Making Art during Difficult Days

Across the country and around the world, thousands of people are spending more time at home than they ever expected or wanted to do. As we enter our third month of sheltering in place, many of us are searching for new and satisfying ways of occupying our leisure time. According to a New York Times report, sales of groceries are booming as more people cook at home. The gaming industry is expanding. And even the sales of coloring books designed for adults have increased. Sheltering in place can lead to all sorts of new activities.

Mary Queen of Scots

All of this may be new to most of us, but we are not the first people to experience long, tedious months of forced isolation. Over the centuries, some people have used unexpected free time in remarkable ways. Mary Queen of Scots, for example, although she is remembered now mostly for her good looks and her political losses, showed an entirely different side to her talents during the eighteen years of her imprisonment in England. She designed and stitched a wealth of embroidered pieces that are still as attractive and appealing as when she first made them.

If you remember your history, you may recall that back in the 15th century Mary struggled with Queen Elizabeth I of England over who should rule Scotland and England. For many years Mary was a prisoner of Elizabeth’s and some of those years were spent in an uncomfortable, cold, drafty medieval castle of Tutbury in Staffordshire. The castle had been built many years earlier and repaired infrequently so it had become extremely damp and had a marsh underneath it from which “malevolent fumes arose, unpleasant enough for anyone and especially so for a woman of Mary Stuart’s delicate health” according to Mary’s biographer Antonia Fraser. Nonetheless, Mary was stuck there and had to make the best of it. One of the ways she did that was by turning to art and developing her skills by designing and executing lavish embroideries.

Design by Mary Queen of Scots

Embroidery is not usually considered a major art form, but it has been used to produce work of lasting value by producing pieces that combine images with words and symbols. This combination can make embroidered pictures into art works to read and understand as well as view. Many of Mary’s embroideries are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and can be seen on their website.

If you want to explore further the kind of art that has been created in isolation, the Tate Gallery has a fascinating selection and discussion of modern artists who have created art under situations that would have silenced most people. Each of the pieces on display is different and the stories of how the artists came to create their work varies. Not all of us can create masterpieces in isolation, but perhaps we can at least attempt to explore new possibilities.

Andy Warhol–Fifty Years Later

This week I saw the exhibit Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In that large museum the art works stretch out over three floors and many galleries and include not only Warhol’s famous pictures but also some of the films that he and his associates produced.

3D rendering by steelblue for SFMOMA

For me it was a reminder of my first glimpse of the Warhol world back in 1966. We were living in New Jersey then, near Rutgers University and tantalizingly close to the glamor of Manhattan just a few miles away. The university was a lifeline that gave suburban housewives like me a glimpse of that glamor. I remember the evening when a friend and I went to a Warhol event on campus (our husbands stayed home with our preschoolers) to watch some flickering films and see a new group called The Velvet Underground.

We arrived to find a crowd waiting at the door. A heavily made-up girl in a floppy brimmed felt hat was taking moving pictures of the audience as they entered. A long-haired, paunchy man followed her around while she aimed her camera to take close-up views of the people’s eyes, faces, lips. At one point she sat on someone’s lap to photograph a face. 

When the audience had settled in, the films were shown. One was Vinyl, which featured the beautiful actress, Edie Sedgwick. Undergraduates hooted and made rude comments as she appeared on screen drinking glass after glass of wine and finally ended the film crouching over a toilet.

After the movie, the Velvet Underground went on stage. Some of the performers played, one sang, a couple danced at the side. The loudspeakers were turned so high that the music was deafening—our seats vibrated with the force of the sound. Behind the singers, the movie screen showed flickering pictures of the performer’s face, hair, lips, eyes…

Velvet Underground

All this was new and eye-opening to us and to most of the audience in 1966.  My friend and I went home with headaches from the noise, but satisfied that we had caught a glimpse of the future with Andy Warhol and his fabulous friends.

One advantage of living a long life is having a chance to discover how often what seems to be a foreshadowing of the future turns out to be a dud, while other startling changes affect our lives for years to come. Warhol’s influence has certainly not diminished. His paintings brought daily life into the realm of art. We started looking at everyday objects with new eyes. And his films and music have changed the way we have listened and looked at entertainment for more than half a century. Seeing his work now reminds us of how much he meant to all of us.

Museums sometimes seem out of the mainstream, preserving artifacts from places, cultures and times that may seem distant. But the moments they preserve are vital to understanding how the world changes. I for one am eternally grateful for museums and the people who work in them. They increase our knowledge and broaden our view of the world.

I recently read that some museum staff members in many cities are unionizing amid complaints that they do not get paid enough for their work. All of us who care about preserving our society and enriching our lives ought to support funding for museums and their workers. They make our lives better by showing us where we have been and how we got to where we are now.