WWhat to make of it all? From days to weeks to months, this past year felt shorter and longer than any in living memory. Were it a novel, it would be incredibly unarousing science fiction. The world ground to a halt. In the United States, our already insular lives collapsed inward. Rampant paranoia mingled with justified fear. In ways large and small, our lives took twists and turns that—if I were to list and excavate them—would amount to a monumental tome.
Of the many new directions the pandemic of 2020 took us in, I’ve come to believe the most interesting was inward. For many of us, life in social exile was the darkest and most difficult. The distractions and obligations we’d previously taken for granted, as normal life dissipated, revealed vistas into interior landscapes both lush and terrifying. Or maybe that didn’t happen to you, Dear Reader. But it happened to me. 2020 was the most harrowing, beautiful, tragic, and difficult year of my life.
No one fully understands what coming out of this part of human history will actually generate. But we know that the upheaval has rearranged our perceptions. We spent a year staring at one another through masks, screens, revolts and windows. Whatever world we are in now is a new one.
Through shifts and schisms, my creative practice has irrevocably changed. My work has grown more pointed and personal as a result of solitude, introspection, and time.
My beloved colleagues’ practices have changed, also. I asked a few of them how this past year has affected their work.
As of early March, 2020, Heidi Rider was performing full time as a clown in the Caesar’s Palace show, “Absinthe.” In order to keep up the performance schedule, she had dropped her visual art practice. “I was quietly ignoring the empty hole that kept expanding as time went on,” she said.
When schools shut down, Sierra Slentz—educator, ceramicist, and arts organizer—began working from home. “I knew that we were embarking on a weird time,” she said.
Photographer and journalist Mikayla Whitmore spent much of spring 2020 photographing the George Floyd protests in Las Vegas—and also caring for her 8-year-old Chihuaua, Pistol, who’d torn a ligament. She would soon find that documenting Pistol’s recovery helped keep her grounded through a chaotic year.
How did your relationship with your work get affected by the lockdown?
Heidi: “Absinthe” shut its doors, and like everyone I knew, I was sequestered to my home. At first, I was in shock from the absence of the adrenaline and energetic exchange with a large audience. But the fear and sadness, loneliness and despair crept in until this dark cocktail was my most constant state of being. I realized that art making was going to be the only way I was going to get through whatever levels of emotional processing I was capable of. So I returned to my visual art practice. I carried the image of the clown into the space with me, with the thought that if I can’t be the clown onstage, I’ll be the clown in my studio. I don’t feel resilient and buoyant, but the clown does. The clown can take on my darkness and go straight into the fires of hell for me. Not only can she take it, she likes it.
Sierra: In normal times, I generally can only work in my studio after my day job or on the weekends. The pandemic afforded me a more flexible schedule and allowed me small chunks of time throughout the day. I found myself more productive.
Mikayla: Having more time and not having to be held to society’s expectations of meetings and networking, or smiling to help promote your practice, was a nice shift. … In addition to my artistic/creative practice, I also am a photojournalist and tackle national topics and assignments. … It can be overwhelming when your job is documenting things in real time and actually caring when you do so. The act of photography is not simply taking an image, but all the moments leading up, during, after. It’s an entire extension of myself. Conversations with myself about how I would be able to keep sustaining this type of work and creative practice came up a lot.
What kind of work have you been creating since then, and how do you feel it’s changed?
Heidi: My work continues to use the image of the clown in the visual and aesthetic sense, but I also channel the logic of the clown during my physical process of making something. I follow a seed idea that delights me, allowing it to shift and grow through play and improvisation. I set up a series of restrictions (such as only using my non-dominant hand) as a way to force myself into losing control. The material responds to my clumsiness. I experience an unexpected interruption, through some perceived failure, and it becomes a revelatory gift. Ideally this happens over and over again on a never-ending loop, like a joke that keeps searching unsuccessfully for its own punchline.
I’m learning to be more loose and messy in my studio practice, to take what I have been cultivating onstage for all of my adult life and channel it back into my visual works. I’m repeatedly attempting to leap boldly into the moment, to breathe all of the air, and to make glorious public failures into funny and beautiful moments.
Sierra: I started documenting my family’s life, news events, and emotions, which led to Marking Time [an exhibition currently up at Barrick Museum], which is more of a self portrait, rather than about the landscape.
Mikayla: My work has changed, because I have changed. If you went through last year without any change or self reflection, then something is off. I am more mindful of how and what I choose to spend time trying to create. As you know, because I was with you most of the time, between documenting the changing landscapes and vacantness of our city’s landmarks, I was attending protests and vigils against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter … to help document, witness, and protect allies from a lot of the atrocities that often occur in plain sight.
Do you see any other changes in artists you admire, and do you feel they are corollary?
Mikayla: I feel like most of the artists and people I know have been going through collective states or moods in their life. For one of the first times in my life, everyone was reacting to the same immediate situation universally, and it felt like, for a moment in time, a reshuffling or shift in the timeline glitched. The pandemic shifted people’s focus collectively, and I have noticed similar waves show up in people’s work despite not always directly communicating.
Sierra: During the pandemic, I noticed that the food and supply shortages started to alter the way I used art supplies. … I was more mindful of wasting clay and glaze. I would normally toss out pieces that weren’t working or had glaze flaws. Every piece I made in the pandemic was fixed or reworked. Nothing went to waste. [Barrick Museum Director] Alisha Kerlin noted the same type of resourcefulness in her work.
Heidi: I think that all artists who are emotionally attuned to the world and our fellow living creatures are making new, sensitively responsive work. And this isn’t about making work “about COVID.” That’s a cheap and shallow reading of pandemic art. This is about making work from a place of deep introspection and forced quiet. We forgot how to hear our inner intuition and how to follow our most playful impulses. We were forced to turn off the incessant background buzzing, and we realized that we had forgotten what it sounds like to hear the beating of our own hearts.
The silence became a gaping, gasping roar. We were met with a reckoning, a revolt against violence and gaslighting, of blind acceptance and passive living. All artists who have their eyes open and their hearts at the ready are making profound work in response to this.
Sierra Slentz’s exhibition Marking Time is on view at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art at UNLV through July 9.
These interviews have been edited for length.