By Michelle Trauring
Kara Hoblin creates art to heal. She creates it to connect. And it was with that intent that she chalked a “Thank You” tribute to healthcare workers in her friend’s driveway, snapped a picture and posted it on Instagram.
The rain would wash away the drawing a few days later, but it was already immortalized online.
Overnight, her chalk art went viral, with hundreds of thousands of eventual shares, likes and comments from across the country and around the globe — among them France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates — landing her art on celebrity and national brand accounts, and even “Good Morning America.”
Less than a month later, the Southold-based artist would transform the drawing into a coloring page for Crayola, now available for download as a welcome distraction from the COVID-19 pandemic raging outside, ravaging every corner of the world that her artwork reached.
“No way!” she said to ever anticipating the reception she’s received. “You know, I work with chalk, I like to work with my hands, and see people face to face, and have real authentic connections. So I don’t usually use the internet for that. But there’s no other way right now. It‘s either have them via the internet, or don’t have them at all.
“I think at this point in time, it’s way more important than it’s ever been to have real connections with people,” she continued, “to remember that even though you’re alone, or you’re by yourself, or you’re social distancing, everyone’s doing it together.”
Artists across the East End have reported mixed impacts on their creativity and productivity while sheltering in place — a concept that is foreign to some, but not much of a departure for many who are already accustomed to, and prefer, working in isolation.
Environmental artist Janet Culbertson has responded to the pandemic quite literally in her work, as in her new drawing, “Covid 19 team,” depicting four doctors with the Grim Reaper waiting in the background.
“I am not surprised at this pandemic, since I felt for a long time that humans are destroying nature. Perhaps our world has reached its tipping point,” she wrote in a recent email from her home on Shelter Island, adding, “Doing dark works doesn’t guarantee they will be our be our best works. It seems as if we have a bit of miserable control if we put a face on fear.”
Or, in the case of word artist and filmmaker Cliff Baldwin, putting music to it. Last week, he performed a live, one-hour concert from his Aquebogue garden, featuring his apple tree. He calls it “Damn Epic Pandemic Brutally Live Mix – Day 75 – Apple Music [Baldwin Variety]” — which can be viewed on YouTube.
“This tree is a little special because I grafted three different new varieties onto it and they’re blooming wonderfully, so nature is quite amazing that way,” he said. “I mic’ed the tree and ran it through my laptop and used mallets to play the tree as an electronic percussion instrument. All sounds are made by the tree itself.”
Also keeping busy by sewing over 200 washable cotton masks with his wife, Marta Baumiller, building custom lighting for their company, Lampa, and working on new two-letter-word paintings, it is safe to say that Baldwin is not necessarily the norm, productivity-wise.
Christine Sciulli, on the other hand, was artistically dormant for the first two months of the stay-at-home order, being away from her Sag Harbor studio and socially distancing from her work itself.
Instead, she’s gotten micro-focused on deep dives into pasta making, poaching, frying, sewing, fermenting and baking — “I think I have become gluten obsessed because it is fascinating to work with,” she said — along with some “hardcore trampolining.”
“Personally, chaos and uncertainty help me get out of my own way, prevent me from getting stuck in a groove for too long, and bring out ideas that would not have otherwise found their way to the surface of my consciousness,” she said. “I am a light artist, always bound to working in the dark.”
With no real intention of using them anywhere, Sciulli had been taking iPhone photos and slow-motion videos of the parts of her new daily life that she found compelling. When Warren Neidich asked her to participate in his outdoor public art exhibition, “Drive-By-Art,” earlier this month, she had a revelation.
“I woke up to the fact that I had been making useful material and hadn’t been to my new studio to work since moving in the day of the lockdown,” she said.
From inside her studio, she turned the videos of her COVID-19 life outside, projecting them onto her window that looks out toward the street, once bubbling with rambunctious school children and now replaced with infrequent, masked pedestrians — a changed world reflected back at her.
“The projections I turned out into the street mingled and mixed visually with the street’s reflections and a new kind of real-but-surreal surrealism came out of this work,” Sciulli said. “I don’t think this piece would have ever happened without the pandemic. I have always fought against ambient light, and this was the most freedom I’ve experienced in a long time, being able to work with projection in daylight, and to work with images instead of abstract geometry.”
The “Drive-By-Art” invitation also inspired Laurie Lambrecht to reassess her work, which had somehow taken over every single living space of her house in Bridgehampton during the stay-at-home order.
“At first, it was like, ‘Oh my God, what am I gonna do?’ and then I realized that I had all this work I had been doing all along,” she said. “I think that I have such a lengthy, unwritten list of things that I want to try and do in life that I’ve been doing things really because I enjoy them. I love the tactile experience of so much of what I do. I love the meditative quality. I love color and I’m still asking myself a lot of questions in my head that inspire me to try things and make things.”
Recently, Lambrecht has found herself focused on knitting rectangles, all in different colors, which she imagines will someday make their way into a project. As for what that is, she doesn’t know yet.
“I think that as an artist, a lot of my friends — including myself — we ask that question of, ‘Why we do what we do?’ or, ‘Why do we struggle? Why do we bother making things?’” she said. “I think it’s common, even if you’re not an artist, to go through moments of, ‘Why bother? Why are we doing this and what’s our purpose?’
“I think, because of this disease, that’s been given a renewed meaning,” she continued. “I think we realize this is the moment. We can see time clicking away and it has a different pace than we’ve ever known in our lifetime.”
Photographer Philippe Cheng has made it his mission to preserve these fleeting moments, to document days that are going by unmarked through a new portrait series, “Pause at Home,” in partnership with, and to benefit, the 19 arts and cultural organizations that make up the Hamptons Art Network.
A portfolio of the commissioned portraits — which are now available for $1,500, or by donation, and are expected to include local families, individuals and essential workers — will become part of the collections of the East Hampton Historical Society, Eastville Community Historical Society and Southampton History Museum, as a means to gather and preserve information for future researchers as they look back at this time, and how the community survived a pandemic.
“The complexity of this moment…” Cheng said, trailing off. “I think often artists can speak to the complexity in a way that can heal people. It’s only now they’re talking about mental health as a byproduct of this disease, and it is absolutely going to be a problem for many, many people. We don’t even know the scope of it yet — and I think to not say, or not acknowledge, that arts and cultural institutions have a healing power is completely ignoring the facts.”
As for his personal creative life, which has recently led him to experimenting with sandpaper, he has described it as “all the light we cannot see,” borrowing the title from Anthony Doerr’s novel, which has always stuck with him.
“I’m thinking of my work in the same way. I’m more committed to seeing the things that are not visible,” he said. “For me, it is very much looking for light and seeing light where it is not immediately visible, unless you take the time to really slow down enough to look — because there is so much light everywhere. Nothing’s ever totally black. There’s always some element of light.”
He sighed contentedly. “I feel really grateful for everything,” he said. “I don’t want to be cheesy about it, but I do. For me, my creative life is full. I don’t feel lacking. It’s full.”
As social distancing and self-quarantine tick on, Hoblin — whose professional chalking career largely depends businesses and restaurants letting her into their space — has started to reconsider the potential behind her work, the borders it can cross, and what it means to be an artist, especially during this time.
“Art has a lot of power to uplift people, to help connect, to make them feel safe, or just provide something beautiful to look at because everything is crazy,” said Hoblin, whose “Thank You, Essential Workers” benefit poster is now being sold for $20 through the Southampton Arts Center at southamptonartscenter.org. “If you asked me in the beginning of this, I would’ve said, ‘Wow, I am not essential. I wish I was a doctor, I wish I could help.’ But now I feel more empowered to keep creating because of how much it can help people, and myself included.
“I’m looking at artists and I’m enjoying listening to artists talk on different platforms and seeing what people are creating — and connecting again,” she continued. “I don’t think that we’re ever gonna go back to what it was, and I think that it’s probably really important for people to realize that we need to figure out a new way to go forward.”