Some of the cards left or sent to Kelsey McDonnell as part of her “Voting Booth” project, which she reinvented after the pandemic hit. (Kelsey McDonnell)

Few lives have been spared by the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For visual artists in Wyoming, stay-in-place orders and self-quarantine, especially during summer, means diminished sales and community. Craft fairs and shows — like Western Visions in Jackson or Touchstone in Laramie — gallery openings, and art walks have been cancelled or postponed.  

“When it started,” said Favian Hernandez of Laramie, “I was working toward Touchstone, this big show where they clear out one of the floors of a hotel. It very quickly got cancelled.” 

Wendy Bredehoft, current board chair of Wyoming Arts Alliance (WyAA), said that was the right decision. “On opening night 500 people cram in the hotel and that’s not good,” she said. In lieu of Touchstone live, an online exhibition is scheduled for November 2020.

Some visual artists, however, found opportunities, even as they alternated between being productive and doing nothing. Hernandez concentrated on his signature papier-mâché sculptures of endangered species, with some new twists, but also began to “feel really drained with what was going on.”

Closures and reinventions

For the first time in 24 years, Margo Brown in Buffalo closed her shop on Main Street and concentrated on making pots. In the process, she rediscovered her love of the ceramic form. “I didn’t feel wild and crazy, but like I had 100% focus,” she said. “I want to maintain that spirit going forward.”

Brown has worked as a potter for more than 40 years. When she opened Margo’s Pottery, she had to be an artist and business owner, which she found stressful. The shop’s two-month closure and the continued economic downturn meant a 25% reduction in sales for herself and the artists she represents. She also cancelled a planned installation, “Four Years of Flowers,” by Kelsey McDonnell. 

McDonnell’s installation was the result of a flash of inspiration years ago, she said. 

“I’d had this vision (in 2017),” McDonnell said, “one of those things that wakes you in the middle of the night.” 

That vision turned into a portable voting booth that came from Florida, the outside of

Kelsey McDonnell’s “Voting Booth” where viewers are asked to “vote” by writing their thoughts and feelings on a card. (Kelsey McDonnell)

which she painted with flowers. Inside the booth, people would be invited to “vote” by writing out their feelings and stories on cards. “As a coping thing,” McDonnell started painting on 5×7 inch cards that became “Four Years of Flowers.” She planned to ship the voting booth, which fits into a suitcase, to other venues, and began a Kickstarter fundraiser to pay the costs.

With COVID-19, McDonnell couldn’t ask people to go into her voting booth, pick up a pen, and write on a card, she said. Instead of abandoning the project, she created a website to solicit responses. When people contact her, she mails them a painted card and a self-addressed stamped envelope for its return. McDonnell posts them all, keeping to her idea that the voting booth exhibit represents a democratic election.

“There’s no joke about which way I lean,” said the self-described surrealist-feminist artist, “but I wanted to take an idea into public spaces and I’m trying to get it everywhere.”

McDonnell’s “Four Years of Flowers” makes its debut at the Nicolaysen Museum in Casper on Oct. 2. It is one of 23 solo women shows The Nic is featuring as part of a Year of the Woman celebration, according to executive director Ann Schiffman Ruble.

A watershed moment 

“This seemed like a watershed moment for everyone,” said painter-sculptor David Klarén of Pinedale, “like the whole world was taking a collective deep breath.” Out of that deep breath, Klarén conceived the virus series, which features sculptures made of everything from softballs, wine corks and Styrofoam, to nails, straight pins and a peanut. The 17 completed sculptures are whimsical, grim and sometimes uncanny in their depiction of viruses. 

As he posted on Instagram, people began dropping off materials at his studio: an old globe, a dog chew toy and a round gourd from Nicaragua. “I feel a little pressure to make something,” he said.

Klarén, who usually curates a full calendar of shows at his Mystery Print Gallery & Frame, had to cancel this year’s Rendezvous Exhibit, a juried selection of Wyoming artists. In its place on June 6, he installed “ThANG: LOCKDOWN,” featuring the work of Pinedale-area artists. It is up through Aug. 29.

“Virus #7” is part of the series of virus sculptures David K. Klarén has created since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. (David Klarén)

Like Klarén, most artists wear different hats to support themselves and their families. Bronwyn Minton, who directs the Art Association of Jackson Hole, can’t remember when she wasn’t making art. However, the shutdown meant she was busier than ever in her administrative role. “There were days when I was on the phone or in a Zoom meeting from 8 in the morning until 8 at night,” she said. “It was weird. I was working over full time.”

In the “terrifying” midst of “people losing their jobs, people getting really sick,” she began thinking about her work differently, wanting to learn a different medium. To that end she painted black on white “video drawings,” which she, like Klaren, posted on Instagram. “These are very conceptual pieces,” Minton said. “It felt good to go back to something very simple.” 

While the animated and repeating figures may not be direct responses to the virus, she said the “space” created by the pandemic gave her permission to experiment. In that vein she delved into Shou Sugi Ban, a Japanese technique in which wood sculptures are burned, making them waterproof and strong. Minton envisions these paired with the videos and installed in a physical space.

Since April both Wyoming Arts Council (WAC) and Wyoming Arts Alliance (WyAA) have provided resources, virtual and economic, to help artists. Michael Lange, WAC director, and his staff redirected monies from cancelled one-off programs into a COVID-19 individual relief fund. To date, Lange says, at least 145 artists in every discipline, who demonstrated significant income loss, have received $500 grants. 

WyAA has offered weekly online sessions for members, Bredehoft said. While some are discipline-specific, such as one that drew 25 visual artists and considered what they were and weren’t doing, another session discussed “reopening strategies,” she said. 

“The biggest take-away is to know who you can call and bounce ideas off of,” Bredehoft said, especially regarding public health issues for reopening venues. “We all know there is so much uncertainty.”

The discussion with the visual artists made it clear “there are those who are using this time to focus on studio work,” she says, “and there are those who are overwhelmed.” The conversation went beyond the pandemic and personal economics to Black Lives Matter. 

“It brings home we don’t live in a vacuum,” Bredehoft said, “and it is showing (us) that all these issues are interrelated. It was good to see that folks were trying to listen, were willing, without being confrontational.”

On the Wind River Reservation, Black Lives Matter brought into the conversation real-world issues that resonate with artist Robert Martinez. As a Northern Arapaho tribal member, he knows race directly affects people in Fremont County, where COVID-19 has struck home. At least nine of the state’s 26 fatalities have been tribal members. 

“It’s been tough. There is a lack of everything,” Martinez said, “lack of jobs, housing, medical care … the whole socio-economics.” He paused. “There could be a little more equitable situation.”

In February, Martinez was awarded the 2019 Governor’s Arts Award for individual artist. While he hasn’t seen his working and creative life change dramatically, art venues, which are the biggest source of his income, have dried up. He and his wife, Veronica, through Martinez Art & Design near Riverton, work primarily from home, and like so many families, had to track their children’s online education. 

For now Martinez, who has a minor in sculpture, is pushing his limits, such as trying experimental mixed media and single-pour aluminum casting. A Jackson-based show featuring art by Indigenous people was cancelled in May, but he looks forward to his one-man show in 2021 at The Brinton Museum in Big Horn.

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Joel Ostlind, painter and printmaker of Sheridan, had a solo exhibit show at The Brinton last year and recalled the “energy” it took to complete. He almost sounded grateful for this year’s quiet. The former working cowboy, who never owned a horse, has been a full-time artist since 1990. He set up small still lives in his studio, which have resulted in 12×16 oil paintings.

“I started with a 3-pound can of Hills Brothers Coffee,” he said, “one of those old ones, with the guy wearing a robe. I worked with that element, with those two colors (rich red and blue) … that direction surprised me.”

Ostlind’s wife worked in public health and was trained in pandemic response, so he takes COVID-19 seriously. “It’s a force of nature,” he said. “I think it corrects perspectives. It’s not us and them.”

Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Connie Wieneke has lived in Wyoming since 1983. She moved to the state to work for the Jackson Hole News, where she covered the arts, crime and education. In 1991, she earned an MFA in creative writing...

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  1. Thank you Connie for connecting with artists all over Wyoming and bringing their thoughts & experiences to readers. Great job!