The Art of Isolating

By Cristina Schreil

An installation by Wendy Chien, who believes art brings joy and should be shared in times of trouble. (Wendy Chien)

While sheltering in place, entrepreneurial Bay Area artists and cultural institutions are doing what they do best: Creating.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the art world as we know it lapse, unnervingly and with shocking immediacy, into hibernation. Art and performing arts institutions have closed amid shelter-in-place. Concerts and tours have been canceled, and scores of artists are out of work. Meanwhile, art lovers who miss visiting museums and galleries wonder when things will go back to normal.

“I thought, ‘Is it too privileged and spoiled to be thinking about how sad I am at the loss of the arts in my life in a time when people are worried about life and death?’” says Pamela Hornik, an active arts aficionado who lives in Palo Alto and New York City. Social distancing has brought a halt to the usual ways Hornik engages with art and culture, including as a volunteer at Stanford’s Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, currently shuttered due to the pandemic. “Arts do feed the soul and arts do feed society,” adds Hornik, sounding melancholy. “When you go somewhere every Friday for 11 years, it becomes part of who you are.”

The internet has been a source of comfort. While museums, galleries and concert halls remain empty, in cyberspace, you can experience virtual tours, curator talks, podcasts and behind-the-scenes content. If music is your thing, you might enjoy the livestreamed concerts and archival performances being released online. For example, the San Francisco Symphony and its music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, put its Keeping Score project on YouTube. Now more than ever, people are turning to the arts not just to escape their circumstances, but also to seek solidarity through a shared crisis. As Hornik says, “Even before the coronavirus, [art] filled my days. Now I feel like there’s a need for it even more.”

The San Francisco Symphony made the Keeping Score project, featuring legendary Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, available for streaming on YouTube.

Digital can’t truly replace the sensory wonder of being in close proximity to an artistic creation, yet striving for that magic has wrought innovative solutions from art providers. There’s content of all kinds on social media, apps and hubs such as Google Arts & Culture, where you can roam the de Young or the Legion of Honor — perhaps the closest thing to a private walk-through.

SFJAZZ is one of many performing arts venues offering regular concerts online. Through its new Fridays at Five initiative, the organization invites patrons to get cozy with prerecorded performances and backstage footage of artists at work. When coronavirus canceled SFJAZZ Collective’s spring 2020 tour, house musicians were forced to get creative. Collective pianist Edward Simon, sheltering in place in the East Bay, has conducted lessons over Zoom and recorded solo piano concerts for YouTube. Members of the group are composing music remotely and bouncing ideas from their respective homes. Simon’s new collaborator: his 14-year-old daughter, who sings on the music videos they make.

“Coming to a stop makes it possible for new things to emerge,” Simon says. “It does provide us with a tremendous opportunity to reflect on our lives and to step outside of our routines and really look at and reevaluate things — to see what’s really important to us.” These times are especially tough for creatives already on the fringes, he notes, adding that artists must be supported directly.

San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Freemantle transforms his apartment into a performance space.

Benjamin Freemantle, a principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet, was also making the most of lockdown. When A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened the season in February, only to close March 7, it marked the first time San Francisco audiences had seen the ballet in 34 years. (As of press time, ticket holders can stream Balanchine’s production online.) Freemantle, a dancer without a large stage, got to work creating his own. “Most people went out and bought toilet paper. I bought wood and staining equipment and confetti for photo shoots,” Freemantle says. “I went the opposite route and dived into the art as a way to get out of the reality of what we’re all living in.” Like many artists during this time, he’s since launched a Patreon, for photography and video works, writing, and more. Freemantle’s ballet colleagues have produced a wealth of social media content — recirculated by the Ballet’s Instagram account — including words of encouragement and home workouts using makeshift barres in a kitchen. There’s unity amid isolation. “We’re all human beings, just trying to get through this,” Freemantle says.

In times of crisis, arts institutions are elevating performers through digital platforms. The San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows, its resident young artists, each recorded their #odestojoy— songs they find important — for the opera’s social platforms, inviting fans to post using the hashtag as well.

Rehearsals unfolded despite the risk that the show might not go on as scheduled. Recently, the opera chorus was practicing with Chorus DirectorIan Robertson over Zoom, preparing for the summer premieres of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs and Ernani — both of which have since been canceled. Robertson said that remotely, he and associate chorus master Fabrizio Corona offered notes on dramatic quality and vocal hues. Between rehearsals, audio files helped clarify their direction. “We had to try and find a way, and this was a way,” Robertson says. “It is a solution for communicating early rehearsal requirements and what the choristers could do to gain traction in the learning process — without just sitting at home looking at scores.

SFJAZZ Collective pianist Edward Simon practices both music and meditation while sheltering in place in the East Bay.

During breaks, choristers interacted under isolation. Delving into the art is grounding, Robertson says. “It’s really good for me and for the choristers to have a focus here in the middle of all of this societal chaos to say, ‘We don’t have all the tools we normally have, but we’re not going to let this detract from our love of learning opera, or our love of performing opera’ — whenever that might be.”

Some museums offer activities for homebound patrons. On its app, the Asian Art Museum offers experiences such as a “Meditative Art tour.” On its website are directions for creating mandalas, Chinese calligraphy, lotus lanterns, simulated woodblock prints and Balinese shadow puppets.

The Museum of Craft and Design has especially seized this spirit with the launch of [email protected] In lieu of workshops and events, the museum partnered with artist collaborators to create projects based on themes, concepts and materials from exhibitions and programs. There’s a focus on using objects found at home to build bath bombs, learn shibori dye techniques and paint Frida Kahlo-inspired self-portraits, among other activities.

Artist Windy Chien is one of the museum’s collaborators. While sheltering, she described a distinct difference in her focus and concentration. “I’m more attuned than ever before to my own and everyone else’s feelings and circumstances, and extremely aware of those with greater hardships,” Chien says. Her creative process feels more poignant than usual, bringing an “awareness of how artists can contribute, and our responsibility to be good citizens.”

Like other artists, she uses social media to connect. “As we all go through this surreal time together, I’ve had thoughts about not posting my work. But the stronger voice inside me says artists should keep doing it. Art brings joy, it is uniquely human, it is human expression distilled — and I choose to believe that artists continuing to share our work lifts us all.

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