In this interview, painter Avital Burg writes to us from New York, where she lives and works, about her latest projects and adjustments to her studio practice during stay at home orders and while social distancing. In her painting practice, Avital reflects on her immediate surroundings and the delicate changes that people, places, and objects experience over time. She discusses her painting process before and during the pandemic, and how she captures multiple emotions, and different moments in time, in one painting. To learn more about Avital’s work, please visit her website. We also recommend this article published in Haaretz in January 2020.
This interview was conducted in August 2020 as part of Artis’ series, From the Desk of…. In this series, we check in with artists, curators, and collectors about their recent projects, reflections on social distancing and quarantine, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how they are practicing, experiencing, and engaging with art.
Tell us about a project you’re working on now. What kind of research are you doing to develop this project?
I had been looking forward to the spring in New York City to continue an ongoing project, where I pick wildflowers that grow in the streets in my neighborhood, bring them to the studio, and paint them rapidly, before they wither. I name the paintings according to the street where I found each flower, and the time of the year, creating a journal of time and place. But, this spring, I couldn’t access my studio, and it was difficult to walk comfortably in the streets, so I turned to working from my backyard, painting en plein air for the first time in over a decade. Capturing my immediate home surroundings, and the neighboring houses, strengthened my sense of foundation and place during the stay at home order, before returning to my actual studio practice.
Once the summer started, I returned to the studio, and to a number of paintings, which had been left in various stages of completion. Although it has only been a few months since I had to suddenly stop working on them, it feels like years have passed because of the major changes to our public and private lives, due to the pandemic. I have a unique perspective on these paintings, from this experience. Many of them are self-portraits, painted in the dead of winter. One is a birthday self-portrait, the eighth painting in a series that I’ve been working on, where I paint a self-portrait every year on my birthday. When I started it in February, I didn’t know that the world was about to go through a major shift. In March, when I had to suddenly stop working on the painting, it became clear that a major destructive event was imminent. And four months later, I started working on it again, still not knowing what’s going to happen to the world and to myself. I’m hoping to capture these huge emotional waves in the work, through my painted facial expression.
Like many people, I used the time at home, while social distancing, to study a new subject, and completed an online course at Harvard University about the Pyramids of Giza. I don’t know yet how this will present itself in my practice, but I’m sure it will.
Has your practice shifted in response to social distancing and quarantine regulations?
The building, where my studio is located, was shut down for four months because it was deemed a non-essential business. Even if it was open, I wouldn’t have had the time to go, since my son’s preschool was shut down, as well, and my partner and I were busy homeschooling him. For a while, I had very little time and space to paint. But, on the other hand, I also had no social engagements, which allowed me to have headspace for reading, thinking, and looking at the books in my art library, things I usually don’t have time for. Now that I’m back in the studio, I’m trying to take things one day at a time, and not make huge plans, because the city may shut down again at any moment. My focus is now on the series of quick paintings of summer wildflowers growing in the city.
Is there anything, in particular, that you miss from life before social distancing?
Being an immigrant, I plan my life around visits home once a year. I miss the ability to fly internationally to see my family, or have them visit me as frequently and easily as we used to. I miss being able to kiss and hug my parents, siblings, and friends. I miss going to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
How are you staying connected to friends, family, and colleagues? What does community and solidarity mean to you nowadays?
For me, this crisis highlights our flawed reliance on technology as a sole mode of communication. Of course, I make use of it as much as I can, to keep in touch with my loved ones. But I realize now, more than ever, how crucial it is to have in-person contact, even if only rarely, to maintain my relationships. I can’t give up, not yet. But I’m willing to be patient and wait until it is safe. This communal effort is what solidarity means to me right now.