The Warm Kindness of Community
How Artists Connecting During the Darkest Days of the Pandemic Led to a Book and Art Exhibit
“Hi Guys -
How’s everyone handling the lockdown? I was thinking about hosting a chat on Zoom, let me know if you’re interested. Nothing formal, just a little something to break up the day. Let me know some times that you’re available, too — I’m actually working from home so nights are best for me.
On March 31, 2020, the above message came like a small streak of sunlight into the email inboxes of a scattering of artists, from our friend, artist Mike Sorgatz.
Just days earlier, on March 22, 2020, at 8 p.m., New York City had entered said lockdown due to an order from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, that was a shelter-in-place mandate calling on all non-essential businesses to close and all gatherings of any kind to be canceled.
That March had started out innocuously enough, with New Yorkers aware of the Covid-19 virus, but lacking a precise prediction of the oncoming juggernaut of the historic deadly pandemic. On March 3, one case was recorded in New York State, in New Rochelle. By March 31, when we received the email from Mike, cases had escalated to more than 30,000, with the most harrowing days for New York City still to come in April.
Posterity may become aware of what happened next, in the form of official histories. More ephemeral are the individual stories and experiences. For our little bunch of Brooklyn artists, those singular tales include tremendous challenges because of the specter of the pandemic. A few of us became ill with Covid-19 or other illnesses. Some lost people they knew to the virus. Others found themselves abruptly dislocated or totally isolated, losing art studios and work, or facing a multitude of other concerns. In spite of these challenges, the resilience artists in New York City tend to develop allowed our group to carry on.
Our Wednesday night Zoom meetings grew into a larger group. More artist friends, mostly from our studio spaces at TI Art Studios located in the Treasure Island Storage building in Red Hook, Brooklyn, joined in. No matter how terrifying things became, there was reassurance in the weekly meeting that blossomed into deeper friendships and community. The familiar radiant faces, glowing from our gridded screens, heartened the most white-knuckled among us as dread came knocking.
As artists, most in our group were prepared to handle the pandemic’s enforced solitude, for we had all spent many solitary days working in our studios, and in fact often savored the isolation needed to work in a focused way. However, solitude is not the same as loneliness by any measure. As the lockdown grew into weeks, then months, and then a year, the enforcement of solitude, though life-preserving, wrought deep sighs of loneliness, seeping into the cracks of long hours. But — we weren’t alone!
A wide array of conversational topics took place each week. For those of us who had been thrust into absolute isolation, to be asked “How are you?” and “How was your week?” became a lifeline.
The shock of the pandemic experience affected everyone’s artistic practice.
“Are you able to make artwork?”
“I can’t! I’m still sitting in my pajamas, with my jaw dropped, in front of my television” gradually eased into the likes of “I was able to make a small watercolor this week” and “My artwork will be in an online exhibition this month.”
Humor and celebrations through the long year lifted our spirits.
“Have you seen the Comfy?” (This is a hilarious oversized and extra warm hoodie sweatshirt that a few of us purchased online.)
We shared our favorite books, movies, shows, and anecdotes. We revealed our deepest fears and most mundane anxieties, from “I’m so scared I’ll get Covid if I so much as open my apartment door” to “Are you still washing your groceries with bleach when they’re delivered?”
We lamented injustices in society, sometimes to the sound of protests outside our windows. We energetically discussed the 2020 presidential race, subsequent election result denial, and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
We learned more about each other. Mike Sorgatz wore a bowtie to our winter holiday party, acting as our cheerful host and Zoom leader each week, never canceling a meeting even if he had had a long workday. Linda Tharp and Vincent Tsao shared the soul-lifting Maine landscape where they had travelled, along with fascinating stories, such as their origin story of meeting at ballroom dancing at the 92nd Street Y. Ward Yoshimoto and his son Red described their summertime adventures together, including fishing, from Bearsville, New York. Marsha Clark revealed she had been an Alvin Ailey dancer. Syma introduced us to paper clay, and told a story I’ll never forget, about her house fire. Brian Kenny brought his wonderful, thoughtful encyclopedic knowledge of art to our conversations. Spencer Merolla regaled us with new discoveries, and made us laugh out loud weekly. Jon Bunge helped us remember to always keep others in our hearts. Julia Whitney Barnes inspired us with her work ethic and spirit of persistence. Katherine Forst showed us her progress on a large mosaic — we were all thrilled to see the finished results! I told the group about my beloved cat Katie Frances’ illness and death. Janice McDonnell’s kindness and wit warmed us all. Katerina Lanfranco guided us with her career expertise and leadership. Spring Hofeldt emerged from “Planet Homeschool” and “Kid Craftstravaganza” for mature company and creative conversation. Traci Talasco enlivened our group with her bright positivity and friendliness. Katherine Keltner contributed her thoughtful and deep intellect. Elise Putnam enchanted us with anecdotes of her life’s adventures and the compelling people she has known. We even found out that Elise’s father is a magician!
Those of us who are parents discussed the particular challenges facing our children, while those of us who aren’t relished seeing young faces jump into the Zoom. In our weekly conversations, art was the topic the group found most fascinating, from creative practices and materials, to ideas, artists, exhibitions, and stories.
Some of us could join the virtual conversation every week. Others popped in once in a blue moon. We encouraged each other. By the following March, in 2021, we cheered each time one of us received the Covid-19 vaccine.
As I write this, it is spring again, and one year after the worst days of the Covid-19 tragedy. Leaves and flowers are emerging in Brooklyn. Right now I hear someone blasting lively dance music on the street.
During the darkest days of the past year, the fellowship our group built became a beacon of hope. Inspired by our camaraderie, in late summer of 2020 we began casually discussing making a book to share artwork loosely relating to themes of community and connection. Ward Yoshimoto expertly photographed much of the artwork for the book. Mike Sorgatz patiently and thoughtfully designed the book, accommodating everyone’s requests and changes. This book expanded into a corresponding exhibit, with Janice McDonnell generously taking the initiative in early December of 2020 to apply for and organize a June, 2021 exhibition at Sweet Lorraine Gallery.
This collection of widely diverse artworks from a group of artists thrust together in harrowing circumstances reflects a triumph of the human spirit and the tenacity of artists. This book is a testament and tribute to resilience, fueled by creativity, humanity, and the warm kindness of community.
— Elizabeth Meggs, April 2021
This essay is the introduction to the book “202021,” by 18 artists. A corresponding exhibition of artwork, also titled “202021,” will be on display from June 5–30, 2021, at Sweet Lorraine Gallery at TI Art Studios, 183 Lorraine Street, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York. A virtual artist talk will be held Tuesday, June 15, 2021, from 6–7:30 pm. Please email tiartstudios@gmail to schedule your visit, or for more information.