Artist Tom Paiement in his Woolwich studio on April 1. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

WOOLWICH — Tom Paiement began tracking coronavirus cases on his wall calendar on March 18. Each day, the painter jotted down the number of cases in the country and in Maine. A few days later, he began tracking the number of cases in Utah, where his son lives. A few days after that, those numbers began showing up in Paiement’s artwork.

A new painting, called “Virus 4,” shows two empty chairs set against a surface of painted newspapers with columns of numbers that document the growing coronavirus case counts between March 22 and March 29. The empty chairs represent victims of COVID-19, reflected in those numbers. “It’s all about the numbers,” the artist said. “It’s all about who’s got it and who doesn’t.”

“Virus 4,” a new painting by Woolwich painter Tom Paiement. Image courtesy of Tom Paiement

Stuck inside, Paiement has been working furiously in his studio these last weeks, inspired to make art that reflects “the chaos, mayhem and unimaginable things” that we’re witnessing and experiencing collectively. For Paiement, 77, the studio offers retreat from the unimaginable and an opportunity to do something constructive with the fear and uncertainty those numbers represent.

Patrick Plourde’s “Covid-19.” Photo by Jay York, courtesy of Patrick Plourde

Crises and other world-shifting events, from the AIDS epidemic to 9/11, are always reflected in the work of contemporary artists, and art in the age of the coronavirus takes on many shapes and forms. Artists are busy across Maine – writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists alike – using this forced timeout to take stock of everything that’s happened these last few weeks and try to make sense of it. Visual artists are responding quickly. Confronted with a common crisis as an art prompt, they marched into their studios and got to work, welcoming the opportunity to self-isolate and create. “I go into the studio to keep from going half-mad over the anxiety that this crisis provokes,” Paiement said. “I hope we don’t have heart attacks because of the stress.”

Patrick Plourde, a sculptor from New Gloucester, made a 2-foot metal structure of the virus, complete with railroad spikes to emphasize its dangerous properties. Mark Herrington, a sculptor from Franklin, carved the virus out of stone. Sarah Doremus, an artist and educator from Deer Isle who works with found objects, created an alternative-use coronavirus necklace with a 3-inch germ, made out of a copper, fiber and a small screw-top vial that serves as a soap dispenser. On the back it says, “Wash your hands.”

Larry Hayden’s self-portraits and studio at his Portland home. Photo by Larry Hayden

And members of the Portland Drawing Society, accustomed to gathering early every Sunday morning at the Portland home of Larry Hayden to draw portraits of an invited guest, have instead taken up self-portraiture. This time of isolation, Hayden said, has led to deep introspection. “I have been doing self-portraits casually since I was 10, but I have never spent entire days in a row doing them,” he said. “Suddenly, you’re faced with all this time with yourself in the studio. You can’t go anywhere. Nothing’s open.”

Mark Herrington’s “Covid 20,” carved from granite and basalt.

To create an outlet for artists, Space Gallery in Portland is hosting an open call for an ongoing multi-disciplinary remote exhibition, “Broadcasts: Art in the Age of Social Distancing.” Artists can submit work they’ve created during and about being in isolation, and Space will curate it and share it in twice-weekly digital releases. Each release will highlight the work of four or five artists from Maine, across the country and elsewhere. It’s open to artists anywhere across disciplines, including musicians and writers, said Lia Wilson, Space’s engagement manager.

“Broadcasts” helps fill a void left when artists lost their exhibitions, residencies, projects and performances, she said. Space began sharing “Broadcasts” via email April 1.

“This is about aggregating content that is made in this moment,” Wilson said. “We are in the business of bringing people together, and we also have this audience online. Instead of using online for archiving and marketing, let’s use it as a site for community engagement with art. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s what we have to do.”

“A New Friend” by Leonard Meiselman, oil on canvas, 40 by 50 inches. Photo by Leonard Meiselman

Rather impulsively one day a few weeks ago, the painter Leonard Meiselman descended into the basement studio of his Wiscasset home and turned out a 40-by-60-inch oil-on-canvas human face, eyes shadowed by fear and mouth covered by a mask. Meiselman painted it quickly – although he says the painting painted itself. “There were no sketches. The painting told me ‘Put a mask on me, stupid!’ It was purely intuitive,” he said. “The painting feels to me like an introduction to uncertainty, an introduction to what’s in store for all of us.”

This is one of Suzanna Lasker’s computer-drawn isolation selfies. Image courtesy of Suzanna Lakser

Suzanna Lasker, an artist from Jefferson, is accustomed to gathering with other artists to collectively create banners, posters and signs for protests and demonstrations around Maine as a member of the Artists’ Rapid Response Team. She feeds off the energy of working on a common cause. Being in forced isolation also makes her feel happy, and safe. Happy because she can make art at will, and safe because she won’t catch the virus in isolation. “I am going to be 80 soon, and I smoke a lot. So I am in one of those awful positions, if I get it.” Lasker said she is perfectly content making computer-drawn isolation selfies and posting them online.

Other artists are getting outside to document the empty streets. A few weekends ago, Portland photographer Winky Lewis and her friend Annie Leahy began walking the residential neighborhoods of Portland, calling friends to their doors, windows and porches, so Lewis could take their portraits, they from the safety of their homes while she practiced safe social distancing from the sidewalk or walkways. As the idea caught on, they organized the project under the name “Stay Close From Afar.”

Photographer Winky Lewis on the prowl as part of her “Stay Close From Afar” project with Annie Leahy. Photo by Annie Leahy

They’ve made hundreds of portraits, posting them on social media while helping their communities feel connected during a time of both isolation and doubt. “It does feel like we are recording something serious, a time, one that is scary, full of unknowns, one that everyone is struggling with in one way or another,” Lewis wrote in an email.

Leahy, who works as executive director of the Mechanics’ Hall in Portland, isn’t certain of the outcome of the project. What’s most important, she said, is to document the moment through these personal stories. “It is an unprecedented time in history and it is unfolding so quickly,” Leahy said. “I’m a former documentary producer – certainly, that’s a driving force here. Our community, and our country, will look vastly different on the other side of this pandemic. It needs to be documented.”

They’ve met baby humans and baby chicks. They’ve met a tattoo artist who just closed his business and another person who had just been laid off. They’ve met neighbors who were meeting each other for the first time and a long-married couple, who danced. “I am just trying to document this time. But this is selfish too. It is getting me through these days,” Lewis wrote in her email. “I’ve been buoyed each afternoon with this project. Even though I’ve had to keep my distance, and the whole interaction is quick as I’m usually trying to race the light, the quick connection feels right. The sharing of stories and the granted permission to take a photo has been a nourishing thing.”

Zach Heiden and his family (in upstairs window) participated in the project “Stay Close From Afar” by Winky Lewis and Annie Leahy. Photo by Winky Lewis

Among those who had their portrait taken was the family of Zach Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. Heiden described the experience as “a magical one” because it was spontaneous and genuine. His family lives near the University of Southern Maine and happened to step out from their home when Lewis and Leahy came by. At the same time, other families were doing the same.

“We had had a run of bad weather, and late one afternoon the sun came and everybody in the neighborhood seemingly all at once emerged from our houses,” he said. “We came outside because it was an opportunity to see one another, which we had really missed. We have a wonderful neighborhood and are close with many of our neighbors. We were all on our porches or front lawns sort of yelling to each when Annie and Winky came by. They caught us at a very positive and emotional time.”

Back in Woolwich, Paiement continues to work on his series of paintings. He’s preparing for a solo exhibition at Greenhut Galleries that he knows might never happen. He can’t help but laugh at the idea of making inspired art for an exhibition that no one might see. But so what, he said. “It still gives me pleasure to find something like this and to grab hold of it and finish it.”


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