How Minnesota artists are staying creative and beating the coronavirus blues

From connecting via Instagram Live to fine-tuning drawing skills, artists are being forced to get more creative.
On May 11, 2020
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By Alicia Eler Star Tribune
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From connecting via Instagram Live to fine-tuning drawing skills, artists are being forced to get more creative.

Before the stay-at-home order, some Minnesota artists had absolutely no free time. Now they’ve got all the time in the world.

Like others in self-isolation, artists are reacting to the new requirements imposed by quarantine. Whether it’s connecting via Instagram Live, collecting selfies or photos and turning them into portraits, or fine-tuning drawing skills, artists are being forced to get more creative.

While it’s more like solitary confinement than a restful residency in the wilderness, this moment still offers a chance for soul searching. We caught up with artists Moira Villiard, Bade Turgut, Eric William Carroll and Kristina Johnson to learn about beating the coronavirus isolation blues through art.


Kristina Johnson (Waiting Room Gallery membership link)

Artist Kristina Johnson

Artist Kristina Johnson asked her Instagram followers to provide selfies for her to base portraits on. So far she has completed 15 of the 55 portraits she has plans to do during quarantine.

The pandemic canceled the first show that Johnson organized as director/curator of the Waiting Room Gallery in St. Paul, so she turned back toward her own practice.

“I thought I would work on portraits,” said Johnson, who decided to stay with her parents during the pandemic. “I put out a call on Instagram, asking people to send selfies and pictures of pictures to draw, and since then it’s been go, go, go, work, work, work.”

She’s also working on reconfiguring Waiting Room as a digital space. “It’s more fulfilling than opening up my Google Docs and being like, ‘I have to cancel this.’ ”

Thus far, Johnson is drawing eight to 10 hours a day and has completed 15 of the 55 portraits she plans to do. Some are of friends, but one is from a random person who lives in Melbourne, Australia. Once the portraits are done, she posts them to Instagram @kristinamjohnson. Eventually she’ll put them on her website with information on how to purchase them.

“My mom made a funny comment about the portraits I have up on the wall,” she said. “She was like, ‘You have a little party started.’ ”

The project is experimental, allowing Johnson to take risks. Rather than being “bound by a lot of realism,” she’s playing with erasure marks, watercolor brush strokes, and blending drawing and painting techniques.

The current crisis makes her think of Austrian figurative painter Egon Schiele, who died in the 1918 flu epidemic. “A lot of his work came out of the pandemic era,” she said. “I really love his hand and how he put so much emotion into things. I consider myself a really emotional person and I want to put that into the work, too.”

Moira Villiard

“My lifestyle was too busy before,” said Villiard, who deals with chronic pain in her arms. “In order to cope with pain, I need to be out and about.”

When the quarantine hit, her social coping mechanism vanished. Now she’s turned inward. Known for her colorful portraiture, illustrations, murals and community organizing, the Duluth-based artist is working on various commissions, including a pet portrait, a poster for a digital powwow, and designs for a coloring book.

Villiard is also revisiting older artworks like “Pensativo” (“pensive” or “thoughtful” in Spanish), a trippy, mazelike line drawing. And she’s taking an online class in figure drawing from Domestika.org, reviewing courses in anatomy, and practicing artmaking on her iPad.

The nature of quarantine has brought up feelings of anxiety associated with growing up in geographic and social isolation (Villiard was raised on the Fond du Lac Reservation).

“Art was my way out of that. Art was where I got the income to support myself and exit that situation on my own. Art was where I made friends. And now I feel back in [that isolated] situation. … I am trying to channel the art as safely as I can.”

Bade Turgut

As the quarantine began, the Minneapolis artist remembered a collection of vintage photographs she’d picked up at a local thrift store. She’d intended to use them for an art project, but now she felt called to use them to connect with people offline.

“I put up a call on Instagram,” she said. “I had 20 stamps — I didn’t want to go to the post office — and all the photographs were perfectly postcard-sized.”

So she turned them into postcards, writing a personal note on each. To one friend, she mailed a photo of a kid playing in the dirt. On the back, she wrote: “This photo reminded me of videos of you dancing in your backyard! Keep ’em coming!”

These vintage photographs are all from the Midwest, circa 1950s and ’60s. Collecting them helped Turgut, who is originally from the Turkish city of Tarsus, better understand this region and ponder how family events are documented in the same way regardless of culture.

Much of Turgut’s art practice focuses on remembrance — both personal memory and collective memory. Photography is usually associated with both of these concepts, making it a useful medium for her.

The people who received the postcards are posting them back onto Instagram with thank-you notes. “Ironically, [they’re] still in the online world,” she said. “But I think it made people happy.”

Eric William Carroll

The Minneapolis-based artist wants to hug strangers, though of course given the current social-distancing measures, “I would never do that.” Instead, Carroll is connecting with people through “Studio Time,” an Instagram Live show that he hosts on random weeknights.

“Broadcasting on Instagram is a way to open my studio door — to have strangers and random people in — but without the pressure or anxiety of a studio visit,” he said.

He’s done more than 15 episodes. Sometimes he talks with another artist. Sometimes he leads a group drawing activity. He also offers free demos on topics like shipping art or how to coat glass plates with gelatin.

“It’s like if Bob Ross didn’t have any identifiable consistency in his practice,” he said. “Like, what if it were: ‘What is Bob Ross doing tonight?’ ”

The show is influenced by public TV shows that Carroll grew up watching.

“I kind of have a nostalgia for when you could go to that channel and not know what was happening,” he said. “Everything these days is so manicured and so properly curated. I wanted to have something messy — an hourlong show where if you edited it, you might have a minute or two of useful content.”

Thanks to “Studio Time,” he has a new appreciation for Instagram. The show also forces him to get out of the house (his studio is six blocks away).

“Even if only three people are watching, I feel obliged to go to the studio and put my artist hat on,” he said.

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