Somewhere in between a degree and the start of their careers, creative students in lockdown watch as what was an already fast-changing arts industry transforms beyond recognition, along with a clear view of their future in it. Having faced university strike action earlier in the year, cut short of a studio learning environment and with many now thrust into unfamiliar or uncertain living situations – it has been a particularly disruptive year of education for students across the board.
As the weeks begin to blur, what is clear is the need for individual creative responses during this collective emergency. Live performances, online exhibitions, Zoom seminars – the new digital venues for arts and culture, and a vital boost for mental wellbeing not only for creators but their online audiences too. Maintaining a creative output can prove fickle on the best of days, however, and we’ve certainly seen better days.
Speaking to three art students now two months into lockdown, they offer their insight into how they have managed to continue engaging with each other, deal with the daily discomfort as well as stay motivated artistically despite the phrase “uncertain times” ringing in their ears - and coping when they can't.
“I’ve been trying to allow myself to get really childish during the lockdown, which has helped me immensely staying in a creative mindset and to cope with the lack of human contact”
For Kris Sahlholdt, a 23-year-old in her third year, getting through the long weeks has meant channelling a playful and resourceful approach. Building costumes from cardboard boxes and exploring local areas as if for the first time have been just a few of her light-hearted responses to lockdown. However she admits its not always so easy, saying “there are the really long days where loneliness creeps in and I just miss people so much.”
Q: How have you found the transition to a quarantined way of living so far?
K: At first it was very strange. Just the waking up and not knowing what’s going to happen. I was pretty scared about not being able to access workshops and potentially not finishing my project. But my mindset started to change after a couple of weeks. By then I was so bored, because I had convinced myself that I could not possibly make anything good outside of my studio. I made excuses like: “It’ll be too messy in here if I make something, it’s not fair to my boyfriend to take over the flat!” But staring out of the window for weeks didn’t really appeal to me either.
Q: Was that the point at which you decided to get back into making?
K: I decided to take a few funny photographs of my half-finished woven basket on my head, just to do something silly. That opened a few new doors for me. Instead of only seeing the problems of the quarantine I started taking my project less seriously and used what I did have instead of sulking about what I didn’t. I’ve been trying to allow myself to get really childish during the lockdown, which has helped me immensely staying in a creative mindset and to cope with the lack of human contact.
Q: What else have you been working on?
K: During the past weeks I have been weaving a basket for an installation I wanted to make. The installation didn’t end up the way I had initially thought (it was supposed to be installed in my studio) so I had to rethink the potential for my piece. This was actually quite a fun challenge, because I had to go on a “hunt” for the right location. It was proper problem solving! I managed to finish this project and right now I’m quite happy it didn’t end up in my studio-space! I would never have put it on this beautiful brick wall if I hadn’t been forced to look for other solutions.
Q: Aside from your creative projects, what simple comforts have you found help your mental health the most these days?
K: During the lockdown I have redeveloped a very close relationship with nature. I used to have a very strong bond to it, which I have sadly neglected for many years. But that has ultimately been my best medicine for maintaining my sanity. There is a patch of trees which I like to visit if I have a rough day. It smells like the wood by my grandparents’ summer cottage. It’s like being home.
“For me, creativity always, always seems to thrive under limitations”
With all those beyond our own households kept at a regulated arm’s length, the challenge of creating a sense of community within socially distant restrictions has been a large part of Tim Stuart’s motivation, a 20-year-old student based in Edinburgh. Although he feels that online communities shouldn’t aim to replace face-to-face connection, he has been confronted with the fact that “during quarantine online community is really all we have.”
Q: How have you found lockdown has affected your approach to creativity?
T: For me, creativity always, always seems to thrive under limitation. Quarantine has been one massive list of restrictions whether it’s not having quick access to art supplies or not having a studio. I struggle to think of a time where I’ve ever felt quite as inspired as I am now and I think it’s all because of the limitations surrounding us. I also think without having all the other distractions I’ve had almost limitless time to reflect. This has been important for me and has reminded me why I am doing what I am doing and why I care about making art.
Q: Those limitations led you to creating over fifty portraits of your friends and family, how did that start?
T: I decided to start a series of portraits on a request-based system on my Instagram. Initially, it started off as a small project assuming I would only do a few people’s faces. However, as requests poured in and encouragement along with it, I set about completing all of the portraits I had been asked to do.
I think the heart of this project was all about connecting with others during this time of otherwise disconnect, fracture and distance. Doing a portrait of someone is an intimate act because you are trying to translate someone’s face onto a page – It’s a part of everyone's body which is heavily linked to our identity and when looking at someone is what makes them them. In these kinds of moments you notice how unique everyone’s features are. By the end of each portrait you know them deeper than you knew them before you started - and that feels like a great success during this disconnected time.
Q: The disconnection is getting to many of us at the moment, has this project brought a relief from that?
T: The portraits led to more than drawn faces, they helped me reconnect to old friends and have countless conversations with those who I drew. In other words, these drawings helped build an online community - a term I don’t particularly like (as I think online communities should never aim to replace face to face connection). However, during quarantine, online community is really all we have and it was a pleasure to facilitate that.
Q: Is there anything else you feel is worth a mention in getting you through this experience?
T: Keeping my curtains a crack open. Maybe a slightly specific thing to mention, but doing this with the current spring light means I wake up around 7am or 8am. There’s no alarm blaring at me in the morning - it just wakes me up peacefully, and I can get to work after this.
Follow Tim’s on-going portrait series on Instagram @drawn.lives.
“With the current situation I feel that managing to make work, any work at all, is great – nobody really knows what they should be doing or how much they should be aspiring to create”
For the final student, finding themselves at the opposite end of the country far from University has led to a pause from the usual pressures and expectations of a degree. Mariella is a 21-year-old student entering her final year.
Q: You were studying in England pre-lockdown, and you now find yourself back home in Scotland. How has that change been for you?
M: I have found the silence away from University has in fact allowed me to feel comfortable to make more work and have a new motivation for keeping myself healthy and happy, as well as finding a routine. More importantly, with the current situation I feel that managing to make work, any work at all, is great – no one really knows what they should be doing or how much they should be aspiring to create.
Q: What has kept you going creatively?
M: What has become an underlying stress is wondering whether you’re doing enough to help others. My sister is a Doctor currently working in London and every night she rings up with what’s going on for her, it sounds very different to what the news reports. So I decided to start selling some of my prints; with each print I donate 20% to the NHS Charities Together and include a handwritten letter with some words of support as an extra personal touch to help with that feeling of disconnection.
Q: What do you find helps you on the difficult days?
M: I live in the countryside – I’m surrounded by animals and gardens which need to be tended to so they keep me busy, and waking up before 10.30 definitely helps me feel like I haven’t wasted the day. I also don’t listen to the news as much anymore, I still don’t want to be completely ignorant of what’s going on so I’ll listen to it maybe once a week now.
Q: We’ve all been left with a lot to think about as a result of this experience, how do you feel about things looking forward?
M: I think I’ve changed during these weeks - It has forced me to address how I value my life and what I really want to achieve after this is over. It also seems to be universally understood the significance of the timing of this pandemic - I think and I hope this will change the way we live, I believe we are in need of evolving our approach and this might be a start to that.
Keep up to date with Mariella’s sculpture and print work on Instagram @mazzinherjazz.
For each in their own circumstances comes a completely individual set of challenges, and the reality is lockdown may not ever be a way of living we settle into. The adjustment period is looking much more like an open-ended series of ups and downs than a set timeframe with a resolution. This surreal pocket of time requires the most gentle and kind approach to both our own mental wellbeing and those in our wider circles.
For these three creative students, as well as artists and arts organisations at all levels, continuing to respond creatively or providing the platform to do so is a lifeline in more ways than one.
Amy Ortiz is a Glasgow-based Illustration student. You can follow her on instagram @a_swo_.