carl Freedman in London).

The artist is keeping busy at her hotel, which boasts “huge gardens, pools, a gym and sauna, amazing plants, and loud singing birds.” But she’s also engaged in an impromptu public art project⁠—a mural in the nearby town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes. “I found a great wall, and the owner said I could paint on it,” Bernhardt explained. “It’s an exciting daytime project before curfew at 6 p.m.” In her characteristic style, the piece includes images of corn, birds, and a huge bottle of hand sanitizer. Its message, emblazoned in neon pink letters, is “lava sus manos”⁠—wash your hands.

Emily Davidson and Stuart Lorimer

Emily Davidson in her studio. Photo by Stuart Lorimer. Courtesy of the artist.

Stuart Lorimer in his studio. Photo by Emily Davidson. Courtesy of the artist.

This couple⁠—painters, as well as co-workers at Canada gallery⁠—has been doing their best to adapt to the pandemic. One silver lining is that it has sharpened their creative focus, to a degree. “Normally the hardest thing about getting to our studio is simply shutting out the noise of the surrounding world⁠—saying ‘no’ to art openings, dinners, or get-togethers with friends,” Davidson said. “With virtually all other activity on hiatus, painting is ironically one of the places we can actually escape to.

Still, the situation has made a normal work routine almost impossible. “I haven’t really spent time in the studio,” Lorimer admitted, “and I’m feeling distracted and anxious about distant family and what things will be like after this passes, regarding work and art.” Biking has provided some solace (“like painting, you have to concentrate, but also find a rhythm”), as have simple pleasures like walking around the local park and taking photographs that might later turn into paintings.

Emily Davidson, Swan, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

At home, more casual artmaking has been supplemented by games of chess and plenty of cooking (Davidson has been asking peers to show what they’ve been making in self-isolation on Instagram with the hashtag #covidcookbook). “What efficient pantry meals are people putting together? What indulgences or shortcuts?” she wondered. “Who is just eating ice cream for dinner? Food is one of the more interesting things we can talk about, something everyone is involved with, during this COVID-19 moment.”

Both Davidson and Lorimer are regular listeners of Jacobin Radio, which they call their “good and mad” podcast option (“it won’t take your mind off the current moment at all, but may help you think through areas where real structural change is most needed and urgent”). Davidson is enjoying Robert Walser’s novel The Tanners. “There’s something timeless and placeless about it,” she added, “which is apropos in this moment, where all our days are beginning to feel like they’re running together.” Lorimer, meanwhile, is digging into a graphic-novel adaptation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.

Their eclectic television and film streaming queue, meanwhile, should get them through the coming weeks or months, from HBO’s High Maintenance to the documentary American Factory. The couple had been keen to see new movies by Ken Loach and Kelly Reichardt that were due to hit theaters; since that won’t be happening anytime soon, they’re going to delve into both director’s back catalogs online. While we might all eventually face a shortage of material goods, Netflix (for the moment) is eternal: “We will literally run out of toilet paper before we run out of movies to watch.”

Portrait of Volker Hüller by Zoë Noble. Courtesy of the artist.

Volker Hüller
Paradise Lost III, 2019

The German-born, Brooklyn-based artist is looking on the bright side of things, perhaps with his tongue in his cheek. “I heard that, after loggers, being an artist is the second-safest profession amid the coronavirus outbreak,” he said. “It is quite reassuring.”

Less reassuring: the lack of almost all social spaces in the city. “The closing of cultural institutions and bars freaks me out, though of course it’s a necessity,” he said, “and hopefully it will have a big impact to flatten that frightening curve.” While Hüller is disheartened by the pandemic’s effect on the art market, he’s willing to see some future benefits. “There are some interesting discussions starting about how to represent artists on alternative forums,” he said. “Let’s see where that goes. The virus seems to bring people together in new ways such as sharing artworks and ideas more through Whatsapp groups and other social media platforms.”

Volker Hüller
Odalisque (smoking), Second version, 2012
Produzentengalerie Hamburg

Like several artists we spoke to, Hüller has recently been trading in large formats for smaller, more intimate works, like etchings. “It’s easier to forget what is around me,” he said of the medium, “and reflect it at the same time.”

Books, meanwhile, have been another lifeline. He’s in the middle of 10:04 by Ben Lerner, which he describes as “a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, mostly about social interactions or moments of community.” Next up: Lerner’s most recent novel, The Topeka School. (Editor’s note: It’s incredible.) The artist also came across a copy of The Laughing Policeman, a Swedish crime novel from the late 1960s. “This book should work when reality keeps crushing in,” Hüller said, “and I’m in need of a quick escape.”

Ethan Greenbaum in his Long Island City studio. Photo by Sun You. Courtesy of the artist.

The COVID-19 crisis has affected this artist couple in many ways. You was included in a three-person show at Maspeth, Queens, gallery Mrs., which has temporarily closed. She’s also a co-owner of the gallery Tiger Strikes Asteroid, which is now shuttered, as well. They’ve gone virtual in the meantime, hosting weekly images with the hashtag #AskTigerStrikesAsteroid. “Each Saturday at noon we will post an artwork, with opportunities for people to ask the artists any questions they want about the work, or their practice,” she explained. “We hope this will be a way for our audience to connect with the artists, and a fun way to pass time as we hole up.”

You’s own practice—a unique mix of painting and sculptural techniques—has temporarily relocated to the couple’s kitchen in Queens. “I’ve been making a series of abstract wall panels layered with small polymer forms,” You explained. “I bake the polymer clay in our oven, so it’s a good fit for the quarantine.” Between artworks, she’s staying in touch with loved ones through multiple platforms, from FaceTime to Zoom, Kakao Talk, and Slack, and diving into books like New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl’s Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light. “As [fellow artist and friend] B. Wurtz told me yesterday, the main thing we all have to do is not to get sick,” You reflected. “Staying relaxed will help all of our immune systems.”

Sun You baking pieces of polymer clay in her kitchen. Courtesy of the artist.

For a distraction from the New York Times, Greenbaum has a few suggestions. There’s Rachel Cusk’s lauded three-book cycle⁠—Outline, Transit, and Kudos⁠—or another trilogy, by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies, The Mirror and the Light). “If you like picking at your scabs, or find relief in extreme allegories⁠—28 Weeks Later is a classic, and The Outsider on HBO is solid,” he counseled. “If not, Curb Your Enthusiasm has a new season.” Even there, though, it’s hard not to find a mirror of the outside world, however accidental: A recent episode features Larry David’s new café, which boasts a bottle of Purell on every table, plus a subplot with a sick restaurant waitress who keeps sweating into people’s soup.

Still, Greenbaum offered a reality check: Artists aren’t going to get through this mess simply by bingeing prestige television and spending more time alone in their studios. “To all the art supporters and patrons out there,” he said, “now is the time when you could make a real difference. Please consider supporting the artists, galleries, and cultural institutions you admire. It’s much needed, and will be remembered.”

Scott Indrisek