A Year of Creative Escape
June 7, 2021
“You’ll make art every week for the next year,” said nobody to me in May 2020. I didn’t say it to myself, either. I didn’t seek pandemic productivity or look to have something to show come the after-times. We were in the teeth of COVID-19. People were afraid, sick, angry, out of work, hungry, dying, grieving, and isolated. Our ordinary was upside-down. An idea sparked in me for a structured project, one that would help me and my loved ones do something different during the restrictive days, stay in touch, and briefly escape the pandemic and politics. Structure is everything for me – a time frame, a deadline, guidance, and parameters enable me to actually get a thing done.
So I created FACE, the Family Art & Creativity Exchange. Each week, I emailed a theme to my extended family across the United States, inviting them to create something on the theme and email it back to all of us. Photography, poetry, painting, cooking, gardening – all were welcome.
My ideas for themes filled a long list and kept coming as the weeks went by. Our first theme was Arise. I made a small collage showing a plant growing up a dark wall to reach a sun-lit opening. Getting away from my computer, my word work as an editor and writer, and the state of the world while using physical materials to make something visual was incredibly therapeutic. I limited myself to supplies on hand – magazines and motley art materials from across the years. Colored pencils, watercolor tablets in a metal box from my childhood, blank cardstock pages from that time I did some scrapbooking, nifty little scissors I found in a parking lot, and glue sticks from my son’s school days all appeared. A hot glue gun, old decks of cards too sticky for shuffling, black construction paper from some long-ago project, scraps of gift wrap, and out-of-date reference books answered the call.
The second week’s theme was Boundary, and the third, as the United States reached 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, was Memorial. (As of June 1, 2021, we’re closing in on 600,000 deaths.)
It quickly became clear that making something every week is not for everyone, no matter how enthusiastic they might feel initially. But I was hooked and decided to spread the joy in a second group, inviting a wide range of friends I thought might be interested. A few responded, and the PEACE group (People Exchanging Art & Creative Expression) began with the theme Nourish. In October 2020, when we’d already been doing this a lot longer that I’d imagined, I started sharing my pieces on Facebook. This was scary – who was I, a person with no training, to show my work as art? The positive feedback was heady but presented a new challenge: keeping my mind on doing the work, rather than how people would react to it.
Encountering other group members’ responses to the themes was fascinating. As we came to the end of each week, I was excited to receive the emails – What poem would Mary have written? What would Kim paint? On what new adventure would Lisa’s words take us? What photo would Kevin share? Would Gale offer a Haiku, and would Liza give us another glimpse into doing college from home?
A core group participated almost every week, and several told me that having this regular touchstone helped them cope with the emotional challenges of the pandemic. Although the project was specifically not about judging each other’s work, I saw real development by all of our regulars, including myself. My ideas got deeper and my execution got better. And as that happened, I also had to remind myself that the finished product wasn’t really the point. What was I going to do with all of these pieces, anyway? The point was the doing – thinking and creating. View all of my artwork from the past year.
Each week’s project followed a pattern. On Saturday, I’d sit with my list of themes, choose one for the week, and email it to the two groups. I’d consider where we were in the year, what was going on in the world, and what other themes we’d recently done. I tried to change it up between the abstract and the specific – Found Outside, Opposite, Chance, Storm. I picked Thanks around Thanksgiving, Anticipate around Christmas, and Courage around the 2020 presidential election.
Then I’d spend a few days letting the concept percolate. Having a focal point that was not the news of the day was a tremendous mental and emotional break. Ideas often came together on my morning dog walks. On Wednesday and Thursday evenings, I’d work on my art piece, then take a photo of it on Friday morning, email it to my groups, and post it on Facebook. I was unsatisfied at some level with virtually everything I made, but when the week was up, the work was done. Closure and limitation can be valuable tools. I was always excited to share my work, even when I didn’t love it, and getting responses from others was a thrill.
The project surprised me in many ways.
- Not everyone wants to make something every week. Not everyone has confidence in creating or ideas in response to a theme. But some do, and it’s kind of amazing.
- This project kept going for a whole a year. I hadn’t thought about an end point, keeping my mind on the present because the future was too unpredictable.
- What started as an activity became a practice, a very important part of my week.
- When you do something regularly, you get better at it (obvious, I know, but still unexpected).
- My pieces that I liked least were often the most well received by others.
I’m grateful to all who participated in the FACE and PEACE groups, and to friends online who were so supportive. This connection and regular commitment to making and sharing art has been a source of joy and sustenance. As of June 2021, we’ve moved to a monthly rather than weekly schedule, but the ideas keep simmering and the practice continues.