Painting the Pandemic

Painting inspired by Covid19 Pandemic Lockdown

“I’m serious. I would love to have you make a painting or drawing inspired by current COVID-19 family life…”

14 May 2020 – Day 70 of our family’s Covid19 Lockdown in Belgium I wrote on Facebook:

“Out of curiosity, I timed and averaged across the interruptions yesterday. On average, during the moments when I explicitly told her I would be doing something other than engaging with her (e.g. working/cooking/going to the bathroom) my nearly 4 year old interrupted me every 15 seconds. For those of you who don’t understand what it’s like to be in lockdown in an apartment with no garden, with no childcare support, with a young child, imagine your thought process being interrupted on average every 15 seconds between 6.30 am and 8pm every day for 70 days. It’s INTENSE, people.”

Many, many people messaged me publicly and privately with solidarity but one message was bit different.

Mark Carlson wrote:

“Tamar, can you paint this feeling on canvas?”


“I think the interruptions would be part of the art. Or maybe the interruptions are the art. Can I commission a painting about this from you?”

“If you don’t mind the painting taking 900 years to complete [smiley face emoji].”

“Sounds like you already have a working title for the work [winky face emoji].”

“Haha! SOLD to the patient man in the front row.”

Then he sends me a private message:

“I’m serious. I would love to have you make a painting or drawing inspired by current Covid 19 family life. No rush and no expectations on my part. I think your talents are pretty cool.”

“Oh my goodness! I thought you were joking. I’d be delighted to do this project. Thank you. Will have to brainstorm how to depict all the big feelings. Thank you!”

“I really like your work and would love a way to remember this experience in life… I would like to hang something on the wall. You have the liberty to choose what it is. Thanks!”

“This is an amazing opportunity to be creative. I’m excited and inspired to do something that relates specifically to this era. I’ve started brainstorming ideas.”

“Please choose the size and materials that fit your inspiration. I will worry about finding a place to hang it. 🙂 This moment in time is so rich in emotions. I am happy to are inspired.”

“Thank you so much for this opportunity, and for your faith in my abilities.”

21 May 2020:

At first glance this illustrated painting could be mistaken for a landscape, or a city park view. In fact, the subject is more precise. The neighbours. The pandemic allowed us to meet the neighbors. Can you see them on the balcony? People we’ve never spoken to before, cheering with us every night for the medical workers during the corona virus global pandemic, then shouting <<À demain!>> “See you tomorrow!”

I titled the painting <<À Demain!>>

As I was painting on our little balcony, cautious of the way the sun moved around the buildings and whipped the shadows out and around the other balconies I thought about how this art collector allows me to stay true to my creative inspiration, and yet is telling his own story about what he wants to see in a work. He trusts me to execute it well, he knows my interpretation might be akin to his own, as he’s known me for a few years and has a pretty strong grasp on my values through observation. At core he’s telling me all that matters to him is the creative documentation of a never before experienced, now globally shared event. I guess you could then conclude that we have collaborated on this project, through years of knowing each other as neighbours, this mutual knowledge, the trust, the creative skill set and the creative commission… yes, a unique collaboration befitting a public display of gratitude, as in the painting.

With Mark’s encouragement, I painted from our balcony, immortalizing a unique moment we shared: Every night my husband and child and I join the neighbours in a public display of unifying gratitude. See what looks like a trumpet in the turret? Someone in the turret next to them plays what I think is a trumpet, or maybe a French horn. He was always just inside the window, so the external image is from my imagination. He’s only learning and it certainly doesn’t sound perfect, but it brings tears to my eyes to hear that almost-salute. It’s the intention that counts. This painting is really about something unique to our experience of the pandemic; a public practice of gratitude, every night in our neighborhood.

The first time it happened I was holding my child in one arm, waving with the other, my husband shouting <<À demain!>> and I knew I’d never forget how unique that moment was, shared with intimacy with unknown neighbours made known by our shared experience.

I invited Mark to come see the work unfold as I painted it, standing beneath our balcony. I painted en plein air, attempting with all my might to get it all in one go, to commemorate the theme of a singular moment in time. This watercolour and mixed media painting is not as belabored as acrylic works because Mark asked me to include family life in the theme. There is no way I could have gotten through so many layers of colour and mixed media if I had even attempted oil paints. So, it’s the urgency in completion that brings the dynamism of the watercolour and mixed media to this canvas. I hope the unrestricted movement of the oil pastels, for example, can be seen by the viewer to bring a sense of immediacy to the image.

“No restrictions, whatever you want, just documenting this time.”

I was a little frightened that whatever may be my vision may not suit Mark’s aesthetic taste, but more than that, I felt deeply, truly honoured by the trust he put in me and incredibly impressed. For this is how this person, this art collector, demonstrates his creativity: with a truly original brief that pinpoints an era in time.

We spoke on the phone before I delivered it by hand.  

Mark said, “Throughout history artists painted historical moments, I am yet to
see art based on this historical event.”

I realized more than just creativity, there is a journalistic element here. As a professional video journalist, he’s expressing and exploring his own high level career through another high level medium; documenting historical events through this creative art commission.

The finished piece is the largest watercolour I’ve ever done. 

A couple of details about the work: I have been primarily a portrait painter for many years, and portraits are about a likeness, capturing the essence of a person no matter the angle. In contrast, whenever I create a landscape I work hard to make it at an angle that is always accessible. The audience is invited to step inside. My landscapes create another room, an extension in your home. You look through your wall to another world that welcomes you.

We are the viewers, from our balcony. I do not comment on the tight quarters of our apartment. Or the length of time we’ve been indoors. I don’t comment on the very few vehicles left on this busy street. Or the empty sky that normally buzzes with airplanes from Brussels airport and helicopters covering EU summits. This scene is quiet. To people who know this park, this neighbourhood, like Mark and his wife Anita, they could tell you that’s part of the era I’m capturing here: a quiet street that is not normally a quiet street at all is a statement in itself. It’s a subtle statement. It’s one for people in the know.

I know that they enjoy our neighbourhood park as much as we do and I hoped that by immortalizing the tree-lined avenue they commute through every day it would be a painting they could carry with them through life, taking the park and the light and life it brings wherever they go.

I hope it’s clear, even though this pandemic has instigated truly tragic deaths and insolvency, my current work is still trying to share a positive and bright approach. It’s not gloomy or apocalyptic or expressing the frustrating circumstances around these strange pandemic times. Instead I’m expressing the way we connected with our unknown neighbours every early spring evening with light, bright colours and a dynamic movement in the brush strokes as the wind passes through the deserted park trees.

There’s a slight sense of grief in the way I depict our neighbourhood park from a distance. It’s not available to us now, only expressed to those familiar with it’s form, those who might spot that I excluded the park gates, any opening to the inside of the park, in this particular image. You’re welcome to enter the painting but we were not welcome to play in our park during the pandemic. If reading between the lines, that’s the only slight sadness on the canvas. The park play was literally policed and so the inner park was not alive to us. Here we are on the periphery. The periphery of the park and leaning over our balconies to applaud with others at their periphery too. The split-second depicted here is joy, the joy of meeting people from where we live, connecting to where they live and greeting them evening after evening. Even though the trumpet may not be in tune, it was still stirring. This piece may not be illustrating the sensitivities of loss or pushing abstract boundaries as Shock Art, but the positivity I try to portray is actually deeply, stubbornly and even politically reactionary. I encouraged Mark and Anita, to frame it with something bright like goldenrod yellow. It’s the sunlight on the leaves and the joy in this landscape that is reactionary to the anxiety portrayed in the current newscape. It may be Mark’s job to tell us the current news in images, but it’s my job to help you sit with them for years to come.

8 June 2020:

“It’s everything we could have wished and more!” ~ Anita Holten Carlson

“Unbelievable. The level of detail is amazing. This painting really invites you to walk right into it.” ~ Mark Carlson

“Thank you Mark! It was a very exciting project.”

When Mark sent this image of the work in a temporary frame I was really shocked how much more detailed it looks from a distance. While painting on our tiny little balcony I forgot to step into the house, to stand back from it while I was painting, to see how much detail carried up from ground level to the audience at a distance. I hope it does the same for the viewer, carrying vibrant details up to the viewer remembering this unique era at a safe distance in the future.

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