Nearing the height of the pandemic, around the 5 o’clock shift change, the windows were thrown open as medical staff and hospital workers were serenaded by a weary, scared and saddened public with song, bells and the banging of pots and pans. The world continued to endure COVID-19, and New York City wasn’t the only place offering up this supplication.
As communities large and small, rural and urban sheltered in place, closing the doors to the daily cadence of all that felt certain and predicable, so emerged grace in the midst of grief.
“I think about that expression of song in New York City that reminded us that we are still human and that’s something that can bring us back together,” Kathryn Mapes Turner said. “What we found was the world needed art. So we pivoted right away — because this is not a time to shrink — and we answered a call to fill the world with art and to serve as a refuge,” said the master landscape artist and owner of Turner Fine Arts in Jackson.
Turner put out a worldwide call from the Tetons.
“We asked artists to paint flowers,” Turner said. “What I realized when we were all shut down was that painters could still paint and flowers were still blooming.”
The “Pandemic Art Show” sold out — online, of course — and this June Turner hosted an encore show “When Flowers Bloom … So Does Hope,” featuring petals and paint.
“It was exactly what people needed, and the feedback I got from the artists was that it was helpful and healing,” said Turner of painting through the pandemic. “It brought them back to a sense of groundedness in light of all the awfulness on the news.”
Visitors flocked to the Tetons last summer to find solace in the natural world, but, just like everywhere else, Teton County, Wyoming and the town of Jackson continued to see growing COVID-19 cases and even deaths from the novel virus. The county’s public health department emerged as a state leader, out front with mask mandates and offering the kind of sobering guidance needed in a time of uncertainty and contagious political polarization.
Jackson has one of the highest concentrations of artists and art galleries in the state and local artists were not impervious to the chaos of the pandemic. Just like us, many worried about their physical and financial health.
“Art shows ended and that ended a lot of income for me,” said Fred Kingwill of Fred Kingwill Watercolors about the pandemic shutdown on the cusp of tourist season last summer.
“I didn’t have much of a bill for supplies. It was not a choice we had,” Kingwill said of the economics of the art world. “But so much of the arts are not tied to economics. A lot of us don’t produce art to make money, we feel it, we have things to say.”
The dawning of the age of Zoom and online instruction proved to be a major shift for many artists including master landscape painter Scott Christensen (see page C6 for story), who produced a 115-volume tutorial index for aspiring painters. Turner herself found online teaching exciting, hosting classes with 90 students, all of whom could see her demonstrations at the same time. Kingwill, on the other hand, found time he lacked pre-pandemic to attend conferences and courses he had daydreamed about.
Jackson wildlife artist David Berry found that people who were forced live with bare walls in their homes while they waited for a vaccine to send them back to the office wanted art and they wanted it now.
“So many people were working from home and having to stare at their walls that some of them said, ‘Let’s get some artwork,’” Berry said. “I have had several people contact me about my work who said that.”
Berry acknowledged that Jackson can feel like a protected island against the norms of the nation.
“Being in this area is an advantage,” Berry said. “Western art is unique and this is a top tier place for big galleries. But if you are producing a good product, no matter what is happening in the world, it will attract clients. It always starts with a good product.”
Other artists, such as Emily Boespflug, found her pivot a little differently through the pandemic.
“I did a lot more commissions,” she said. “I was doing a lot of small stuff and work for friends. I also did ‘grieving commissions’ for widows and people who their lost pets during the pandemic. People were connecting to art in a different ways and finding peace in it.”
Boespflug, who also gave birth during the pandemic, is working on her first big show, scheduled to hang at the Center for the Arts in the summer of 2022.
Perhaps above all, with the light shining at the end of a long tunnel, the additional time to simply practice may have been everyone’s saving grace.
“I was able to fill my cup up because of my new schedule,” Turner said. “Getting back to the practice of making art has been really helpful, to be reminded that it’s not about the product all of the time, but about the practice and falling in love with the practice of painting. To be able to keep creating — how life giving.” ￼
“A lot of us don’t produce art to make money. We feel it. We have things to say.” — Fred Kingwill painter