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Pandemic's Effects On Artists' Lives, Society On Display In 'Untitled, 2020'

A screenshot of a virtual tour of 'Untitled, 2020' at the Portland Museum of Art.

The pandemic has taken a significant toll on arts venues and on creators. But some artists also recognize the positives that have come from the forced changes in their lives — in particular, three artists whose work appears in an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art’s current show, “Untitled, 2020: Art from Maine in a _____ Time.”

“With 2020 came a global pandemic that forced fight or flight. I came to Maine and temporarily moved into Grandma’s old mobile home,” says Eleanor Kipping in a video essay, walking in a red dress through the long grass of a bucolic field in northern Maine. On the left side of the split screen are a series of close-up shots of city architecture that unfurl into images of bodegas and black musicians.

“It was like she was still there, sleeping,” she says in the video.

Kipping fled New York right before the city was slammed into lockdown. She says the time at her family home in Maine has presented opportunities that might not have happened under different circumstances. She hustled for a coveted New York artist residency, changed jobs and placed additional work in arts venues as they’ve reopened.

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A still frame from a video essay by Eleanor Kipping, on display as part of 'Untitled, 2020'

“I don’t think I’d have been able to pursue some of them or sustain productivity if I’d been living in New York, working 50-plus hours a week between different jobs and locals and like moving around,” she says.

Working from home, Kipping says, has allowed her to push into unexplored ideas in her performance and video work, including real-time online streams of the artist napping as an exploration of the role of sleep in this historic cultural moment.

Sculptor Charles Schreiber has also found himself working with the theme of sleep during the pandemic. He built a collapsible wooden bed, without any hardware, at his son’s request.

“I just have felt a lot of joy and warmth and joy and appreciation when he came to me with that — so I spent my whole summer working this out,” he says.

Schreiber says he was happy to use that time for the project. As a sculptor and carpenter, he’s often supported other artists in executing their visions.

“It really opened up time for me to think about what I wanted to do and how I was going to push back without feeling able to go out into the world, however privately,” he says.

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A hardware-free, collapsible bed by Charles Schreiber on display as part of 'Untitled, 2020'

And in time, opportunity opened up for Schreiber as well. The bed design was also accepted into the show at the Portland Museum of Art.

As for Mainers in all walks of life, artists have had to adjust to being physically separated from each other, and from art itself.

“I’m not able to get really close to the work and experience it as a body in the same space as the work, and the same space as the artist,” says Julie Poitras Santos, an artist, curator and the director of exhibitions for the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art. She also has a piece on display at the PMA.

Poitras Santos says while studio visits have been put on hold, Zoom and video conferences have actually created a new sense of intimacy among artists and curators.

“We really have these urgent and compelling conversations about art and visual culture and our role in the world now,” she says.

And, Poitras Santos says, that connection can increase the stakes for what art can bring to a society in a time of great change.

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Artist Julie Poitras Santos organizes artist led walks based in part on prompts intended to provoke participants to more actively consider their ecological and material impact on the environment.

“I think sometimes the most potent works are really quiet and allow us a space to envision another potential world. I think the space of imagination has become crucial as we move forward culturally,” she says.

Each of these artists say that being able to work during the pandemic has provided both a coping mechanism and a means of expression.

“Untitled, 2020: Art from Maine in a _____ Time” runs through May 31.

For more stories in Deep Dive: Coronavirus, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.