The impact of COVID on visual art making in New Brunswick

Rolling lockdowns, news of rising case numbers, and general mass confusion about how to handle the situation and proceed in this “new normal”, are not the best elements for a creative environment. Some artists have found inspiration in these new contexts, but fear is a powerful feeling to combat, and if there was another thing running rampant in March 2020, it was fear.

We have all been dealing with the physical ramifications of our “fight or flight” response to this continuous anxiety for a year. Not everyone copes well with stress. A lot of it can be unconscious and have a delayed manifestation (physically or mentally), and in the practice of artmaking, not everyone creates their best work, or even any work at all, in this heightened state of tension. The drop in most artists’ sales due to COVID also compounded this stress. 

We know artists who took a break from their creations, taking the time to process what was happening, but we also know others who continued with their daily practice as if little had changed and others who took the opportunity to learn a lot more about themselves and their work. Each experience is different and valid.

We had occasion to speak to artists from around New Brunswick this past year and present a few of their experiences.

For many artists who are already used to being alone to create, these times of lockdown and general messaging to “stay home” was not that different for them. One artist frankly shared that he continued what he had been doing: paint every day, and he was quite happy to not have to attend social events.

Jared Betts said it well, “So all in all, at first I was like I am built for self isolation and social distance as an artist, I’ve been practicing that my whole life....then in time that changed.” The urge to go out is so much stronger when you are forced to stay in.

In late August 2020, my mother and director of Gallery 78, Germaine Pataki-Thériault, and I took a trip to the northern coast of New Brunswick to visit 14 artist studios from Saint-Jacques to Caraquet, on a mission to bring their work and stories to the forefront.

Long before it was fashionable to love one’s own province, as was the theme of summer 2020, the artists we met had an earnest adoration and appreciation for the land on which they create. Spending frequent time outside allows them to tune into what’s most important to them in their practice, and thankfully, due to their remoteness many were still able to enjoy their outdoor freedom, even during COVID.

Keeping close, intentional ties with their communities is also crucial for many artists, both in times of togetherness and isolation - the latter being a familiar feeling, especially during winter in rural New Brunswick.

With COVID as an extra isolator, we have seen the arts community become closer using social media. Artists have engaged more by posting daily doodles or random thoughts, their process, and works in progress. They have supported and uplifted their fellow artist friends when they created something or shared how difficult this time has been, which has provided shared inspiration and energy.

Emilie Grace-Lavoie found inspiration extremely hard to come by when COVID hit. “I used to think I’m not an essential worker, so what’s the point of being productive if no one will see the work? I was not in a creative state of mind.” Like many artists, Emilie Grace likes a scheduled daily routine for her work, which has also been difficult when days seem to coalesce.

Emerging artist, Ameesha Tirmazi, initially lacked inspiration, but found hers not in routine but rather in taking the time to experiment with as many art forms as possible. She had been wondering where her practice should go, so allowed herself to be creative and explore a host of media and subjects to see what resonated the most. The process allowed her to narrow her focus and find her passion.

Vicky Lentz spoke of gratitude for a deeper level of concentration allowing for transformation in her work. Similarly, Ann Manuel has used the opportunity to reflect on her body of work. She reiterated that the first few months were very hard, but artists have taken the time to contemplate and she is convinced the future holds much creative output for many artists.

Véronique Thériault, Communications and Sales (3rd generation employee), Gallery 78

This appeared in the Daily Gleaner in March 2021.