Documenting a Year-Long Crisis

Pictured Above: Steve Mumford’s “Before Midnight, Fed. Courthouse, Portland BLM, July 25, 2020.

Art is ever present in our world, even when that world is turned upside down. 

Last year, the Southampton Arts Center could have been forgiven if it decided to sit out the pandemic, along with many other arts institutions that were crippled by being given “non-essential” status. 

But building on its relationship with the New York Academy of Art, SAC instead dug in to the moment, producing “2020Vision,” an essential exhibition chronicling the year we all lived through in real time, through sketchbooks, spoken word, on the streets and on social media.

“2020 Vision,” which opened in July of 2020, has been extended through Jan. 3, 2021, so you still have a few days left to catch the electric energy of this show.

Several artists involved with the exhibit got together over Zoom in mid-November to share their thoughts in a session called “Documenting Crisis in Real Time,” the third and final discussion accompanying the show.

Clifford Owens’ “Loving Black Men in Public.”

Photographer and performance artist Clifford Owens led the discussion, opening with a concept outlined by philosopher Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Artist Steve Mumford, who had drawn in war zones for Harper’s magazine, took off across the United States this year, covering the early days of the coronavirus lockdown and the reaction to the murder of George Floyd in New York City and the ensuing intense protests outside a federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon. 

Mr Mumford sees his role as an observer as similar to that of a journalist, with a key distinction.

“Unlike a camera, a drawing is completely subjective,” he says. “You’re constantly making subconscious decisions that alter the narrative…. I’m there to absorb the emotional truths of the people I run across and sort of transcribe them onto paper.”

While he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t cover these events as an activist, what he ends up drawing is the strength or power exuded by his chosen subjects.

“If you’re somewhere and somebody is speaking from the heart, you can usually sense it,” he said. “If you are an empathetic person, you will listen to them and you will learn something from them.”

Paine the Poet

The words of Paine the Poet, who often shares his stories of his former incarceration and the need for systemic reform, grace the walls of the Vision 2020 exhibition.

He was in Washington, DC this summer during the protests, performing at a dialogue between law enforcement and the community of Barry Farms.

“In urban DC, Barry Farms is a legendary neighborhood, for the wrong reasons,” he said. “They were giving people instructions on what to do when you get confronted by the police, how to get pulled over and what to say.”

“Now we have to give people a course on something that should have never been an issue,” he said. “I mean, you’re dealing with people whose motto is to protect and serve. If you go to a restaurant, you never think ‘the server is going to kill me with this chair.’”

Pamela Sztybel, a landscape painter, was stuck in quarantine  throughout the early days of the pandemic and the protests, where she began a visual diary that developed a devoted Instagram following.

Each day, she pored over the headlines, looking for ways to incorporate them into her works — simple line drawings in a Moleskin notebook, date stamped, watercolored with a keen eye for color and a unique blend of the personal and the universal news of the day.

“It is public, but it’s quite personal. The subjects are personal for me,” she said. “With my art life, this, in an odd way, freed me up to draw almost like a child.”

“I was much more aware, on a daily basis, of things happening to people around the world,” she added. “I was home and had time to read much more than ever before.”

April 16th’s drawings from Pamela Sztybel’s news journal.

“We’re all quarantined. That’s our foundation. We can relate to that,” said Paine the Poet. “Art is a lot about perception. When we talk about the world, we have individual lenses, not just of quarantine but quarantine on top of poverty, on top of being discriminated against, of your community in turmoil, of unemployment.”

“I believe as artists, if this is the way that we communicate complex ideas, it is our responsibility to translate emotion to people,” he added.

“I get a lot of energy from seeing how people are reacting to events,” said Mr. Mumford. “I’m not such an emotional person, but when I see the energy going on in the street, I suddenly begin to have a more natural emotional response to it.”

“I think of the Twilight Zone episodes I used to watch, Mad Max or some dystopian future, and there’s always a scene in the movie where someone talks about the time before the crisis,” said Paine the Poet. “They were always the people who were documenting during the tragedy, but the movie takes place 100 years later. I feel like we’re in a time that’s going to change the way people after us live.”

“I kept finding things that had never happened before,” said Ms. Sztybel. “Stonehenge’s ceremony was broadcast over social media because people couldn’t gather there. So many things have changed in our lives, and we don’t know how many of them are permanent.”

These efforts to capture a moment in time rang out the clearest in the spontaneous eruption of protests across the country in the wake of the late May murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

“People needed to hear insight on that immediately,” said Paine the Poet. “In moments of stress, reflex overpowers contemplation and situations deceive, so hindsight doesn’t accurately express what you momentarily believe.”

“When you’re drawing in the moment and people are moving, you use gestural motions,” said Mr. Mumford, a reference to quickly drawn lines used to convey motion. “A lot of time, gesture exaggerates something emotionally and gives immediacy and power to a drawing that might not happen if you’re copying a photograph. That doesn’t necessarily make it a good drawing or an emotionally truthful drawing, but it often does. You can only get that when you’re absolutely there in that moment.

Even in their role as an observer, artists are still creating something new, and Mr. Owens asked the artists how they care for themselves while also bearing witness.

“I’m not me unless I’m creating,” said Paine the Poet. “If I’m not writing or conceptualizing, that’s when things are usually out of whack, when something comes between me and the process. I try to be an example. I’ve seen so many people give up on what they’re doing because they’re just trying to survive. I believe the ways we combat the distractions are inspiring to other people.”

Steve Mumford’s “Chris ‘Fade to Blade’ giving haircuts outside, Grand Street, LES-NYC 4/1020

“I like to feel useful,” said Mr. Mumford. “It’s not often, as an artist, that you get to feel useful. When I work on a drawing and post it on Instagram, I immediately feel I have a dialogue that is more intimate.”

“Artists all have to have something to do all the time or we become unbearable people to be around,” said Ms. Sztybel. “You’ve gotta make stuff, no matter what the conditions are.”

Though all the artists agreed that social media is a useful tool of this moment, they were quick to point out that good work still comes from finding your own emotional truth.

“I believe, in this time we live in, of instant gratification, you wanna post something online and you want an immediate response,” said Paine the Poet. “If that’s what you do what you do for, it’s never going to work. You have to find joy in what you do, and search for a thing that brings you joy to consistently do. I go to my art. I can always draw from that well, no matter what’s going on. Dwell in your well, go to your joy. This is where your happiness is, and you will be fine.”

“Don’t worry about the art world, and the trends that are going on,” said Mr. Mumford. “It’s the long game that you’re playing. When the romance of being a young artist wears off, what’s going to bring you back into the studio? It’s only going to work if it’s important to you and what you want to say.”

“Draw, draw, draw, and work with a good conscience,” said Ms. Sztybel.

“2020 Vision” will be on view at the Southampton Arts Center, 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton, through Jan. 3. Gallery hours are Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Masks and social distancing are required. For more information, call 631.283.0967.

—BY

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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