Carolyn Olson (featured previously in Selective Focus) has been redirecting her work a bit. Still focused on everyday scenes, she has been making drawings in a series she’s calling Essential Workers. These scenes are in grocery stores, public transit, street scenes and in medical facilities. This week, Carolyn talks about honoring these people who keep things going in unprecedented circumstances.
CO: Having recently retired from teaching school this year began differently anyway. I began last summer creating projects – challenges I called them – for myself, such as creating a series of images that tell a story, in hopes of illustrating books. When the “Stay at Home” order came I was accustomed to staying home and working in the studio regularly. Talking with our adult kids in the Cities brought home the realities facing the essential workers.
One of our grown kids is a teacher now – teaching middle school Band through live video streaming, Instagram and Zoom! When the virus was becoming a reality he said, “Mom, I have 250 kids blowing on me all day” This had to change. At that time preparations were being made by the school district and the next day the schools closed. He began teaching remotely from home. The school was being disinfected. Kids were in their homes. Its a huge change from the face to face teaching they were taught and enjoy. Being adaptive comes quickly to them but added stress is real.
The other is working in a grocery store as a cashier. How was that going to change and work for workers and shoppers? Quickly the store installed plexi barriers and began disinfecting all surfaces. Limiting shoppers and social distancing were implemented. Concerns grew from working with the general public who were also were stressed out over Covid-19. Management responded but what were you to do with an unknown ever changing virus?
As a narrative painter I tell stories through my work. Choosing to draw the people I love comes easily. My first pastel was of the “Grocery Store workers, Essential Worker Portrait #1 – Cashiers and Baggers” because it was about my family. I knew something about what grocery workers were going through. From there I listened to the PBS story the bus driver in NYC who reported being “coughed on by a rider who was sick”. Nine days later he passed away. His widow was now asking for protections for other drivers.
From my home I saw the essential workers who were still out there working, many working for minimum wage. I kept a mental running list of the folks working whose job I understand enough to depict properly through this series. I want to honor their service. The counter sales people, the Pharmacists, the Mail Carrier, the Teachers, the Hospital workers, the Sanitation Workers. It all needed to be honored.
We need to remember what folks have done for their community, what they have been through. I can draw with pastels and tell stories. The pastels are something I can do to help us.
I should add, I don’t know how we as visual artists are going to “exhibit” our work in the future. This series is an effort on my part to bring art into our lives online. I’ll never show these pastels together but, today folks can freely see them whenever they choose. I can sell the original work and meet folks remotely. Until we have a vaccine for Covid-19 and can keep folks well, life is going to be different, but we can adapt.
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