First, it was the global coronavirus pandemic.
Then, it was the lockdown, the quarantine, the stay-at-home order. Whatever you want to call it.
Then, just as “shelter-in-place” was easing and people were feeling like they could go out and back to semi-normal again, there was the shocking Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, and the explosive social unrest that followed.
Needless to say, it’s been a difficult and tumultuous few months.
Voice of OC caught up with several Orange County-based artists to see how they’ve been coping with these life-altering events. Some have been too distracted or even too sick to work; some have been able to seek retreat or refuge in their art. Some have taken recent events and used them as inspiration for a new kind of art.
Pandemic Takes a Toll
The coronavirus began spreading rapidly in the United States in March, increasing exponentially in April. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order on March 19, which lasted until some restrictions were lifted prior to Memorial Day weekend.
Earlier this year, painter Monica Edwards of Silverado had been getting her work ready for the Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach, where she was selected as an exhibitor for the summer.
But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the festival board decided in mid-May to cancel the festival, which started in 1932 and had only previously shut its doors in 1942-45, during the height of World War II.
“You spend all year producing work for it, and have to get it framed,” said Edwards, 57. “All of your resources go into producing for the summer show. It was like I was all dressed up and there’s no party.”
Edwards, who paints outdoor landscapes and nature scenes using oils, said she was surprised how much COVID-19 and the lockdown affected her work.
“It has affected me a lot — a lot more than I would have thought it would have, and not necessarily like in a positive way,” she said. “It makes me feel guilty that I’m not producing more work now. I guess it could be fuel for a creative spirit to produce and channel, but it has paralyzed me. It has completely paralyzed me. This is the longest stint of not producing any work since I started 20 years ago.”
COVID-19 has even forced Edwards to rethink her art and its significance.
“It feels frivolous. To create something that’s aesthetically pleasing — it feels unsubstantial. Just like fluff. It makes no sense to me. But yet, I also don’t feel like producing something that reflects how I feel about all of it. Being in the midst of it, it’s hard to see clearly how it affects you.”
Edwards finally emerged from her funk and recently converted a spare garage into a pop-up gallery along Silverado Canyon Road. She cleaned out decades of junk and had what she called her “Marie Kondo moments.”
“I realized that I was holding onto this (stuff) for a moment that is going to be special. It never comes unless you make it come. It’s very cathartic to clean out that garage and use it for something that can help me right now.”
Edwards recently picked up her brushes again and has been working on some new plein air paintings. She also welcomes visitors cruising along Silverado Canyon Road into her makeshift gallery.
“You learn how to do with less, that’s for sure,” said the artist who probably would have been earning significantly higher income if the Festival of Arts hadn’t been canceled this year. “I’ve never worked as hard as I’ve worked right now, but been as broke.”
Robin Repp of Huntington Beach admits that the quarantine and stay-at-home orders have made her feel a little isolated and depressed. Her infrared, black-and-white images actually convey that feeling of solitude, as they are vast and usually have no people in them.
“I always like my landscapes to have that kind of desolation or emptiness or space or creation of space,” said Repp, who also serves as secretary for the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA) in Santa Ana’s Artists Village.
While in lockdown, she kept busy visiting with family via Zoom and FaceTime, and taking an online yoga class four times a week. She also organized and wrote the catalog for OCCCA’s next exhibition, which will be called “Terra Incognita.” Scheduled to open Aug. 1, it explores art created by couples and will be OCCCA’s first in-person exhibition since the artists-run gallery closed March 14.
As organizer and curator of the show, she is “rethinking security and health issues for the gallery. We will have one in door and one out, exit. Folks will have to wear a mask and space out six feet. We will be modifying the facilities before the show opens,” she said in an email.
Sculptor Finds a Way
Orange resident Bret Price creates monumental steel sculptures that twist and turn at unexpected places. He recently installed “Godot,” a 12-foot, red steel sculpture, on the grounds of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, which has started a free sculpture garden for people to enjoy while social distancing.
“I was chomping at the bit to do something,” said Price, 70, who has a 3,000-square-foot studio at Logan Creative in Santa Ana. His work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. “It was great to put something up, wear the masks. This was the best place to see it, being able to get away from it from all angles.”
During quarantine, Price has been able to retreat to his studio and into his work, temporarily blocking out the outside world and its craziness.
“I’ve made two new pieces during this time,” he said. “You just try to keep your creative brain going, but also try to spend as little money as possible. I think 90 percent of being an artist is riding out the lulls. Sometimes your work is selling. And then there are long pauses where you question your ability to survive. I don’t have an answer for that. I just have this belief that it will come out all right on the other end.”
Meanwhile, even though he doesn’t address current events directly in his work, Price acknowledges that these times are challenging and difficult for millions of people.
“There’s a tension that’s unbelievable right now, and it’s a difficult time,” he said. “This is one of the hardest times I’ve ever had to go through, and I’m lucky. I have somebody that I love, and that I’m really good friends with. A lot of people have it a lot worse. If you have any kind of empathy, you want things to be better for as many people as possible.
“To see a full film of a police officer putting his knee on the neck of a handcuffed man. And there were people telling him, ‘He’s not moving.’ That attitude is just really incredibly difficult to have in your brain. That’s why this country is going nuts right now. It’s awful.”
Putting Art into Practice
Victor Payan and Sandra “Pocha Peña” Sarmiento — established arts activists in Santa Ana and producers of the annual OC Film Fiesta — have taken matters into their own hands to create “Dreamocracy in America,” a weekly series of gatherings, discussions and performances on Zoom.
Part performance art and part social practice, “Dreamocracy in America” features well-known, emerging or alternative artists, activists, musicians and actors. Payan and Sarmiento introduce their guest, who offers insights, sometimes gives a performance and answers questions from participants, who are visible in the “Hollywood Squares” format that has become so prevalent on Zoom.
Guests have included comedian and masks activist Kristina Wong; performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña; Herbert Siguenza of Culture Clash; Robert Lopez, the musician known as “El Vez”; musician and activist Sandra Lilia Velasquez; artist and activist Dread Scott; actor and educator Jesse Borrego and others.
The project is funded by Creative Capital, a New York-based nonprofit that supports innovative and adventurous artists across the country.
“We pick up where (Alexis) de Tocqueville dropped off,” Sarmiento said. “That’s why we wear the 1831 wardrobe — it’s a step across the time machine, a fusion of western fashion and indigenous fabrics and craftsmanship.”
Topics and themes include Native American reservations, immigrant and refugee detention centers, LGBTQ issues, race in America and borders, either physical or imaginary.
“Dreamocracy in America” was initially conceived as a live, touring series of talks in various cities. But it migrated online with the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, where it has found a lively niche and following.
“The meeting of art and technology is happening at the right historical moment,” Payan said. “We’re working with audiences that we’ve built in the real world, and some that are new to us. There’s so much potential for this new medium to inspire, nourish and make people feel less isolated. Everyone’s been so virtual and starved for human connection.”
Sarmiento noted that the project has already yielded constructive results. “We’re seeing how communities are starting to converge and cross over,” she said. “It is breaking isolation people have from people, and connecting them to people they really admire. I think people are beginning to realize these tools in their own lives and their own communities. We’re going to be promoting them, for people to watch the past conversations (on YouTube). It’s really inspiring.”
The Nostalgia Factor
Laguna Beach painter Scott Moore has witnessed a lot in his 40 years as a professional artist. He has seen ups and downs in the economy, and the crowds come and go in his 30 years at the Sawdust Art Festival and 39 years at Festival of Arts, where he wrapped up his final year last summer.
“It’s easy to have the wind knocked out of your sails, because the world is, lives are more important than your artwork,” said Moore, 70. “You can’t expect people to want to buy art when they are more worried about survival. You’re producing a product — not that they don’t need it, but they can survive without it.”
Moore says he feels fortunate that he’s managed to maintain a core group of collectors who can afford to buy his work and sustain his career.
During the coronavirus lockdown, he reflected on his life and vocation in Laguna Beach. He decided to pay tribute to his beachside town and harken back to a time that seemed simpler and less fraught with social anxieties and strife.
“I figured I’d come up with something, and maybe by the time I’m done, this pandemic will be done. I’m down to one day left on the painting,” he said earlier this week.
The painting is titled “Postcard from Laguna,” and it features a photographic view of Main Beach from the 1950s, a postcard and map from the same era, and a toy vintage car. He photographed his daughter and son-in-law while maintaining social distance, and included their images in the painting.
“I do paint nostalgically,” he said. “I look back on things in my childhood that were good and fun, as opposed to anything negative. For all those that are suffering, I try to come up with something that would be uplifting for those who want to look at it.”
Artists of the Streets
Kimberly Duran grew up in Santa Ana, where she still lives and maintains a studio with her partner, Bud Herrera. A muralist, Duran saw a couple of her public art projects “put in limbo” during quarantine.
“It kind of discouraged me,” said Duran, who also goes by “Shmi,” her artist’s moniker. “A lot of my buddies that run these public art spaces and projects no longer wanted to interact, because of COVID-19. I totally understood with the whole (not) gathering thing. But I thought it was all kind of overly hyped.”
She said Def Jam Records hired her to paint a mural at a dispensary for “a really famous band. But it just kind of just stayed in limbo.”
Despite the stay-at-home orders, Duran kept busy painting and creating stuff. Then, as restrictions began to lift, the protests filled the streets, including near her studio in the East End of downtown Santa Ana.
“My studio overlooks the parking lot area of the Yost (Theater), where a lot of people were. We had to board up our studio doors. A lot of the creative spaces here in this building had to come together and make a plan.
“We just had to be present, and protect our life work in our spaces, in case anything happened. I saw hundreds of people coming towards my studio. They didn’t try to enter the building. There was just a lot of graffiti.”
Duran and Herrera, who operate under the joint name “Heavy Collective,” actually have several colorful, intricate murals lining an alleyway right beneath their studio. They also have murals decorating the exterior of a nearby bathroom located in a parking lot on Third and Bush streets.
“They didn’t get vandalized or anything,” Duran said. “Actually, I’m really grateful for the crowd’s understanding of the situation. I didn’t expect for my stuff to be respected. But none of it was spray painted and tagged.”
Duran says she sympathizes with the anger and frustration that people feel and are demonstrating nowadays.
“I am a daughter of migrants. I can definitely relate to the anger and injustice. Some may feel they’ve had enough. In reality, we’re all human. We all bleed the same blood.”
While she does address social concerns in her artwork, and has featured George Floyd and social distancing recently, she also incorporates Buddhist, Hindu and Eastern religious symbols and ideas into her work.
“Just in a moment in my life, instead of trying to project the anger, I want to see if I can create images in my head that have some sense of hope. Because there’s so much anger out there. I want to develop imagery and work that will motivate people.
“What you’re putting into your body, as well as your mind, you’re going to get that outcome. If you put something good, you’re going to get something good in return.”
The “Dreamocracy in America” duo see their mission very much along the same lines.
“Wellness is the thing we need to address right now,” Payan said. “Artists are doing their essential work to keep the community well.”
Sarmiento said she has seen a lot of positive interactions and conversations coming out of the recent protests.
“It’s beautiful to see a guy with a tuba marching and chanting ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Sarmiento said. “We need to create spaces where this can happen. We need the arts more than ever right now.”
Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at [email protected].