The pandemic has changed our lives in incalculable ways. We are communicating (and learning) remotely, forgoing direct contact with family and friends, changing long-settled routines and adapting to the complex challenges posed by unexpected, and unwelcome, circumstances. And yet, Bay Area musicians, artists and writers are making the best of things, expressing their angst, fear, frustration and hope in works that are both painful and exhilarating to behold.
Oakland-based artist Squeak Carnwath’s recent work includes paintings addressing the pandemic, racial justice and the apocalyptic fires that swept California.
One of these newer works, titled Then We Must, is on exhibit online at Santa Clara University through January 23. It has the motto “If We Know” in large letters across the canvas, inspired by James Baldwin’s words in an open letter to Angela Davis: “If we know, then we must fight for your life as if it were our own.’’ Carnwath includes graffiti phrases on boarded-up windows, messages like “Good Luck,’’ and, she says, “a coat hanger, because we may be going backward on Roe v. Wade.”
Another piece, simply titled Seven, protests the death of Jacob Blake, the Wisconsin man shot seven times in the back by the police while his children were in the back seat.
That painting has a baseball, a cellphone, a hamburger, a milkshake. … I was thinking about how he was taking his kids out someplace when this happened,” Carnwath says. “I put in ordinary objects as a touchstone that we’re all kind of the same, and are in this together.”
Not all her political statements have been well received. After her studio sent out a newsletter about T-shirts he’s offering called “L – R b Gone” (with an image of an eye in the middle to complete the word “liar”), Carnwath says she “got an indignant message from a collector in LA,” who was upset about the critique “when our president was so great” and asked to be taken off her email list.
“I found out he was high up in the Republican Party,” she says. “But the T-shirts are selling — they were part of my magical-thinking plan to try to get rid of [Trump] — I guess it worked!”
Chris Colin is reaching people in a different way. Since early March, when the pandemic hit, the veteran journalist has been putting out Six Feet of Separation, a free digital publication by school kids trying to make sense of the unexpected.
“The first week of shelter-in-place, I sent out an email to a handful of neighbors and local parents, asking them to encourage the kids to send me some kind of news reports. I thought I’d get a dozen submissions, but the next day there was a tidal wave,” he says. “We ended up getting pieces not just from Bernal Heights and San Francisco, but New York, Arizona, Washington, D.C., Spain and China!”
The publication, currently working on its eighth issue, includes stories on everything from pets to distance learning, reviews of imaginary movies — even reviews of home-cooked meals. And it’s growing— Colin recently scored a grant from AT&T to partner with the 826 Foundation, founded in San Francisco and now the largest youth writing network in the country, to reach out to under-served communities.
Bay Area sculptor-painter Bruce Hasson, whose previous statements include “peace bells’’ melted down from weapons, installed in Bodega Bay, Berkeley and Rome, responded to the crisis by branching out with a line of silk scarves, inspired by scenes in Rome, Venice and Pompeii. “In the early days of the pandemic, all the cities in Italy were deserted — you could see the monuments without tourists around,’’ he says. “There was a real beauty there that I tried to capture in the scarves.”
No stranger to solitude, musician Frank Ene’s new album, No Longer, is a self-described wrenching look at “fear, anxiety and loss of hope’’ in a period when he was self-quarantining in Berkeley. Somber lyrics to the song Flesh in the Womb describe black men “hanging by the throat from a huge tree.’’’ Ene says, “You may think you’re OK if you’ve never been pulled over by the police, but at some point, it’s too much to ignore.’’ The artist has two other albums in the works, tentatively titled Cruel a L’Amour and Whilst Crying All the Time.
Irish emigre Ethel Rohan’s new short story collection, In the Event of Contact, deals with the “virus’’ of physical and emotional harm, and a “numbed society’’ whose remedy, she writes, lies in “civic duty, community building, addressing toxic masculinity, empowering the vulnerable and nurturing empathy.”
“I didn’t realize how prescient the title would be,’’ Rohan says. “Magically, it’s speaking to the various ills of our society. It’s not just about the virus, but its effect on us as human beings and the importance of connection.”
San Francisco–based street artist fnnch responded to early shelter-in-place orders by putting up art, including a series of Honey Bears (Bowie Bear, Baker Bear and Pizza Bear, all wearing N95 masks), on boarded-up storefronts. He also led two COVID fundraisers, raising more than $178,000 for the Safety Net Fund, offering direct cash transfers to out-of-work Bay Area artists and support for SF New Deal’s restaurants providing more than 1.2 million meals and counting to those in need.
Fnnch’s Heroes art show, highlighting Firefighter Bear, California Teacher Bear, RBG Bear and Coffee Bear, pays tribute, he says, to “the many everyday heroes of the pandemic, from parents … working at home while caring for a child to grocery store clerks who continued to serve the public to researchers who dropped everything to develop new vaccines and treatments.” And his June mural of three rainbow Honey Bears on the City’s LGBT Center, in commemoration of Pride, is already iconic.
And while museums have faced closures interspersed with brief reopenings these past few months, they’ve been commissioning works that are more timely than ever. Elaine Chu and Marina Perez-Wong, aka the Twin Murals Company, were floored when SFMOMA asked them to join the Bay Area Walls exhibition of commissioned work addressing the current crises. “A lot of our work may not be outwardly political, but it’s definitely part of it,” Perez-Wong says. “They told us we could paint anything we want.”
Our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams, their 46-foot mural created on-site on the fifth floor of the museum, focuses on healing, resiliency and empowerment through images of a cherry blossom tree, a sunken slave ship, a broken border fence, portraits of the Radical Monarchs activist group of girls of color and Oakland School of the Arts students dancing above the water. The tone is powerful, defiant — yet hopeful.
Notes Chu, “We’re trying to channel the positive outcome from what we see in the world — what we want to see happen.”