Eclipse Mill Artists, North Adams, Ma. 2020

Projects during COVID-19: Impromptu and Airborne Transmission

By: - Aug 11, 2020

Six months ago, the USA was abruptly confronted with the highly contagious and deadly Coronavirus, COVID-19. The population of New York City became its first major victim, then it spread along the East- and West Coasts and in currently a majority of States in the South and middle of the country, the virus is out of control.  Instead of a cohesive federally guided and initiated approach, individual States are living under and people are dying because of their worst or best state policies and health care systems. COVID-19, which has already claimed the lives of nearly 170 thousand human beings in the US, will also leave in its wake long-term medical heartbreak and conditions in millions of the affected citizens from children to seniors.

A large part of the population in certain States went voluntarily or by mandate into isolation, while sections of the economy collapsed and there are now 30 Million unemployed people in North America. The damage caused by an aggressive virus and bad politics is still evolving and millions of peoples’ lives will not recover in years to come. Asia and Europe through decisive governmental actions have much better fared from the deadly virus and in fact, Americans cannot travel to parts of the world, are not welcome in Europe!

The Eclipse Mill is situated in rural western Massachusetts, in the northern Berkshires, with small towns and cities and close neighboring areas of the States: New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire are also guided by progressive policies and governments and by sheer luck of locations. The Berkshires, in prior years, have seen a resurgence of a cultural and art economy. Major and smaller museums, such as MASS MoCA, The Clark Art Institute, Norman Rockwell Museum, The Berkshire Art Museum as well as Jacobs Pillow (dance), Tanglewood (music), and a number of summer theatres closed their doors for several months because of the pandemic. Some venues are opening again cautiously with new strict guidelines for visitors and staff alike.

Many kinds of cultural and art related programs all over the Nation have been and are still streaming online. The virtual world has taken over the physical world!

Artists started working in perhaps deeper isolation than before, here at the Eclipse Mill as well. The first artist, who came out of her studio, was Catherine Dunning with an exhibition of long scale drawings and, perhaps 20 very colorful pieces of pottery. The boldly and shiny striped pots were placed on a table along the middle of the Eclipse Gallery. She showed her new work in June for one month. The drawings, a couple as long as a gallery wall, were sparse and executed in broad gestural lines and configurations interspersed with color. What a breath of fresh air!

Then, weeks later, Suzette Martin announced to the community her installation Airborne Transmission, a Prayer Flag for the Pandemic. She settled on a fence that borders the Hoosic River and a rushing waterfall, adjacent to the Mill, along Union Street (Rt#2).

Martin described her conceptual project as follows: “The installation consists of repeating pattern of surgical style face masks sewn to white cotton fabric rectangles. Each flag is suspended on cotton twine at six feet apart, following CDC guidelines for safer social distancing. This ephemeral work, visually activated by passing airflow, will eventually deteriorate from the effects of seasonal weather changes as the Covid-19 pandemic runs its course.”

This simple long line of white (with blue masks) flags, signaling: ‘I come in peace,’ or as she put it, it is the international symbol of ceasefire, is also a constant reminder of our fragile existence.

Meanwhile she has shared the following personal thoughts and feelings with us: “I visit the flags nearly every day to make sure they aren't stuck on the loose edges of the wire, and am always stopped by the rather timeless flow of the river, always moving, always changing, like wind, like this moment in time.”

We have also walked along the fence as part of a daily exercise routine and along the meaningful, conceptual piece of currently 12 flags that are connected via a cord. The river contributes to healing!

Then, Martin wrote that: “Airborne Transmission also honors the pandemic of 1918. My grandmother told stories of surviving the 1918 flu as a girl, being sent to stay in a tent for weeks with other sick children in rural New Hampshire. She spent her working life in a New England textile mill, so I always think of her as I watch the river, watch the flags flap in the wind behind a brick mill similar to the ones she knew. And, I think about all the invisible airborne transmissions: radio, WiFi, satellite, bacteria, virus. Invisible ideas, facts and opinions sharing the atmosphere with the invisible Sars-CoV-2 virus responsible for the Covid-19 disease.”

In the next few days she plans to propose a 200 flag/1.500 Ft. long installation of Airborne Transmission to the North Adams Public Works Commission and hopes to install it on another Hoosic River fence near MASS MoCA.  Good luck and success for this much larger installation.

Currently, six other Eclipse Mill artists have prepared a virtual exhibition, ready for viewing on August 15. The show is titled: Impromptu. We had a chance to see the works in advance and thinking about the title, I made the following discovery: The French word, impromptu, spelled in English/American the same way, is derived from the Latin, promere, meaning, i.e., promptly, without plan.Yet there is also another, much rarer descendant of promere in English – the noun promtuary, meaning, ‘a book of ready reference.’ 

That reference seems to fit readily to some of the new works that can be seen here.  Dawn Nelson’s paintings seem to well qualify.  -- Perhaps you have already scrolled through two images per participant in this exhibition as posted above. As the virtual show has been opened, all works included can be seen via a direct link at the end of this article, and other specific information has also been included. Please enjoy! 

Nelson always surprises me after I have seen some paintings that looked quite finished to me. She refers to the process as her work is ‘going through a series of metamorphoses.’ That’s true of a diptych which is part of this exhibition. (Perhaps it’s even a triptych, with one missing panel.) The ‘blue water currents’ surfaced as a new dominant color. They start on the right side of a panel, and carry forward in big bold strokes on the second panel. The pieces project deeply into an ocean. She has indeed reached deeper into her creative soul with this new work.

Nelson also wrote: “The two largest ones, the ones with many overlapping layers, with the greens and lilac tones in them, were the final paintings I did during this spree of painting. They are complex paintings to me with much to consider about the darks, lights, randomness, out of my ‘control(ness),’ and layers of this time of covid.”

Until now we have seen Linda O’Brien collaborate with her husband Opie on highly imaginative, strange and wonderful wall sculptures small or big. There is also a series of large stand-alone pieces, representing the figure with excessive parts that are made up mostly found objects. The sculptures always solicit a smile or admiration of the extreme.

Here L. O’Brien is presenting new work. Dreamlike images, non-figurative, oil and cold wax paintings, muted colors on small panels. The paintings are a total departure from previous collaborations. They are astounding and leave the viewer to meditate and reflect on the current world we live in.

She expressed the way that she came to a new beginning artistically as follows: “This pandemic has been (for me) a much needed opportunity for introspection and to release the remaining negative feelings from the loss of my son and to finally, without fear or guilt, pursue a completely new direction in my work that brings me joy and ignites that passion in me so very necessary to create honestly and from my gut.”

Opie O’Brien, the other half of the O’Brien collaborations in life and work, had two operations within the last few months and is still recuperating. One was a hand surgery and so he lamented: “I too, like many of the artists I am showing with, have been feeling the pull to explore new directions in my work. Then, the hand surgery I was hoping to postpone to the end of the year suddenly needed to be done along with yet another surgery. Not having the use of my dominant hand is unimaginable to me but right now it is what it is (perhaps a needed lesson in patience). When we all decided to go forward with the online show I made the decision to show some of my finished doll sculptures in the hopes of adding a bit of whimsy and humor to this most surreal situation."

O. O’Brien’s small wall sculptures are inventive, quirky, perhaps self-referencing. We may be familiar with them, yet there is always a new twist to the pieces.  -- And fun and whimsical they are!

Diane Sawyer is also exploring a new direction for her work, more abstract in some way. Yet thinking about her aerial paintings, they already convey a direction toward abstract imagery. Yes, I applaud it. It’s quite gutsy and Impromptu does allow it. That’s what I had written to the group of participants in this show as she responded:

“I love your comment that my work is gutsy. As I began experimenting with new media, I wanted to give myself permission to work more boldly and physically, letting go of my ever critical editorial brain. Working with oil and cold wax I become immersed in layering and scraping back, experimenting with texture and color, and reworking until something begins to emerge. Well into the process, I begin to get a sense of where the painting is going.”

“Like many of us I was often preoccupied by the cascade of feelings triggered by the multiple tragedies of the pandemic – suffering and loss, destabilization in this country and the world, economic collapse, and fury and grief triggered by racial injustice. Much of my experience of this time surfaced as I worked.”

Sarah Sutro is mostly known as an abstract painter. She is turning now to non-abstract forms along with references to her more recent clustered paintings that she is showing in a mill hallway gallery. These are in various color schemes abstract panels of broad straight or wavy lines, reminiscent of beaches and waves of ocean water.

A few years ago, she painted a five-times split-portrait of me, which hangs in our loft. Charles and I both like it very much. At the time Sarah told me that she had done portraits in the past and so it is not surprising that she is choosing currently to work again with the figure as a ‘ready reference.’

“I’m glad,” Sutro wrote, “you relate my work in the show to the portrait I painted of you earlier, and ones in the past. There is something compelling in our current situation that draws out the ambiguous complex conversations I paint about in these figurative paintings, while connecting with the abstracted landscapes I have been working on for a while.” In her statement for the show Sutro refers to the painted heads as having cross-cultural conversations of intimate or philosophical nature.

Betty Vera, a fiber artist, has included three new pieces which are titled: Underfoot, Rain of Tears, and Breathing. Based on these three words, well, a couple more than that, one can already place them as new works, made during the current pandemic. They are based on minimal photographs.

I remember stepping into her studio several months ago and looking up at two Jacquard weavings with nearly no design, just muted colors. They were filling the space with energy, enveloping my sight and psyche. I may have remarked: “Oh, I like them! That is new work! And yes, it was. Her weavings during the last decade depicted generally ideas and minor, formerly photo-images such as a gully cover, a long thread hanging down from the top of the weaving in a snake-like way, or a view through a small part of a metal fence with no discernible background.

Vera has continued to create her sizeable weavings that I have recently called ‘otherworldly’ in conjunction with L. O’Brien’s paintings. She writes that they may be dark, “and mirror my sorrow and sense of displacement while self-isolating during the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Concurrently, hatred and violence are also ripping apart the fabric of daily life, separating people even further. The losses feel unbearable. Unlike rain or human tears, scars left by ravaging diseases and rampant bigotry do not just dry up and disappear.”  -- And, of course, the work that’s titled Breathing, refers to the George Floyd murder.

All Eclipse Mill artists that are featured in this article have beautifully and eloquently contributed to this article. We just represent a spec on the artistic landscape in the USA. There are artists working in thousands of studios everywhere, hurting, contributing and expressing themselves in overt or covert ways a million times, in order to influence positively the current and dire imbalances in nature and for human kind everywhere on our Planet Earth.

Here the direct link to the virtual show Impromptu.