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In early 2022, I headed to Skylight Books, my favorite Los Angeles bookstore, in search of a novel that might help me demarcate the passage of time. The two-year anniversary of Covid loomed and my crumbling personal life was now competing with global events in terms of daily pain and dread levels registering in my body. I picked up Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance, remembering that it had been a major debut release but having no recollection of the synopsis. I proceeded to inhale it, incredulous at its prescience.
The book is a satirical, dystopic story, set in the mid to late 2000s, that follows Candace Chen, a 20-something woman and one of the few survivors of Shen Fever, a fictional fungal disease originating in China (Chen’s childhood home country and a place she often traveled to in adulthood for her publishing job) that kills or zombifies most of the world’s population. Chen, who works dispassionately in the publication of Bibles and is ambivalent about her annoying white boyfriend, is disaffected long before Shen Fever arrives in New York City, where she lives and works. As the city empties and deteriorates around her, she continues to show up to work, eventually moving into her towering Manhattan office building to wait out the end of the world.
Ma’s acclaimed novel hits differently two years into our real-life pandemic, but a passage in it made me spontaneously weep. Chen, Ma’s protagonist, eyes an empty Times Square, vegetation springing up in the absence of tourist hordes, and spots a permanently off-duty carriage horse walking along. In disbelief, she snaps a picture on her phone and wonders how and with whom to share it. Everyone, it seems, is gone. She decides in that moment to resume her photography practice and (this being the aughts) resurrect her old blog, NY Ghost. Chen tasks herself with photographing an emptied, apocalyptic New York in hopes of making her experiences real for herself—her observations reflected back at her—and with a desire to connect to someone else, somewhere.
Enter: my tears.
For a dozen years now, my professional life has centered around counseling artists, supporting them as they try to maintain a practice, build a career, balance their life, and grapple with internal and external obstacles—all while financially navigating an impossible economic system that doesn’t value artists or acknowledge artmaking as labor. The nature of my work, which is rooted in my background in Counseling Psychology, bent drastically in March 2020; career consultations for artists transformed into full-blown crisis counseling.
The foundational belief of my professional relationship with artists is that they must make their creative work to have a fully realized life; when artists stop making work, they quickly begin to feel terrible. I’ve seen this over and over for more than a decade. Step one in my job is to make sure my clients have their creative practice to turn and return to; first and foremost, an artist’s practice is an essential way in which they take care of themselves, process their lives and experiences, and connect to their deepest parts. If the artist wants their work to be publicly available for audiences, for it to bring in money and professional opportunity, I help them in that regard, but in my experience, it is the practice itself that is most central to their wellbeing.
Supporting artists in maintaining their practices throughout the pandemic has felt, by turns, like the noblest calling and the most absurd delusion. I know firsthand the political, financial, logistical, emotional, and physical conditions they have struggled to overcome, having experienced financial devastation, the loss of childcare, cultural chaos, state violence, and the death of loved ones. Illness, depression, crushing anxiety, fear, rage, helplessness, and judgment from themselves and others. Career opportunities evaporated or were postponed indefinitely. Projects and entire bodies of work were abandoned as artists lost their studios or lost steam or questioned their work’s relevance. Creative stagnation and existential despair ensued.
Some artists have recovered their practice and managed a career during the pandemic, even blasting off into wild, new success. Perhaps they were buoyed by sudden free time and solitude, the absence of physical and mental illness, unemployment checks, an ability to detach from news and community conditions, not having kids. A quick scroll of Instagram will show outward, edited success anytime. But so many others are grappling with interior and exterior hurdles that aren’t broadcast on social media and struggling to understand what life and artmaking can be now. Some have experienced both—their public success belying the pain at home or within.
I questioned myself and my work constantly: Was urging artists back to their practice during a global pandemic an ethical suggestion? Maybe I should tell them to take a break for a few months, even a year. But my instinct was always to nudge them back toward their work.
This instinct proved true with every case study. Practices changed, they halted and restarted. Some artists needed levity, to have a creative task unhooked from an outcome, something that could function as an emotional balm. Others learned that the time and energy they could make available for creative work had plummeted, so we worked to adjust their expectations of output and what is considered “enough” artmaking in a week. Many had irregular or no access to essential components of their practice—live audiences, privacy, equipment, residencies, dance space, an in-person community—and we looked for alternatives, austerity measures that could allow them to continue their work and regain a connection to the deepest part of themselves. Every client reported back to me that after they did something, anything, that put them inside of a creative practice, they felt more like themselves: less hopeless and more grounded. It didn’t matter yet whether the work would go out into the world, have an audience, leverage opportunity, or make money. For the moment, its effect on the artist was enough.
Each time an artist told me they tried something—writing for 15 minutes, playing their instrument, messing around with new materials, rewatching the piece they want to edit, moving their body—I felt relief, a growing peacefulness about the rightness of something within the chaos. I also needed these artists in my life to resume their practices because their turning and returning to creative work restored my hopefulness and my belief in a future better than the present. Every time an artist returned to their work despite or because of calamity, I felt the world become possible again.
It’s generous of artists to share their work with the public; there is great risk, enormous vulnerability, and often little reward. I am continually impressed when they are willing to do so, but also supportive of their decision not to. Throughout the pandemic, I have reminded artists that the work they make, should they decide to share it with the world, will have a crucial role in helping audiences move through, understand, and feel the full weight of the traumas they’ve experienced. Even as I write these words, I know how unfair this is: In an economy and culture that devalues living artists, that lauds their suffering, how dare I expect them to lead our collective healing?
Still, I rely heavily on art and artists for my own healing, and the last two years have only heightened my reliance. I have clocked hundreds of hours staring into the middle distance, listening to Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s piano solos on Éthiopiques, Vol. 21: Ethiopia Song. Searching for intimacy through a handful of radio DJs, I’ve approached the mirage of personal friendship with Sheila B., who hosts Sophisticated Boom Boom on WFMU, which I listen to religiously. In November 2021, on a grief-fueled trip through Mexico City with my best friend, the artist Chris Vargas, I wept my way through Museo Jumex and sobbed for a full hour outside La Casa Azul, the
Frida Kahlo Museum. I scream-sang to “This Woman’s Work” at the Kate Bush singalong that closed out a recent Weirdo Night, the regular event performance artist Jibz Cameron presides over as Dynasty Handbag—a kind of freak church for the masked and the desperate who would do anything to laugh and cry en masse.
Finding their way back to a practice is, I believe wholeheartedly, how artists find their way back to themselves, answering the Anthropocene’s unbearable question: How do we live? It’s the interior moment, the small but significant choice an artist makes to again encounter the creative self. This is where everything becomes possible. It is also their turns and returns to their creative work that guides me to answer the unbearable question for myself.
An artist must make their work. They don’t have to share it, but, as someone who engages with creative work regularly to process my own emotions, I hope that they choose to. The reflexive question then is what can we do to support the creative work that we so badly need? This prompt calls upon audiences; it implicates me and the many like me who can recover and transform through experiencing others’ creative work. For the rest of my life, art will help me process, grieve, understand, and heal from everything that’s happened since March 2020. I want my work to contribute to an interdependent arts ecosystem that isn’t simply extractive of artists, but reciprocal.
How can we—the public, the audiences, and the non-artists who are art-reliant—establish mutuality with the artists making the work we urgently need? Paying artists well for their labor would be a start. How can this go further, establishing a circle of mutual support between artists and audiences? If artists are valued for their work, for all of their risk-taking, vulnerability, and willingness to keep going despite all obstacles, how might that change their capacity to share their work with the public?
As I write this, a memory from 2011 keeps calling: I’m in a San Francisco club watching supergroup Wild Flag play a show. It’s two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney plus Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole. Midway through the set, Carrie Brownstein asks for someone—anyone—to get her a whiskey from the bar. No one responds; the club’s din ensues. She asks again and, once more, nothing. A few beats and drummer Janet Weiss admonishes the crowd, “Can someone please get Carrie Brownstein a whiskey? She’s given you a lot of musical moments over the years.” The fourth wall down, the crowd seemed bewildered that these musical giants needed something from us, the sweaty, tipsy audience. I stood there, also stunned, but awash in realization. Maybe buying my ticket wasn’t enough, maybe there was more I could do. I didn’t buy the whiskey but eventually, someone did. It was just a drink, but that moment awakened me to the reality that the artists I loved needed to know I loved them, that I valued their work, and that I would give something back to help them keep going. We needed more from each other.
For the artist reading this, I want to say simply that you must make your work for yourself. You are not required to share it but, if you do, it could have a transformative effect on someone. It will help us feel, grieve, recover, and transform. Remember that Candace Chen, in Ling Ma’s fictitious pandemic, resumed her creative work amid annihilation. I realize now that my tears in response to Chen’s decision to resurrect her photography blog were responding also to something meta: it was both the fictional Chen’s turn to her art and Ma’s choice to have her protagonist do so that affected me. Through her fictive protagonist, the author indicated that healing from wild grief was possible when artmaking was used as a vehicle to move through catastrophe.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 28.