Creativity in the time of Covid-19

Artists weigh in on how isolation affects their work.


Some people are accustomed to working in isolation — visual artists, for instance. While many Islanders are looking for ways to fill their days, a number of local artists are finding the lockdown a great time to further explore their creativity.

Some, like Ed Schulman, have decided to challenge themselves a bit more. The Vineyard Haven artist has made it his mission to focus on small figure drawings. By his estimate, he completes up to 10 a day. “This is like I’m adjusting to the small circumstance of my apartment,” says Schulman, who has also found that, in isolation, he is populating his own community of sorts. “I’m creating friends in my drawings,” he says. “People who have lives. Each has a distinctive expression on their face or in their actions. It’s like filling an audience person by person.”

In his unique primitive style, Schulman has filled his home studio with hundreds of very evocative figures, mostly women, in theatrical-style costumes. The artist notes that he is currently less concerned with making each picture unique and more focused on honing his skills with the series. “All the production is concentrated,” he says. “I’ve found a style that I like and I’m not so concerned about expanding as an artist or worrying about being repetitious.”

Artist, photographer, and musician Paul Lazes has also been focusing on drawing. Beginning late last year he commenced a series of portraits of Island men. Previously Lazes undertook a series of near life-size photos of local women — a large selection of which are now hanging in the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. In the spirit of equality, Lazes has now turned his attention to the male population of the Vineyard, with a goal of completing 100 drawings.

“I wanted to do portrait paintings of people in my family,” he says. “I did a few, then I thought I really have to practice drawing.” As for how he picks his subjects, Lazes says, “If I bump into them and I think they’d be game, I take a photo.”

As with the series of women, Lazes decided that Vineyard men are a special breed. “I feel that the Vineyard has an uncanny amount of independent women who have their own careers or businesses,” he says. “I spent most of my life in Manhattan. It’s different there, where most everybody is on the corporate ladder. On the Vineyard, most have their own pursuits. The guys on the Vineyard are also different from the guys I knew in New York. They’re a much more friendly and supportive group.”

Writer and artist Kate Feiffer has always been a prolific doodler. Her whimsical cartoons, often featured in the MV Times, tend to comment on what’s going on on the Island or in the world in general. The current epoch has inspired her to put her creative talents to use to spread a message of tolerance or, in her words, “provide some humor in an otherwise humorless time.”

In one very timely drawing, Feiffer shows a squashed version of the Vineyard outline with the caption “Vineyarders work to flatten the curve.”

She has also used her art to add her voice to the controversy over second home owners coming to the Island ahead of their usual schedule. One of her recent doodles is accompanied by her written views on the current situation. The text starts out with the phrase “A plea to quiet the rage” and goes on to explain how our part-time neighbors are a big part of our community and are deserving of our compassion.

“What I see is this very ugly discourse that’s occurring here and in other places,” says Feiffer. “The situation is, of course, serious, but there are ways to discuss it that are more helpful than the anger that seems to have erupted.”

Another recent cartoon addresses her own current state of mind. A woman holds the broken string detached from a kite that is flying away. The kite is labeled “Focus.” “Focus has been elusive,” she says. “Drawing and cartoons are just something I’m able to do when I have very little focus. Usually novels are my escape but now I can’t seem to get out of my own head.”

Popular Vineyard painter Cindy Kane seconds that opinion, saying, “It’s a very stressful time. I think that for my writer friends it’s all just too distracting. I can’t read a book right now but painting feels like a meditation to me.”

Although she hasn’t made an effort to address the world situation in her work, Kane has discovered that her current mood seems to be reflected in her paintings. Her latest series features a lot of feather and bird imagery. “Black semi-bird silhouettes attached to butterfly wings seem to be part of the language I’m using for my visual vocabulary right now,” she says, adding “For some reason yellow is calling to me.”

The painting “Grow” features Kane’s signature use of repetitive images. In this case, a series of red scale-like figures create a sort of tree trunk from which a vibrant cluster of yellow feathers appears to be blooming. Birds, butterfly wings, and shells can be found hidden throughout. The painting is positive in nature and, perhaps, reflects an optimistic vision of the changes the current crisis may engender.

“‘Grow’ feels so uplifting to me,” says the artist. “There’s this energy coming from this yellow bursting life force. It seems like a transformative moment in time.”

As with all of the artists interviewed for this story, Kane has found that isolation is something that she is not only accustomed to, but welcomes in a way. “I’ve been working nonstop,” she says. “It’s actually been a very productive time. I think for many visual artists who don’t have to consider the written word in our work, it’s been a time to develop a deeper intimacy with our process.”

“Painting and gardening are the things that calm me,” she adds. “The problems that I face in painting are problems that I can solve. The problems in the world seem insurmountable right now. So I spend a lot more time working things out on canvas.”