Making Art During a Pandemic

in / by

Project Artaud, pronounced Ar-toe, is a live/work nonprofit that houses roughly 70 artists at 499 Alabama Street, in a building that spans an entire city block, from Mariposa to 17th, Alabama to Florida. Many of the residents are older than 65 – some in their 80s – elevating the need for adequate COVID-19-related health protocols. The collective has had no novel coronavirus cases to date. 

“The most important thing for us has been to set up a system where we can work together like a hive of bees and take care of cleaning frequently touched surfaces, staying in communication in case someone gets sick, and having a plan in place if a member gets ill,” said Project Artaud Board President Brian Goggin. 

While the artists live in the same building, Project Artaud occupies too large an area to qualify as a “quarantine pod” in which safety measures can be relaxed, like in a house or apartment. All Project Artaud residents and visitors wear masks outside their studios, when walking in the halls or socializing.  Rather than mixing in individual studios, Artaudians gather on a roof deck garden or in backlot park, maintaining the six-foot safety zone. Like many, video conferencing is used for group meetings.    

“We’re able to see each other and still maintain this creative, Bohemian community,” Goggin said. 

Some residents, like Goggin and Ricky Weisbroth, have found creative inspiration. Goggin, a sculptor, is spending more time experimenting with faces, able to follow his own curiosity instead of working on paid pieces. However, the pandemic has limited his access to costly materials like bronze. Money is tight; his commissioned work has been put on hold for the most part. One bespoke project he’s working on is a site-specific sculpture to be installed on Water Street in Petaluma, called “Fine Balance.” The piece consists of five Victorian claw and ball tubs balanced on thin stilts 17 feet off the ground.   

According to Weisbroth, a writer, editor, visual artist, and founding member of Project Artaud – she joined in 1971 – venues for exhibiting visual art – galleries, cafes, and office buildings – are closed, hindering opportunities for exposure, name recognition, and sales. 

“I submitted work for the de Young Open Competition and if it gets accepted, I have to frame it and the frame shop isn’t open,” she said. “I’m going to have to figure out how and if the frame shop will make arrangements with me without coming in to look at the mats and frames and so on. I can’t just go get art supplies.”

During the public health crisis, she’s had more time to make art, which these days consists of mixed media using paper and hand-stitching. The pandemic has also forced her to become more technologically savvy.

“I’m a technology zero,” she said. “It’s so hard for me to use but part of what this isolation is allowing is forcing me to get a better understanding of technology. It’s forcing me to create a website, which I’ve been putting off.”

Multidisciplinary artist Javier Manrique, a 20-year Project Artaud member, is well aware of technology’s importance. He distributed an online bulletin before COVID-19 hit, and posts to social media.  He’s now exploring expanding beyond his own website.

“This whole technology thing is great, but it’s a lot of work,” he said. “It’s more work than having a rep, which would be ideal, but because that’s not going to happen, I have to choose what I want to do with technology.” 

One thing he’s quite clear on is the necessity of an online store. People need to be able to purchase artwork through PayPal or some other online source because galleries are closed or redefining themselves, he said. 

Another way to generate income is through grant writing, which visual and performing artist, Amy Franceschini, a member since 2003, is engaged in.  She’s part of Futurefarmers, a group of artists, architects, and designers that catalyze action through participatory art. They create sculptural props to excite people’s imagination around different issues. Their work is public art in a time when “public” is being discouraged. Instead, Franceschini has been focusing on the business/administrative side of things, including grant writing. 

“It’s been a reflective process to look at our past work and look at the language around it,” she said.

She and her collaborators are teaching group classes over Zoom, leading participants through an internal journey. That’s nothing new; Futurefarmers has taught video lessons for years. Franceschini is also cleaning her studio, archiving documents, and rearranging her library. 

Photographer Robbie Sweeny is using the time to get organized too. He and his partner moved into Project Artaud in April and are still settling into their space.

“What I photograph is performance and dance and that’s 100 percent gone,” Sweeny said. “I’m feeling uninspired to tackle a new way of being a photographer. I’ve been revisiting old photoshoots and playing around with photoshopping and incorporating paint into some photos, but it definitely feels like I’m trying to fill a gap rather than making art.” 

Sweeny is being productive by creating a functional studio in which to live and work. “It’s a lot of trying to keep busy but that is separate from art,” he added.