Kim Paton, director of Auckland gallery Objectspace, contrasts the creativity of artists online in lockdown with the “stunning awful blow” dealt at the same time to the cultural sector.
In the panic of the lockdown announcement, I bought a sewing machine. I’ve always sewed. In my late teens and early 20s I earned money making jeans for friends and friends of friends, but it’s been a solid decade since I’ve done anything more than the odd hem or piece of mending. Strangely, I think my lasting memory of those adrenaline-filled moments leading up to March 26, among the fury of activity required to prepare for work and life at home, will be of the urgent reassuring feeling of knowing that during this time I could make something.
Three weeks in, and an hour of sewing a day is giving me indescribable comfort. This is no endorsement of my great undiscovered talent (my family may well emerge from this all dressed in matching outfits) but boy is it a reminder about the power of making. To commit to a small, creative action, however inconsequential to bigger existential things, feels right now humane and essential. And now more than ever it is happening everywhere. It seems like everyone is drawing, stitching, weaving, cooking, hammering, writing or reading. Buoyed along by the desire for distraction, a newfound freedom, or the newness of what the world looks like and the imaginings of a not-so-distant, less opulent existence where our own resourcefulness (or lack of) might instrumentally correlate to our quality of life.
While the Instagram feed is feeling a little clogged, right now the explosion of acts of making and doing brought into close view there is the most authentic groundswell of advocacy for the creative disciplines I have ever seen. The best of it is not coming from our museums or galleries, but from bedrooms, garages and kitchen tables – the product of this extraordinary time of shared domestic life. You can learn te reo alongside Leonie Hayden, cook with Peter Gordon or Ruby White, or, for the more adventurous, make a vase a day with Phil Cuttance.
Comedian Chris Parker’s wandering, lengthy felting sessions are delightful. He takes viewers from his task at hand – the repeated action of stabbing what looks like a small ball of cotton wool with a needle to create tiny and cute woollen animals – to bigger musings. He ponders the limits of his own creativity and skill, reflecting on what he did and didn’t learn in high school art class in a kind of nature vs nurture argument about artistic talent. It’s a refreshing reflection on creativity, widely absent from conversation in adult life.
You can watch the daily construction of an inner-city lean-to with The Warren or count time with Samuel Hartnett’s daily photo essays or Cora-Allan Wickcliffe’s splendid lessons in hiapo. From his initial 14 days of isolation, North Canterbury-based artist Wayne Youle shares a love letter to his family. A picture book of imaginary-blown kisses sent to and from his boys across a physical divide (him in his backyard studio, his family in the house): “A kiss shot out of a cannon… A kiss tied to an arrow and then fired with a bow…”
My humble recommendation is to enjoy these artists’ ability to create something meaningful and good where nothing was before. This is no particular championing of Instagram. For all the great digital engagement this period offers, my personal experience is that to close a gallery to the public, communities and artists you exist to serve is altogether gut-wrenching. To wrap my head around where the arts washes up on a collective list of importance, ranked on an essential to non-essential scale, is equally bewildering. On the one hand right now, a stunning awful blow is being dealt to the cultural sector. A blow to artists, designers, craftspeople, dancers, actors and musicians, whose schedules are wiped clean as work evaporates, as the idea of audiences gathering in space ceases to be ordinary. And yet, through hundreds of small important acts of creativity every day, they continue (many unpaid) to be of great and remarkable service.
Any number of people will tell you of the resilience of artists through adversity and crises. But for all that celebrates, these are skills learnt working under the ceaseless pressures of an under-funded, fragile eco-system, amid relatively poor public perception of the value of the arts and its real-world impact on daily life. This is evidenced by government arts agency Creative New Zealand receiving nearly two-thirds of its funding through the New Zealand Lotteries Grants Board. It’s a funding model so volatile that a decline in Lotto ticket purchases can result in reductions in arts funding.
CNZ has moved quickly to release an emergency response package for artists and organisations affected by Covid-19. It remains to be seen how widely relief from this will be felt. A more frightening proposition is the longer-term view; when sponsorship dries up, philanthropy retracts, and CNZ has depleted its reserves and is left relying on the buoyancy of Lotto sales. That at a time when everyone is hurting and the morality of encouraging this kind of gambling is dubious at best.
How we value creativity is perhaps best understood by where we don’t see it. It is the absence of an ‘A’ in the education priorities STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Add an ‘A’’ for arts to shift the acronym to STEAM). It is seen in the steady decline of applied arts education in the tertiary sector. It is understood in the shortage of writers who are given column inches for the arts. And in the lack of conversation being had right now about the role creativity is playing in supporting our well-being during lockdown among a sea of daily coverage reporting our national efforts to “keep exercising”.
This at a time when our galleries, museums and theatres are all closed, and when the future for so many arts organisations and artists contains eye-watering levels of uncertainty and upheaval. At a time when everything we know about shared human experience is turned on its head, we are left with the making and the doing. With the action that we can take that is immediately in front of us. To sew, to paint, to dance in the garage, to build the thing, cook the meal, recite the poem loudly. It is a strange silver lining indeed.
My most serious hope is that many more of us — both the powers that be, and citizens at large – can come to understand, quantify and celebrate the great nourishment that creativity is giving us in these times.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.