For Homebound Artists, New Approaches Bloom on Instagram

Adam Thorman, 'Jay and Katie, Oakland, CA,' 2020, from a series of ongoing "social distancing" portraits shot through glass. (Courtesy of the artist)

In Lauren McKeon’s Instagram videos, posted each day since the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order took effect on March 17, I’ve been watching a red poppy sprout and bloom in a green pot.

The pot sits on a dock in Sausalito’s Galilee Harbor, where McKeon lives on a boat alongside a floating community of artists and maritime trade workers. Her lo-fi videos—clips and stills cut together on her phone—offer a slice of what these days, surreal for all of us, look like on the watery edge of Richardson Bay.

“I wasn’t thinking of them as an extension of my practice, but I need an outlet,” she says of the one-minute videos, which feature food preparation, images of video calls to friends, water life and skateboarding sessions in empty parking lots. The word “coronavirus” is never spoken. Her (sometimes ironic) soundtracking choices are the only nods to the ongoing pandemic: Daniel Johnston’s “Happy Time,” Norma Tanega’s “Don’t Touch,” Dead Moon’s “It’s O.K.” and Eartha Kitt’s “Monotonous.”

Unlike many artists, McKeon still has access to her studio, a stand-alone shipping container where she could continue her regular practice (mostly sewn and cast sculptural works). But it feels like a weird time to be making objects, she says, and she wants to channel her energy and boredom into something more immediately communicative.

“I need to connect with other humans,” she says. “I need to comment on how strange it is to see this unfold in this place.”

Other Bay Area artists accustomed to making physical artworks are likewise shifting their attention to projects they can share online, since opportunities to gather together and share art in person won’t happen again until May at the earliest.

“As an artist stuck inside, I started thinking about how I can make work,” says photographer Adam Thorman, whose previous bodies of work focus mostly on the Pacific Coast landscape. During the pandemic, Thorman is remotely maintaining a full-time teaching schedule at Danville’s Athenian School. Now, in the breaks between school periods, he walks or drives to friends’ homes, photographing them through their windows. These “social distancing” portraits, as he calls them, result in slightly destabilizing mixtures of interior space and exterior reflection.

“I like a complex visual space,” he explains. Some of the windows are so reflective they look more like portraits of the outdoors his subjects can’t enjoy. In each image, the window trim or door frame is cropped out of the photograph, further confusing the viewer’s eye.

Adam Thorman, 'Max, Piedmont, CA,' 2020. (Courtesy of the artist)

Thorman says the series, which he began posting to Instagram on March 20, has been the result of “a rush of creativity.” He says he’s had a higher than usual success rate of making good images because he gets to be in collaboration with his subjects.

“Some projects you labor and labor over to make right for years,” he says, “but this just felt right from the start.”

Finding inspiration in limitations, whether with regards to time, materials or mobility, is a generative process familiar to many artists. But for Tosha Stimage, who just moved back to the Bay Area, those artistic limitations are heightened by the fact that she’s sheltering in place in a near-empty apartment. When she moved into her new place on March 15, she had just one suitcase with her; her boyfriend was due to drive the rest of their belongings up from Los Angeles.

Alone with just a few dishes, foodstuffs and clothes, she started making arrangements inspired by her study of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. She previously considered her arrangements and her art practice (which includes painting, installation and collage) as two completely separate things. “When you’re trained as an artist, that causes you to limit the way you think about what art can be,” Stimage says. “Why am I separating the parts of myself that I enjoy that inform the more formal parts of my work?”

Looking back on the 50 or so sculptural arrangements she’s made in her new well-lit space, she says her mental state is visible in each delicate stack of balanced objects. “That arrangement looks like how I felt,” she says of each one. The series (sometimes she posts several images a day) is annotated by captions that explain her process, descriptions of emotions and notes of encouragement for others experiencing the pandemic in isolation.

Stimage had a show scheduled at San Francisco’s Guerrero Gallery for May, now postponed. But sharing these arrangements on Instagram has reminded her of the benefits of experiencing art outside of a more formalized context. “There’s a democratic vibe in digital social spaces like Instagram, but only in this moment have I felt like it’s actually bringing people together,” she says. These arrangements, made in a domestic space with familiar, everyday materials, are about stripping away the aspects of art that may alienate people. Stimage sees the posts as a form of direct communication.

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McKeon, similarly, has simple aims for her videos. “It feels good giving and receiving anything personal right now because we are experiencing this deep interconnected trauma,” she says. Even though she’s not normally a big sharer of her personal life on social media, she’s gotten over any potential discomfort: “If someone doesn’t like it, it’s so easy to keep scrolling.”

Thorman says seeing new artwork coming out of this moment is helping him cope. “I know a lot of people who feel like they don’t want to share work because we’re in this dark time, but I really feel the opposite,” he says. “The community part of making art is so important right now.”

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