A Portrait of the Artist in Isolation

Arts & Culture

SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY MAY 1, 2020

The artist works alone. The artist may on occasion observe their solitude, but they do not wander into the despairing perception of loneliness. Alone by choice, the artist probes the creative ether that resides somewhere between the mind’s eye, the body’s state of tension and the hand’s contact with a canvas. Within this ether dwells the portrait of the artist, their tastes and predispositions, their desires and anxieties, surfacing from time to time like quantum particles to present ideas in varying stages of completion—a color palette, a mood, perhaps even flashes of a work in its entirety. For two New College art seniors putting the final touches on their senior theses, the isolation induced by COVID-19 has affirmed rather than hindered their journeys-in-progress, as each seeks to extract their own commentary on mental health issues enflamed by the pandemic.

For Samantha Zellner, the whole argument for her thesis crystallized around the same time that restaurants and schools shut down. “I knew I wanted to combat the stigmas surrounding mental illness,” she says, “but soon realized those are very broad topics.” With the pinch of approaching deadlines, she finally narrowed her topic to a reexamination of society’s “quick fix” approaches to mental illness. Zellner chose to challenge the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative often depicted in stereotypical motivational posters. The titles for her pieces all fit the codified format of said posters—a constructive character trait followed by a truism about that trait. “The quotes can present a helpful mantra,” she says, “or could invalidate the individual with mental illness.” She attacks this narrative particularly effectively with her painting, Character: When You Have Depth of Character, You Will Never be Afraid to Take the Plunge into the Unknown. The sharp protrusions in the foreground seem to offer a thorny passage through to an altered state, suggesting that perhaps overcoming an emotional hurdle is not as simple as a short maxim.

Miranda Chapman knows intimately what that thorny passage is like. “I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder seven years ago,” she says, “it’s hard for me to do things like talk on the phone, give presentations, make new friends, drive, et cetera.” For Chapman, her anxiety is a part of her creative ether, an ingredient that, in its abundance, helps fuel her prolific output. “There wasn’t any moment where I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do,” she says. Her art is a constructive outlet for the turbidity of her psyche, and as many find themselves newly saddled with anxieties arising from COVID-19, Chapman’s work has found an increasingly receptive audience. Her painting Fig. 1: Misery won this year’s juried exhibition at New College. The painting depicts a face in distress ensconced in a white fabric, with red tear-like drops clustering around its eyes. There is a tone of melancholy in the expression and a suggestion of tension in the white shroud, the absence of a foreground and background unmooring the figure from any sense of place.

And it’s that same displacement that many feel during the continued social distancing protocols. “I feel my work almost holds more relevance now in this time of uncertainty,” says Chapman. For Zellner, the universality of our isolation and anxiety can paradoxically help to engender greater empathy. “The COVID-19 pandemic has really brought forth this universal feeling of being isolated,” says Zellner, “but I think no matter how alone we feel, we can relate to each other through our struggles.”

Their work is part of New College’s “The Embodied Mind: A Thesis Exhibition,” which can be viewed online in an immersive virtual format through May 15.

Pictured: Courtesy of Miranda Chapman and Samantha Zellner

Click to visit the virtual exhibition.

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