2 Bay Area artists offer starkly different takes COVID-19 pandemic

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This is the first in a series of occasional stories looking at how the arts community is reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the midst of a pandemic and history-making civil unrest, two Bay Area artists are spending their days producing paintings and murals with two very different aims.

One wants to document everything from the mundane to the horrific; the other wants to give the world a reason to hope.

James Gouldthorpe, painter, Richmond

James Gouldthorpe spent the first two weeks of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place mandate in a panic.

Worry was the order of the day, hour after hour. Would he and his wife be able to keep their jobs? Would they stay healthy? How about his 84-year-old mother who was diagnosed with COVID-19? And his son, who just graduated from college and was starting a career in film that suddenly faded to black?

It was the first time he and his wife ventured to the grocery store and then anxiously wiped down all of their purchases that sent him to his studio to paint, of all things, the bag of groceries that was now a symbol of the angst.

“The world sort of imploded,” Gouldthorpe says, “and I wanted to document that.”

In the early days of the pandemic, he painted mostly commonplace items that had new significance. A face mask, a pair of hands slipping into latex gloves, a pack of Scott’s toilet paper. He calls them COVID-19 Artifacts.

A COVID-19 Artifact (Courtesy of James Gouldthorpe) 

As time has gone on, the images have become harsher and sometimes darker, drawn from the news or off the internet. A man on a respirator, a person lying prone on a couch with a TV remote slipping from his fingers, George Floyd’s funeral, rows of caskets, a field of crosses, an Atlanta Wendy’s restaurant ablaze.

“I was able to find more of a sense of humor in things,” Gouldthorpe says, “at the beginning. Then George Floyd happened” and more people kept getting sick and dying.

There still are signs of hope in his paintings, moments of humanity and triumph, such as a quartet playing to an audience of plants or a bike rider trailing a rainbow flag in front of the White House. Each tells a story of a specific moment in time that will need to be remembered when normalcy returns.

“It was just a way to keep my mind occupied and stop the panic,” Gouldthorpe says. It’s turned into much more. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where Gouldthorpe has worked the past 22 years as a conservation technician, wants to feature his work in a future exhibit called Close to Home.

Gouldthorpe also thinks about compiling the images — 115 and counting — into a book, but he can’t wrap his mind around that now. He has more paintings to do.

“I think people are starting to forget that a lot of people are dying,” he says. “I don’t want them to forget.”

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down travel back in mid March, Oakland muralist Molly Keen found herself stranded in Bali. She has spent the time drumming up work including painting this 5-story tall mural of a turtle. Keen wants to put color and good vibes out into the world. (Courtesy of Molly Keen) 

Molly Keen, muralist, Oakland

Molly Keen’s life has been a twist on the old “Gilligan’s Island” premise. She left in January for 2½-month tour that has turned into a 7-month long stranding.

Keen, a muralist, had been working on projects in Thailand and was on her way to India to paint a third mural when the coronavirus suddenly shut everything down. Midway through her flight, the second leg was canceled and she decided she’d better find a place to hold up for the long run. She caught a flight to Bali, and she’s been there ever since.

Needing something to do to pay rent not only in Bali, but back home in Oakland where she shares a home with nine other people, Keen began looking for a commission. It’s not easy, she says. She has to find a perfect place for a large mural, then convince the business owner to hire her.

Keen was able to do so and spent time painting a multi-colored turtle swimming up the side of the 5-story building. She now is working on a life-sized blue whale on another building and looking for other projects.

Keen has tried to get back home but had three flights to Oakland canceled. She could book flights that take her through several airports, but she thinks it is better for her and her roommates to remain in Bali as long as she can and not risk bringing the virus to them. Keen expects to remain until at least September.

Her style of work hasn’t been changed by the pandemic, Keen says, but the desire to create something meaningful and hopeful to others has intensified.

“The pandemic has made me feel more driven to create and to incorporate art into the public,” Keen says. “With the museums closed, this is free access to art. I also want to activate spaces — make more people aware of their surroundings. If people can’t go to the beach, I bring it to them.”

A 5-story tall mural painted by Molly Keen during the pandemic. Keen has been marooned in Bali since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. (Courtesy of Molly Keen) 

She uses color as an antidote to the darkness.

“I just want to send out colors. For me, it’s about making another world,” Keen says. “My brush strokes are the length of my body, which makes me feel a part of the work. I only use a 2-inch brush, which is really absurd, but I really like to watch the brush strokes as I create.”

Although Keen works by herself, she says her art is a reminder that none of us is truly alone.

Keen credits her late mother with for sparking and feeding her creativity. Her mom died when Keen was 18, prompting her to take her mother’s maiden name as her own last name, and paint in her memory.

“There are so many messages out there to send, especially now,” Keen says, “but I prefer the creative beauty. The message I want to send is that there is always life, even in death or sadness.”

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Author: Joan Morris