Dishes piling in a kitchen sink. Toilet paper materializing on a supermarket shelf. The time and ability to rest one’s feet on the coffee table and watch some blessed television.
These may seem like mundane images from our sheltered spring, but when one’s entire everyday existence is confined within the walls of their home, the banal can become the poignant, the comforting, the universal. Jennifer Fisher, a Boca Raton artist and instructor at Old School Square’s Creative Arts School, stumbled upon this very connection in the early days of the pandemic’s impact on the U.S.
In the pre-COVID days, Fisher favored abstracts, cityscapes and architectural paintings, along with jewelry. More recently, though, she has taken to capturing, in watercolor, the symbols of this momentous year—as seemingly inconsequential as they may have seemed under normal circumstances. Hence, a still-life of flowers surrounded by toilet paper, Clorox wipes and Purell; a lovingly rendered image of a Zoom art class she teaches, with 12 students showing off their work from their identical squares.
When the library at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, discovered her COVID-inspired series, the institution decided Fisher would be a perfect fit for its Special Collection’ archive of work pertaining to the coronavirus pandemic. You can read her essay accompanying her inclusion in the collection here.
In this interview with bocamag.com, Fisher discusses this unexpected turn in her oeuvre and other ways the pandemic has affected her life and work.
As a working artist and an art instructor, what kind of changes have you felt in your life since the start of this pandemic?
Being an artist is isolating in itself, but teaching brings you out of that. And now you’re back to being in isolation, and you’re back to not being around people. Usually I get a lot of my inspiration from traveling. And there’s not any more of that. That’s how these sketches started; I find myself traveling now from room to room—and there’s a lot to look at, if you just open your eyes.
What was the first piece in this pandemic series?
In the beginning, I was very upset, very nervous. I’m Italian and was speaking with a lot of relatives in Italy, who were all fine. But they were telling me what was going on, and I was trying to stay connected to them—and to my family in New York and California. And I was drawing everyone’s scenes from their homes. The Italians on their balconies, singing, inspired me.
But everybody was in their house all of a sudden looking outside, and we’re all seeing something similar—our familiar surroundings, our quiet streets, still beautiful but a little scary. So I started drawing those. I drew my friends’ view in Florence, my brother-in-law’s in San Francisco, my sister’s in New York. As the weeks went on, and I started to get used to what was going on, and I calmed down, and started to come to terms with how I was going to handle this, I realized that it was somewhat manageable. I started to have a little bit more fun with them. I started getting used to this lifestyle.
The kitchen sink came next, because we were cooking constantly, and the dishes were always in there. I would load the dishwasher, and they would still be there. But they started looking pretty, so I started drawing them! I started noticing the things around my home, and started posting them. And I realized that they were relating to everybody, because we were all doing the same thing.
Yes. It seemed like there were scenes that, in the old normal, might not have gotten your attention as an artist, but seemed to take on a new kind of poignancy.
Right. The laundry… a sighting of toilet paper at the grocery store. These silly things, which were really kind of important and exciting! It’s still serious and it’s still scary, but I just want to put a smile and show something nice online, instead of scary things.
Has this project challenged you to paint everyday minutiae, like pizza slices and hand sanitizer and toilet paper, that you might now have take on otherwise?
Absolutely. Actually, I teach a class at Old School Square called Sip and Sketch. It was a new one for the summer. What we were going to do was to go around and travel to local cafes in Delray, and sketch regular surroundings—architecture, plates, salt and pepper shakers. Now we can’t go out, so I’ve taken that class to everyone’s home. I teach a Zoom class, and I’m on my ninth week of doing that, where we’re drawing the refrigerator, the pantry, the closet.
What’s it like teaching on Zoom?
It was difficult in the beginning, but I’ve gotten used to it. There was only a small group of us that started with Zoom, and prior to that, the sketches started as a coping mechanism, where I reached out to some former students and some children I also teach, and said, “would you like to draw online? Let’s get on Skype, on block out an hour a day, and just draw. Just for fun.” I thought everybody could use that. So it started out like that, and when the school started reopening online, I said, “let me try this.”
Do you feel like the ubiquity of the internet and the ability to instantly connect with people and to share this work with the world are essential benefits right now? I can’t imagine what the quarantiners of 1918 had to go through.
I can’t either. Everybody criticizes it, and says there’s too much information, and I hate Facebook, and this and that … I do think that if you use it properly, it’s wonderful. Because we wouldn’t be able to have classes. I wouldn’t be able to talk to anybody. All of sudden I noticed people were enjoying my work; they couldn’t wait for me to put the next thing up. I thought, “oh my God, pressure!”
You’ve written that you hope to capture silver linings among all of this dread that we’re experiencing. Can you talk about some of those silver linings?
Silver linings, just meaning, sitting down for dinner with your family. A 12-year-old who all of a sudden has taken to baking, and looking up recipes, and trying everything out. Everybody helping out with chores. I tried to capture those sort of things that all of a sudden became important—being able to put my feet up and watch television. I had never watched television really before. All of a sudden now, I am binge-watching.
Is that because you kept a schedule that was so busy that you didn’t have time for it?
I think so. It was never really a priority. If I would go home and have some time to myself, it wasn’t about watching television; it was about doing some research, doing something art-related or with my kids. But all of a sudden, I had this extra piece of time where I could sit down and actually relax.