Shelf Life in Social Isolation

By Laura Wetter

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” John 1:1,4-5 NKJV

Glove Shelf, 10″ x 8″ Oil on Canvas, 2015

As the coronavirus pandemic began to impact our country, and my city of Chicago, I felt overwhelmed and powerless. As I work in communications and fundraising for a community development organization on the West Side of Chicago, a large share of my days are now devoted to communicating the seriousness of the illness, sharing resources available to individuals impacted by COVID-19, and to finding ways to support my organization’s emergency response programs.

While this new workload hasn’t allowed me much time or mental energy for my art practice, I have been thinking about and meditating on a body of work that I made almost five years ago. In subject matter alone – the pieces prominently feature protective gloves, cleaning supplies, and bed linens – the work is eerily familiar in our current moment. After more reflection, the origin of the work also shares some parallels to the shift in daily life that many of us are experiencing right now.

The series began with a sense of boredom, a search for content and meaning during a stressful life transition – returning to art school after years of work in the social sector. The long hours in the studio, combined with a health crisis at home (lots of cleaning and hyper-vigilance was required) led to a period of high anxiety, sleeplessness, and a pervasive sense of isolation. I struggled with the idea of  making art while in crisis mode, and facing the pressure of heightened external judgement and critique. How can one make something as frivolous as a painting, much less have any form of transcendent vision or elevated perspective in that moment? How does all of the hand washing and disinfecting translate into fine art?

“For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off… But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart that you may do it.” Deuteronomy 30: 11-14 NKJV  

Tabletop Mountain, 9″ x 12″ Oil on Canvas, 2015

When we are in the valley, it’s hard to ascend to the heights of heaven, or even to the depths of painting discourse. So I began with observation of the object in front of me, making small pieces  inspired by what was close at hand in the moment (gloves, masks, and cleaning rags), executed at a “human scale” or 1:1 ratio. I attempted to get out of my emotions, to paint what I saw rather than relying on other work-arounds that would inform a more carefully constructed illusion. As I moved forward with the series, seemingly insignificant scenes took on a monumental presence, even at a small scale. Seen at a certain angle, a surgical glove resembles a blue mountain range at sunset or a reclining figure, a cleaning rag becomes a snow-capped peak, a twisted pile of laundry transforms into a new, vast topography.

I shared the work in a show at a collective gallery space (one of the alternative and fleeting venues that Chicagoans love to create together) and titled the project, “Small yet Strange.” My friend and fellow artist Nik Burkhart observed in an essay about the work: “At times, we are only able to understand larger concepts in terms of what we know. Instead of longing for something that is unattainable or absent, we can examine the things that are readily available. If we cannot experience the vista on the horizon, we can construct our own out of gloves and bed linens in order to bring it near.”

Glove Drawings, variable, 2015

Some readers may note that the reference to landscape and reclining figures, as well as the removed glove, also carry additional connotations and interpretations. In carrying these conversations into a small format, the work is a reminder that mundane tasks have the capacity to engage us in larger concerns. Similarly, many of us have been self-isolating and social distancing for several weeks, and the quirks of daily life are showing us the best and worst of ourselves and our quarantine partners. For those of us who have a history of anxiety and depression, the isolation can exacerbate our long-standing mental health struggles. It is also an opportunity to practice coping mechanisms and gain new insight that will carry over into our post-pandemic lives.

I feel my insignificance and powerlessness deeply now. Maybe you feel similarly. Even before the spread of coronavirus, a 16-year gap in life expectancy existed between the West Side and downtown Chicago, due in large part to a history of disinvestment, resulting in fewer opportunities for residents to access healthy food, local jobs, and healthcare resources. Now the public health crisis is shining a bright light on the inequities in our City. Black Chicagoans are suffering 70% of COVID-19 fatalities, even though African Americans comprise only 29% of the City’s population. Cities around the nation have reported similar statistics, a cruel revelation of long-standing injustice in our nation. As a white woman, working in a historically and primarily Black community, I struggle with reconciling the fact that I’ve been given opportunities that my coworkers and neighbors have not. How do I respond in a meaningful way to a public health crisis that is revealing these inequities in my city?   

Glove Range, 8″ x 16″ Oil on panel, 2015

Under these circumstances, making or sharing art can seem insensitive at best and self-serving at worst. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I should do anything with these paintings I couldn’t stop thinking about (I’ve since posted most on instagram). On a more vulnerable note, I hesitated to share these paintings because they reminded me of failure; they were not well received in art school. But the world has changed dramatically in this strange season, and I see the series in a new light.

Sharing this work is a small act of support for those who are struggling to make sense of the world, as I did five years ago when I made it. It’s a tiny shout in the dark for those who feel helpless and scared, who are fighting back anxiety and depression, or are worried about how they are going to make rent next month. Every new day brings more moments like the ones found in these paintings; faint glimmers of hope and beauty amidst pain and grief. There will be a time when we can see beyond the drudgery of this time, when each disinfected table, grocery delivery, handwash, and lonely day, will hold more significance than we currently understand. These dark days may eventually lead us to a better, more equitable society, and point us to the ultimate hope of a just and resurrected world.

Laura Wetter is an artist and nonprofit development professional who lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. 

Instagram: @laurawetter

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