Covid-19 Painting Project

Born of my anxiety from the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been spending copious amounts of time during this isolation period creating abstract acrylic paintings.

After hearing from friends living in Italy who are still suffering from an extended period of intense fear, sadness, and extreme cabin fever, the many works of art that I’ve produced lately reflect my attempts at keeping my own dark thoughts, worries, and ruminations at bay.

I initially turned to painting when I first embarked on a career as a remote, freelance writer. Writing primarily for medical organizations, my work-related writing often involves issues surrounding deadly illnesses. Inevitably, this work can become depressing at times. When that happens, I look to painting as a means of escapism. Creating my own diversionary “change of scenery,” I often end up painting abstracts that unconsciously depict my environmental concerns. (Escaping all of my worries, has obviously proven to be impossible!)

Recently, after one year of planning and preparation, my second month-long, solo art exhibit opened on March 1, 2020. Clearly, my timing couldn’t have been worse. On March 18, after Premier François Legault encouraged Quebecers to go for walks outdoors to get some fresh air, with the proviso that we maintain a safe two-meter distance from others, I decided to step outside for a brief stroll. Passing by the now closed venue housing my artwork, I peeked through the windows to find that everything had been removed, yet my paintings still hung on the walls of the deserted locale. With the future fate of the venue remaining unknown, and one source of my month’s potential income in sales obliterated as a consequence, I walked home feeling discouraged.

Once home, a friend called and informed me that this year she planned “to give up complaining for Lent.”

“This year? Are you kidding? That’ll be very challenging, especially during these difficult times,” I said, recommending that she instead consider giving up “something easier, like tinned tuna, perhaps?”

Upon further consideration, I decided that maybe my friend had a good idea. After all, complaining is very easy to do. Remembering everything I’d already complained about before noon, I considered following her lead. I had already complained about the poor timing of my art show; I had complained about all the opportunities and events I’d been eagerly anticipating since 2019, which would no longer occur as scheduled, if at all. I’d also complained about a nearby neighbor who had been vacuuming for what seemed like the past six hours, using a bizarre vacuum that was obviously equipped with several engines from a 747.

Were any of these relatively minor annoyances and disappointments truly worthy of complaint? In the grand scheme of things, they’re wholly insignificant—especially since we are all currently dealing with so much worse.

It occurred to me that my impulse to complain about petty things has served as a means of distraction from perpetually imagining how this horrific and surreal global situation will unfold. I decided that in addition to expressing my angst through painting, painting would also serve as a substitution for complaining.

Needless to say, the number of paintings I created thereafter increased exponentially. Five days ago, I actually ran out of canvases and have since been using more creative surfaces upon which to paint. I’ve used the insides of book jackets and CD covers. I’ve painted over some of my ugly old collages, paintings, and even some old take-out menus. (I’ve also had to reassure my partner that I will not soon take my brushes and paints to our walls or furniture.)

Although very supportive of my recent surge in creativity, he is not so keen on what he refers to as my “frequent bouts of intense verbalized anxiety.” (That is, “Are you sure you washed your hands for over twenty seconds? Do you think I should wear gloves when I put away the groceries? Can you disinfect the door handles, please?”) Repeatedly, he has pleaded with me to “calm down, try to relax!” Jokingly, he says that relaxation is very important. Why? Because he wants to ensure that my “muscles remain tender should we have to eventually resort to cannibalism.” Very funny. Not!

Truth be told, his silly (albeit grotesque) jokes do make me laugh. Admittedly, I am trying to adopt his rationale that maintaining one’s sense of humor is healthier than moping around the house all day, armed with a paintbrush, worrying about the health of one’s own household, and those of elderly relatives and friends, and the current state of the world in general. (To boot, laughter has the added benefit of releasing stress and boosting the immune system).

I’m also learning that the concept of perspective isn’t solely integral to the creation of paintings. While endeavoring to adopt a more positive outlook during this grim period, I will often remind myself of how fortunate we still are. We have access to food, books, magazines, TV, the internet, the telephone, running water, refrigeration—and paint, thank goodness! As such, I’m determined to remain grateful for all of these good things that I normally take for granted.

This conscious effort to re-direct all of my negative thoughts and energy into a more concerted dedication to painting, has given me new and positive thoughts to ponder. For instance, for the past couple of years, my main creative ambition has been to eventually (hopefully) publish a book of personal essays. However, since we’ve been forced to remain at home, I have been producing far more paintings than essays, and am now contemplating the idea of eventually publishing a coffee table book, my “Covid-19 Painting Project” (the title of which would have to be much more appealing, of course).

Who knows if the seeds of creativity from this dark period will eventually bloom under the light of a seemingly distant but hopefully sunnier future. In the meantime, I wish everyone courage, the best of health, positivity, abundant creativity, and, whenever possible, some much-needed belly laughs. And by all means, if you enjoy vacuuming … have at it!

About Renee Cohen

Renée Cohen is a freelance writer from Canada. Her personal essays, prose, and flash fiction have appeared in Accenti Magazine, Prairie Fire, Litro UK, the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette, Reader’s Digest, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Zvona i Nari Croatia, in numerous volumes of the Canadian Authors Association Anthologies and elsewhere. Her artwork has been exhibited in group and solo shows and was featured in Montreal Writes Literary Magazine, Headlight 22, Flash Frontier New Zealand, 3Elements Review, Spadina Literary Review, Sonic Boom Journal and elsewhere.

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