Making Do and Making Art During the Covid Sabbatical

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“For the most part it remains on its regular run, from Tedium to Apathy and back; about five days each way. It makes an occasional trip to Monotony, and once it made a run all the way to Ennui.”

These are lines from Mr. Roberts, a book describing life aboard a US Navy supply ship far from combat, plying the backwaters of the South Pacific during World War 2. It aptly describes some of the reality many have had during the Covid lockdowns. Everyone I know, especially older folks, has been spending far more time at home than the “before.”

Our lives, circumscribed by fact and choice, require new ways to maintain bodies and minds so as to not succumb to the lethargy and anxieties that can easily overwhelm us. Curious how the daily lives of friends have changed since mid-March I queried two, Burton Holt and Donald Byrd, both of them inventive and creative people, problem solvers who I knew had found ways to stay stimulated and engaged. 

BURTON HOLT

Burton is one of those preternaturally talented people who can make something extraordinary from the ordinary.  He makes wonderfully quirky and witty things as “a creative outlet.” A favorite of mine is his series of tiny houses, each not much larger than a foot square, constructed from all sorts of everyday objects. At age 80, the pandemic has kept him at home providing more time to make art.

A native of North Dakota, Burton headed out from landlock to open sea at an early age, first in the US Navy, and then rising from a messman serving officers up to the rank of captain of a ship that refueled naval vessels. Sailors acquire many creative and unusual skills to be perfected on the job or in their spare time; sewing, woodworking, paper designs, knot tying, and in the olden days, scrimshaw. Over the years Burton has used these skills and expanded on them in new and unusual directions.

Burton Holt with his own hand-sewn patchwork jeans.

In the last month he has become a local celebrity on Queen Anne Hill where he lives. He’s placed three miniature pieces for public display in the recently created Little Free Art Gallery, a structure similar to the omnipresent little libraries but featuring a rotating display of small original artworks. It’s been such a hit that the Washington Post covered it, and he’s been interviewed for King 5 TV’s “Evening Show.”

Burton saw the lockdown as an opportunity to do things he’s been putting off for years. He edited his large trove of photographs shot during his decades roaming the seas. “Did I really need 100 images of tanker ships?” He cleaned and reorganized his basement formerly overflowing with a spectacularly eclectic melange of ethnographic, industrial, and found objects. 

Burton Holt’s (center) “Spiraling in Control,” rubber straps on wood in the Little Free Art Gallery.

A respected ethnographic art dealer, his specialty is beautiful artifacts from the tribal people of the Philippines begun when he was stationed in Subic Bay, a former Navy base on Luzon. He laments that Covid has not allowed him to make his annual visit to that country to acquire more and see old friends. It’s the first time in 60 years he has not gone abroad.

Another long-avoided project was to computerize the 600 or so handwritten pages of his memoirs. Describing himself as a “ball of fire” in the early days of the lockdown, he worked with vigor to transfer his past from pad to Word. As I learned for myself, the anticipation of undistracted time to do things long put off can be an illusion. Half-way through the job, Burton discovered it was much more fun to be making things. That which had been put off for so long, was put off again.

Burton Holt’s wood block assemblages made during the Covid lock-down ( courtesy Burton Holt)

DONALD BYRD

Donald Byrd

How does a choreographer reliant on creating in the studio with his dancers, then bringing his work to live audiences, respond to the vicissitudes of the pandemic? For Donald Byrd, artistic director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater, it’s partly business as usual and partly finding innovative ways to ensure his work continues to be made and seen.

The performing arts are high on the list of professions most devastated by the virus. By good planning, leadership, and donor support Spectrum has been able to maintain staff and dancers at their pre-Covid levels. Donald can keep working, though in a very changed environment. “In a sense it doesn’t feel any different in that I have always cobbled together a career.” He has worked at his “cottage industry” with tenacity and resilience for over 40 years. “So I’m used to adapting and adjusting, and have just continued to do that.” 

Since March Donald has done all his creating exclusively by Zoom.  He works from his home with company dancers at Spectrum’s studios in Madrona. They have been divided into three separate working “pods,” all tested and quarantined before being allowed to interact. 
Donald is a fearless artist, his work in the past often exploring the African American experience. In the last few years with Spectrum he has committed exclusively to making works concerned with racism, social justice, and climate change. 

In the early months of the pandemic with workplace protocols not yet clarified there were unique opportunities. Pre-Covid, Donald would ask his dancers to research the subject of the work underway with limited opportunity to discuss their results with him and company members. Now there was more time for such dialogue. The dancers responded enthusiastically to what they learned even if at times their explorations might be emotionally wrenching.

This altered schedule also allowed Donald to examine with the dancers the dynamics, tools, and mechanisms that he uses in making his work. These dialogues were preserved through Zoom recordings. In the non-Covid world, there is usually not the resources or time for an artist to document his or her creative process. 

Donald’s Zoom use has other benefits. When people interact with each other in person through speech there can be distracting non-verbal visual and emotional cues being transmitted, what he calls “signals.” Using Zoom reduces these signals and provides more clarity for Donald. “People don’t interrupt each other in the ways that they often do in-person. Zoom encourages a level of civility. Everyone can’t talk at once. You have to wait for people to finish before you can speak.” He says this more dispassionate way of communicating has been particularly helpful to him in working with Spectrum’s administrative staff. He can hear more clearly what they are saying to him and each other. It has fostered for him a better sense of collaboration and working together as a team. 

At age 71, Donald is rightfully concerned about contracting the virus. He hasn’t traveled since March, something very unusual in his peripatetic life, and rarely leaves his apartment. With his usual housecleaner laid off, he has discovered new domestic skills. After consulting with a few friends, he invested in a new Shark vacuum cleaner as well as both steam and vacuum mops for his floors. Living alone and with no visitors allowed means “I’m not doing this cleaning for anyone else but me.”

SPIDER KEDELSKY

Far more than before, my wife Joan and I buy much of what we need on-line, and seem to return half of it.  We mailed almost a thousand hand-written letters to voters in swing states, watch movies via three pandemic-acquired streaming services. I write when I want to, and for my wife I dance (usually appreciated) and sing (less appreciation, cats terrified). I now know how to have a deceased beaver removed from our waters. 

After years of delaying tactics, I finally catalogued my large collection of antique textiles and put them on-line, and baked my first gluten-free bread. We nursed a wounded mallard duck back to health. We read books endlessly, some of them seemingly endless. No longer able to use local pools, we purchased wetsuits to swim in the cold waters of Portage Bay from our floating home. I’ve contacted friends and colleagues from my past, thanking some for favors done, and making amends to others. A long-time effort to improve my French and Spanish foundered, but I do watch movies in these languages at times even without subtitles.

Even so, there are days, as with us all, when things begin to overwhelm. My wife and I recently got our first Pfizer shot. Even with the second, I know this will not be over. And when it’s safe to come out from under our rocks, the world will be a different place. It is then, as much as now, that we will need to rely on our creativity and problem solving. At least I will have learned how to make bread and get rid of a dead beaver.

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