Opportunity, isolation and tools for connection: what art can provide during a pandemic

A report by Blake Hunter for The Arbiter.

When people think of drag, they might think of sassy colloquialism, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” or of the sweet, cloying scent of watermelon vodka in a neon-lit bar. They typically do not think of a Puerto Rican immigrant school teacher drag queen reading stories to children on Facebook Live.

For local drag performer Coco Freeo, who is also a local teacher and pursuing a master’s of education at Boise State, the coronavirus pandemic has helped solidify relationships with people of similar backgrounds and led to abundant connections between education and the art of drag.

“I think that before all this, I was trying to fit in in the community, when I was different in where I am from, I speak a different language, my English skills are different,” Coco Freeo said. “But after all these conversations with other people that have the same experience as me, I decided, ‘Okay, I need to be proud of who I am.’ So this quarantine time allowed me to think about ‘What do I want to communicate to the public?’”

As the year progressed and attention shifted — from the pandemic to the murder of George Floyd to systemic racism, to the election, hurricanes, wildfires, the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and back to the pandemic — for many, consuming and producing art has become a way to cope with it all. 

Throughout the pandemic, many artists have found new opportunities and created musical and visual snapshots through their respective mediums. Whether that be through drag, an art professor creating a student gallery or a creative writing professor focusing on the well-being of his students through their work, COVID-19 has shaped art anew.

Coping in art class 

Art professor Erin Cunningham is no stranger to isolation. After a bone marrow transplant in 2015 wiped out her immune system, she spent six months in isolation to protect herself from infections. So when classes were moved remote, she felt prepared. As her students began moving home or quarantining with roommates, partners or by themselves, she wanted to pass along some of the wisdom that experience gave her.

“I just began to think about assignments that I could give my students that could help them cope within their own environments and identify things around them that would give them a sense of calm, or that they might have a changed response to in wake of the shift into quarantine,” Cunningham said.

The result for her Drawing 212 class was what she called the “Quarantine Survival Kit,” a collection of small ink washes that each student made that was relevant to their experience in quarantine. Cunningham urged them to find unique and personal items, whether they made light of their situation or helped keep them grounded. Some drew pets, coffee or gaming paddles — one drew a bottle of Mucinex.

But the items they chose mattered less to Cunningham than the process and the outcome. 

“Drawing is a process that is, by nature, rooted in a kind of meditative action where you’re meditating on the subject, especially if you’re working observationally,” Cunningham said. “And you’re really able to disassociate yourself from some of the ugliness that’s going on in the world.”

After Cunningham created a poster of images from the “Quarantine Survival Kit” and posted it on social media, it caught the attention of Fonda Portales, the university art curator who, Cunningham said, reached out to her about displaying the students’ work. 

“It’s not just about finding a happy ending or a silver lining,” Portales wrote in an email. “But as these students show us, there are ways to process our thinking about a situation and make sense to help us cope.”

The resulting collection, titled “Objects of Resilience,” was displayed at the Student Union Building (SUB) gallery until Sept. 27, but its time has not come to an end.

Dr. Manuel Gómez-Navarro of the World Languages Department transformed the “Objects of Resilience” into a virtual gallery, granting access for a longer period of time to more people, a practice Dr. Gómez-Navarro works to incorporate into classes.

“I hope the university supports the adoption of this technology not only for future exhibitions, but as part of connecting our students to different cultures and experiences in our humanities classes,” Dr. Gómez-Navarro wrote in an email.

The use of virtual reality technology in education and art has only increased during the pandemic, and it may be one of its most enduring legacies.

Coping with the world 

Despite the physical distance between professor and student, student artists are still creating intimate works that belie not just the humor or material conditions of 2020, but also the tension and emotion. This comes as no surprise to Martin Corless-Smith, co-director of the creative writing MFA program at Boise State. 

Corless-Smith described experiencing multiple crises at once as feeling like a possible “epochal shift” that his students, other artists and specifically writers are sure to engage with. First and foremost, Corless-Smith worries for the safety and physical and mental well-being of his students. 

“Clearly there’s a lot of stress involved in the lockdown and even in looking at their future with some sense of hope,” Corless-Smith said. “I mean, fold that into the upcoming election, climate change and all that sort of shit which was bad enough anyway, it’s an extraordinary pressure that I think young people are under at the moment.”

Corless-Smith also said that the Black Lives Matter movement has added to the combination of crises, and that historically, his students have used their writing to address society’s most difficult topics.

“I would say that all of the things I just mentioned are paramount in most of my students writing anyway: crises of personal identity, crises of political responsibility and inaction, crisis of climate change,” Corless-Smith said. “All those things are sort of part of what’s been going on anyway, so, presumably, those things will still be important and referenced.”

Though a pandemic never makes for simple times, the complexities of 2020 are especially poignant for Coco Freeo, who, as a Puerto Rican, also has African ancestry. The convergence of crises brought by the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and an upcoming election have helped Coco Freeo solidify her message to the world: a commitment to both uniqueness and community that she hopes will help enable children to tackle the world’s issues.

“Always, my goal is to be more inclusive and to provide an opportunity to families and children that have seen drag as a little bit different — to see it like an opportunity of education,” Coco Freeo said. “That’s what I do.”

Chronicling the Pandemic 

Beyond education and entertainment, art also has the power to chronicle history. Amidst chaos, local musician Angel Abaya used her art to archive the emotions she was feeling at different times early in the pandemic. 

In March, she was planning on moving to Los Angeles. Seven months later and about to turn 24, she is still in Boise and uncertain of her plans to move, but busy working on a project that would never have been available without the coronavirus pandemic.

After the pandemic began and many artists lost access to the venues that bring them financial stability, the Velma V. Morrison Center, Treefort Music Fest and the Boise City Department of Arts & History created the COVID Cultural Commissioning Fund to provide $1,000 grants for local artists to explore the pandemic’s impact on themselves and their communities.

Abaya, who had already been working on her first solo album, applied with the vision of creating music videos for an EP of songs about her experience in the pandemic titled “Quaranmood.” The project was released on Oct. 25 and covers three songs in a timeline of response to suddenly having to isolate herself from others. The first is spending time in the joy and novelty of having free time at home.

“One minute I’m thinking I’m having a fun time baking bread, and everything’s great,” Abaya said of the first track, “Haute Hermit.” 

That moment was fleeting for Abaya and quickly spiraled into boredom and anxiety. On the second song, those feelings swell.

“The second song is called ‘Spatial Therapy’ and that’s about the loneliness and the confusion and the impatience and just the bummer of it all, so it’s the bummer song,” Abaya said. “It’s the sad girl song.”

The last song, “No Ill Will,” is about accepting the situation and feeling a sense of unity with others in such unexpected circumstances, as well as arriving at a personal space where she held no grudges. 

The song fits within the larger pandemic: at the time Abaya wrote “No Ill Will,” New York City was the center of the American outbreak. She read a New York Times headline that stuck with her and eventually became the opening lyric on “No Ill Will”: “We take the dead from morning until night.” That is one way that the monumental human losses to the pandemic found their way into the backdrop of Abaya’s art, and that aspect of the pandemic’s legacy is still undecided.

“We don’t talk about how many people are dying anymore, like it’s just so normalized,” Abaya said. “At first people were kind of grieving that life was different as we knew it. But actually grieving for what is actually happening? I haven’t seen a lot of that.”

Much of the uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic has yet to fade, but its effects on art will be lasting, said Corless-Smith, specifically among those who delved into art to pass their time.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens moving forward in terms of people’s engagement with art — was it a temporary cathartic release, or was it truthfully a new kind of awareness and investment?” Corless-Smith said. “I suppose that’ll depend on the individual.”

A self-described romantic, Cunningham noted that after the Black Death in mid-14th century Europe, artists created the Renaissance and changed modern history. Aware that art has been shifting into digital realms for years, Cunningham wants her students — like the ones who contributed to the “Quarantine Survival Kit” — to embrace that shift.

Whether we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic in 2021 or 2030 with an artistic renaissance or the buck stops with Avenue Beat’s “F2020,” art — be it poetry, painting, photography, TikTok or something as of yet unconceived — has given many people tools to cope with the extraordinary pressures of 2020.

“I believe in our ability to reach a multitude and to communicate beyond conflict or communicate through conflict and to reach people’s hearts and minds in ways that a lot of other things don’t have the capability to,” Cunningham said. “I mean, so much of art can be political, art can be therapy, art can help give visionary quality to things that don’t exist.”

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