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Adapting the Artist Residency in the Time of Covid

by Abigail Lewis, Executive Director at Bethany Arts Community

Sculpture by Cherie Lee
Sculpture by Cherie Lee

What is a residency? An incubator. Permission to focus solely on creative pursuits; and now more than ever, a rejuvenation. “Even remotely, virtually, singularly: this simple connection has been driving each of us further than even we planned ourselves. How magical is that?,” said artist Cherie Lee, whose artist residency at Bethany Arts Community (BAC) took place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Typically, artist residencies serve as a place away from everyday distractions; a time to reflect and discover. They provide artists an opportunity to meet fellow artists: to draw inspiration, share techniques and expand community. However, over the summer, BAC was forced to revisit its plans of hosting thirty artists who were supposed to live, eat and create on its Ossining campus in the fall.

The organization launched its first annual artist residency program in 2019, offering short-term multi-disciplinary residencies to artists from around the world to develop new works and works-in-progress. In 2020, when the pandemic began, BAC reduced the size of its program, and provided each artist with their own apartment, a studio, and plenty of room to safely eat together. Photographer Julia Forrest says: “COVID-19 has made me uninspired and worried. It was so wonderful to just take time away from that and focus on creating.” Forest used her time at Bethany to shoot in local landscapes, using mirrors and forced perspectives.

BAC put every health guideline into action: participants self-isolated prior to the start of the program and completed daily health checks while on site. In addition, a virtual residency was launched to accommodate those whose participation was no longer possible due to travel restrictions. Virtual participants were based in Nigeria, Belgium, India, England, and states across the U.S. The artists shared their work through images, videos and reflections in a Slack channel, prompting feedback and encouragement from their peers.

Visual artist Chigozie Obi joined from Lagos, Nigeria and worked on her 48” mixed-media painting in the midst of violent protests. She says: “The virtual residency helped to take my mind off of the protests and events happening in my country. Creating the work, reading through the Slack messages and interacting with other participants gave me some moments of peace amidst chaos.”  During their stay, each artist is required to create at least one public program, this year on Facebook Live, which is accessible to the outside community. Obi will give an artist talk on December 13.

Brice Garrett used his time at Bethany to create an online interactive platform to explore how our relationship with materials and objects have shifted during COVID. “Usually I work with materials, process, and in the round. Since some of this wasn’t fully possible this year, it was important for me to keep the interaction and process elements that the viewer experiences.” Garrett will share his community-driven project on December 17.

Cinematographer Anantha Krishnan will discuss his artistic process and share clips from his work-in-progress film on December 10. His project explores the problems that inform and threaten democracies around the world.

Cherie Lee, who creates intricate carvings with high-speed rotary equipment to transform ostrich eggshells into small-scale, subtractive sculptures, will have an artist talk on December 3. According to Lee: “There was no push or pull or plea or force. There was only an introduction, a proverbial handshake, and suddenly a scattered collection of myriad persons stretching to grow beyond themselves, together alone. It’s beautiful. And inspiring.”

"Smile Na" by Chigozie Obi
"Smile Na" by Chigozie Obi

A version of this article first appeared in the December-January issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNewsis distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.

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