Comps (and Life) in the Time of Corona

We’re living in strange times these days. I’m far from the first person to make that observation, but with my overall anxiety levels higher than usual, it’s important for me (and all of us, really) to acknowledge the extent that Covid-19 is impacting my daily life. Today then, I’m going to talk about how I’ve been feeling about this, and what I’ve been doing to stay focused.

When it comes to my day-to-day activities, my life hasn’t changed all that much, and I’m in a comfortable situation both financially and emotionally. Before the pandemic, my days this semester consisted of reading and working at home, so my schedule has remained the same, albeit with more self-awareness when it comes to social distancing. I finished my coursework last semester, so I haven’t had any seminars to attend. I also haven’t had to be on campus to teach, since teaching assistantships for American Studies students at William and Mary last for one rather than two semesters. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that right now, though I feel deeply sympathetic to the students and faculty who do have to teach right now.

What has changed is the anxiety I feel now. I’m not the first to notice it, but there’s a collective unease in the air these days, one that only gets compounded by the regular updates I get through William and Mary and various news outlets. I’ve had to cut back on social media because everything is about Covid-19 now. I’m also doing my damndest to ignore my IRA and other investment accounts, because believe me, they’re suffering right now (and if you’re wondering how the hell a grad student has an IRA, I rolled over my retirement account from the City of Roswell, because they still do pensions there).

All of this makes it difficult to focus on my work, even though I’m in a good financial and social situation. I’ve been noticing it especially while reading. Scholars have a tendency to use language that frames their argument as critical to the future of humanity, or at least our understanding of it. I get why they do this, after all they’re trying to convince me that their argument is both important and right. And the truth is, their arguments are important, but I’m also living at a time when a lot of the economic and social infrastructures underpinning our society are in flux, not to mention the health of millions of people around the world, so my perspectives have shifted.

All that said, I still have comps to prepare for, and for the sake of my mental and physical health I can’t spend all my time worrying about the future, so here’s what I’ve been doing to look after my well-being:

  1. Recognize that the pandemic is real and act accordingly: I’m relatively young and in good health, but not everyone around me is, so for their sake, I need to practice social distancing and wash my hands.
  2. Acknowledge that my anxiety is valid: ignoring feelings doesn’t do you any favors. This is not normal, and it’s okay to admit your emotional equilibrium is off. I work through these feelings in different ways, such as talking with Brandon about them and writing blog posts like this one, but the important thing is that I’m recognizing them rather than bottling them up. For more resources, click here.
  3. Maintain my routine while recognizing that my work patterns may shift: we may be in a pandemic, but I still have exams in a few months, so I’ve been maintaining my reading schedule. I’ve also continued cleaning the house and getting regular exercise. At the same time, I give myself the emotional and physical space to rest when I need it. These are strange times, and constantly wondering about the future of the world has a way of draining your mental energy.
  4. Make time for enjoyable activities: In addition to making art, I’ve been baking and playing music more regularly. Recently I’ve found some YouTube videos that play the accompaniment for some of my favorite sonatas, so it feels like I’m playing in an ensemble again.
  5. Eat well: When I’m stressed, I lose my appetite. Fortunately, Brandon takes care of the cooking, so he’s been making sure that I continue to eat. And since I know he’s also under stress, I’ve been preparing special meals like homemade biscuits and gravy so that he feels cared for too.
  6. Check-in with friends: This one is tricky for me, because when I’m feeling anxious or down I tend to withdraw. It’s important to stay in touch though, so I’ve been reaching out to friends and family to set up phone dates, or texting for more immediate responses.
  7. Spend time with Brandon and the kitties: If I didn’t have Brandon in my life, I know I’d be in worse shape right now. And of course, we’re both glad to have the kitties.

So that’s how I’ve been coping. Who knows what it will look like next week, or in the near future. These are new conditions, but I’ll keep doing my best while giving myself the space to rest, reflect, and rework.

Rediscovering Oil Painting

I know everyone is worried about Covid-19 right now, and for good reason. These are uncharted waters, and with uncertainty comes anxiety. Today then, we’ll take a break from talking about reading lists and take a look at a painting I did in January, because art is important, especially at a time like this.

Okay, first a little backstory. Brandon and I went to Florida in December to spend the holidays with his family. We spent most of our time with his parents outside of Pensacola, but we also spent a couple of days at Universal Studios in Orlando.

During our visit, Brandon’s dad gave us a bottle of his homemade pepper oil.

When we got back to Williamsburg, I kept finding myself looking at the bottle. Between the rich color palette and the subtle play of light reflecting off the bottle, I knew I needed to paint it. Over the next few nights then, I drew some preparatory sketches of the pepper oil bottle in a variety of arrangements.

I ultimately decided on the third composition below, the one on the right. As much as I like the bottle filled with shells in the second sketch, I found myself more interested in the colors and textures of the other objects. Having settled on my composition, then, it was time to bring our my paints.

For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve done canvas paintings in acrylic paints. When you live in dorm rooms or small apartments with no studio space, quick-drying, easy-to-clean acrylic paints make more sense than slow-drying oils. I’ve also never been a big fan of turpentine, so for many years, I’ve regarded it as a medium that simply wasn’t for me and got accustomed to acrylic paint.

Until I ran out of paint, that is.

I used up most of my acrylics for my year-long art project. Normally I would have just gone out and bought some more, but I’ve been trying to be better about using materials I already have, as I had done with last year’s holiday card. So instead of just giving in to my usual painting habits, I decided to see if I had any other materials I could use.

That’s when I remembered that I’ve been carrying around a box of water-soluble oil paints for the last several years, a hand-me-down from Shelburne Museum’s education department. I’d used them a handful of times for monoprints and linocuts, but had never tried painting on canvas with them. A lot of them were still in good condition, so I decided to give them a try.

And goodness, was this a fun project! After spending so many years getting up close and personal with oil paintings as a curator, it was really fun to try out this medium for myself again. If this had been an acrylic painting, I probably would have taken about a week because I usually work in thin glazes, but I had so much fun with this that I finished it in three days. I found myself enjoying the robust, buttery texture so much that I launched right into piling the pigment onto the canvas with thick brushstrokes. I even pulled out a palette knife and worked with that, a tool I never felt comfortable using before. Throughout the experience, I found myself working with the kind of loose energy I usually use for drawing. Instead of worrying about erasing every brushstroke, I let my mark-making be more obvious, as I’ve found that as a curator I personally enjoy looking at works that revel in the materiality of paint (for an example, click here).

After three days, I had this painting:

It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but I enjoyed myself while working on it, and could definitely see myself using this medium again in the future. And who knows, with social distancing being a priority these days, that could happen sooner rather than later.

Mobility and Power

As a scholar interested in the movement of art, I’ve been especially enjoying the texts dealing with mobility on my reading list.

While I’m particularly interested in the movement of art objects, human-based travel networks also intrigue me, not least because of the travel people are willing to undertake in order to experience works of art first-hand. Among the readings I’ve been looking at that focus on human mobilities, the writings of John Urry have been especially interesting, not least because of his assertions regarding the social dimensions of voluntary movements. In works like Mobilities, Networks, Geographies, Urry argues that people often undertake travel not to necessarily experience new places, per se, as we often imagine with tourists, but to maintain social networks. While technologies such as screens or phones enable immediate contact via texting or Skyping, in-person visits remain a critical part of maintaining our social circles. As someone who largely undertakes travel nowadays to visit friends or family, this argument resonated with me.

Mobility is also a key part of working life, and more generally power. The ability or willingness to relocate to new places, or commute for a job, enables a level of power over one’s economic and social circumstances compared to people who are either less mobile or have their mobility circumscribed. To take the United States as an example, having access to a car is critical to professional success in most places, as that’s the primary way of getting around. Not only does it enable you to get to your job, but it also gives you the freedom to choose where you wish to live, as you are not bound to what you can accomplish within walking distance. Of course, this is turn unleashes numerous social and infrastructural problems, from increased traffic to, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, outright endangering people who do not own a car.

Thinking about these readings has encouraged me to evaluate my own professional career and life choices. When I was actively working in the museum field, I lived in no fewer than four states: Wyoming, Texas, Vermont, and New Mexico. From the completion of my M.A. in 2010, to my decision to attend William and Mary in 2018, I successfully maintained consistent employment in museums, and I know my willingness to relocate played a big part in that. As a result, whenever people have asked me about getting into the museum field, I’ve always emphasized the willingness to relocate as an important part of achieving professional success. In the museum world, the jobs don’t come to you, I’d always say.

The issue with this advice is that it assumes that everyone is equally willing or capable of moving to different places. I was able to relocate across the country multiple times because my parents could help me, both financially and physically. Indeed, the only move I ever completed without their help was to Williamsburg, and in that instance, I did it with Brandon. Without that financial network, it would have been a lot more difficult to accept these jobs, as moving would have likely put me deep into debt. Consequently, I would have likely turned down these opportunities, or not considered them at all, which would have likely detrimentally affected my career by limiting my potential job network.

Another reason why I’ve always been willing to move is that my family gives me the freedom to do so. My parents are in good health, so I don’t feel obligated to look after them. I don’t have any kids either, which has played a huge role in my mobility. I also moved several times before I began working, which made me more comfortable with relocation as a life event. If any of these circumstances were different, I’d likely be less willing to relocate to such different places, which could have potentially curtailed my career.

My privilege as a white woman has also made it easier to move to these different places. Whether I was in Wyoming or Vermont, I benefitted from a political, social, and economic system that favors white people. To put it bluntly, I felt free to move around the country because I didn’t have to worry about feeling unwelcome, or worse, being perceived as a potential threat. As a non-disabled person, moreover, I didn’t have to think about accessibility, or whether I’d have any difficulty getting around anywhere. That, in turn, made it all the easier to move around to different jobs, because I knew that I’d be treated well wherever I went.

So what does all of this mean? On a personal level, it means I’ll be more mindful of the advice I give in the future by not assuming that everyone has the same mobility access that I do. While I’ve always emphasized that every person’s museum career unfolds differently, I’ll point out from now on that I’ve been able to relocate multiple times because I had access to financial and social resources that made such moves feasible. Institutionally, museums should also stop assuming that all of their prospective employees have the same degree of mobility and the resources such movements demand, as it contributes to the field’s overwhelming whiteness.

It’s also important to think about how mobility affects museums themselves, particularly when it comes to the kinds of programs they can offer. Whether it’s paying for traveling exhibitions or advertising to encourage new visitors, mobility for museums is not cheap, and the institutions that have the most financial resources are likely to have more choices when it comes to what they choose to exhibit, and how. That, in turn, affects visitor experience, and the likelihood of attendance. When I was at Roswell, there was always pressure to mount new, original exhibitions, but that demands resources in money, time, and labor, resources that might be better applied to more reflective practices such as having meaningful dialogues within the community, or researching the collection to find out what you have, and whether it’s best returned to a home culture. Mobility may be a sign of activity in the museum, but it may not always be the most accurate representation of meaningful work.

Thinking About Art Shipping

A few weeks ago I was reading about the history of shipping containers and their influence on society. The book, appropriately enough, was titled The Container Principle, by Alexander Klose. His central argument is that the concept of containerization, of putting things into a standard-sized box designed explicitly for moving stuff to other places, has shaped globalization through enabling mobility, encouraging the standardization of forms, and the hyperconsumption underpinning late capitalism. He then explores the container’s significance through a series of chapters exploring its development, with the modern shipping container associated specifically with oceanic transport emerging during the 1960s.

A key part of containerization, Klose argues, is the emphasis on movement and transport as opposed to strictly storage. He posits that older forms of storage-based furniture, such as blanket chests, were tied to specific objects, and by extension a sense of rootedness to place and domesticity. To continue with the blanket chest example, storing blankets brings up associations with the bed, which is kept in the home, which is the site of procreation, and so on. Shipping containers, on the other hand, are designed for moving stuff to different places. Their design revolves around efficient, all-purpose storage, rather than be tailored to the specific objects they hold. It doesn’t matter what goes into them, whether it’s blankets or electronics. What counts is that they efficiently get these things from place to place. Their primary association isn’t with domesticity or sense of place, but rather their capability for transport.

I’ve been thinking about Klose’s concept of containerization within the framework of my previous experience as a curator. During my five years in Roswell, I spent a lot of time dealing with the movement of artwork. Sometimes I moved art myself, usually in the back of my car. Other times artists shipped their works themselves in a variety of packaging. Still other times we hired professional art shippers to move objects for us. What stands out from all of these experiences, however, is not simply the enhanced mobility of the art object as rendered through modern transportation forms, but an emphasis on their uniqueness, their materiality, as things.

The most vivid example of this occurred while working on the exhibition Magical and Real. For the show’s initial opening at the Michener Art Museum, we had about 20 of our works shipped to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, through a company called US Art. The day the art shippers arrived, we blocked off a gallery where they could wrap each of the works and place them in crates built specifically for the show. What struck me (and assuaged my anxieties about having the collection travel across the country) was the specificity surrounding the crates. Each box had been lined with thick foam passing cut to the exact framed dimensions of each work. In other words, each foam slot could only accommodate one specific work. No other painting would fit correctly. The process of transport may have been modern, but as a container, the art crate underscores rather than erases the object’s individuality.

We encountered that uniqueness again when the objects came back for the Roswell installation. This time, we not only had our own works, but all the other paintings from the Doylestown installation. Yet each crate and package, no matter which company manufactured them, underscored the individuality of the object through their construction. Those crates may have been designed expressly for movement, but they could only move one specific object.

That sense of the art object’s uniqueness is a quality underpinning art travel as a genre. Walter Benjamin speculated in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that photographic images of artwork would dispel their seeming aura of uniqueness, but the number of people willing to undertake substantial journeys to see works of art in person suggests that the power of the original has not entirely dissipated. Whether we’re visiting the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, or seeking unique immersive experiences such as Meow Wolf, art-related tourism is a big industry, to the point that scholar Adrian Franklin has recommended that we recognize it as a field distinct from tourist studies. Even at the Roswell Museum, we had visitors who came expressly to see singular works like our sole Georgia O’Keeffe, Ram’s Skull with Brown Leaves, or Peter Hurd’s The Gate and Beyond.

Peter Hurd, The Gate and Beyond, 1952, egg tempera on panel. I had at least one visitor call me asking whether this painting would be on view when they visited.

Then there’s the travel that works of art undertake to reach new audiences, suggesting that the experience of viewing the original object in all its materiality is a more profound encounter than viewing a reproduction. To take a recent example, the Obama portraits at the Smithsonian American Art Museum are ubiquitous on the Internet, yet they’re still about to go on a national tour to various museums so that audiences unable or unwilling to travel to DC can see them in person. Even in an age defined by digital images, we continue to valorize the material power of the original work of art as a sensory experience.

I speculated on the aura of art objects in my mobility class last semester. For my final project, I argued that the uniqueness attributed to art objects stemmed in part from a sense of rootedness as articulated by anthropologist Liisa Malkki, or a connection to a specific place, culture, or conceptual idea. This rootedness, I argued, offers viewers a sense of stability and connection. By looking at the original art object, they get to experience that rootedness directly, without the intermediary of a photograph or digital image. Its physical presence, in other words, suggests a more tactile, authentic link to a sense of tradition or place, verifying our own experience of the world through the medium of our bodies.

But why does any of this matter? What difference does it make whether we understand the motivations behind why art objects travel, or why we undertake journeys to see them? Who cares how a crate is molded to a painting’s dimensions beyond knowing that it minimizes vibrations?

On an ecological level, it is important. As art museums and similar institutions grapple with climate change through their exhibitions and sustainability practices, they’ll have to confront the various ways they contribute to carbon emissions. Exhibitions, especially traveling ones, produce a significant amount of waste stemming from their ephemerality as experiences. Just as a shipping crate for a painting is fitted to one work’s exact dimensions, exhibition texts are catered to one specific show. Once that show comes down, those labels, vinyl letters, and panels get discarded. Crates generally can’t be used for other paintings unless their modified, a process that requires adding or throwing away foam and other materials. Then there’s the problem of transporting artwork and emissions resulting from transport in trucks or places. And the list goes on.

Russell W. Belk grapples with the role of museums in promoting consumption in his book Collecting in a Consumer Society. By celebrating the materiality of individual objects and placing primacy in things as the most effective means of preserving a culture, he argues that museums have promoted collecting and consumerism. In displaying material objects, particularly those of the rich, as things to be celebrated, museums demonstrate by example that it is inherently good to possess things. But what happens when the collectors who cherished these things die, or are no longer able to maintain their objects? What happens when children or other relatives are not interested in their parent’s collections? What about all the stuff that gets thrown away during purge cleanings? Where does it go? As these questions suggest, the unfortunate part of identifying yourself through your objects, of projecting your uniqueness into your things, is that no one else may care for them in the same way, because they do not see themselves in them. One person’s treasure is another’s trash.

So what does all of this have to do with containerization? As an art historian interested in how travel infrastructures influence art accessibility, I’m intrigued by how modern transport forms and materials have shaped how and where we move art. While some concepts such as transport via highway are distinctly modern, other concepts like the uniqueness dimensions of crates seem strangely resistant to standardization, even as the crates themselves follow certain procedures in terms of dimensions and building quality. In short, modern art transport, as far as I can tell, continues to affirm the uniqueness of the art object even as the art image becomes increasingly ubiquitous through digital means. Whether or not that’s the best model for our planet, however, is a question we’ll have to confront. Indeed, it may be time we reevaluated what it is we value about art in the first place.