What Sustained Us: Visual Art

For this particularly challenging year, we’ve asked Maria Thereza Alves, Carolina Caycedo, Jennie C. Jones, Alan Michelson, Jordan Nassar, Vick Quezada, Jacolby Satterwhite, Hiba Schahbaz, Diana Thater, and Dyani White Hawk to tell us what sustained them.

Part of the Looking Back series.

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What Sustained Us Art
Ws Maria Thereza Alves

Olives and Maria Thereza Alves, lockdown, 2020. Photo by Jimmie Durham.

Maria Thereza Alves 

I spent the pandemic in Naples, Italy, during the three months of lockdown. We were not allowed to go out unless it was for food, the pharmacy within one hundred meters, and the bank. 

What sustained me during the pandemic:

My partner, Jimmie’s, attempts to make a Caprese cake because our favorite bakery was closed. We were happy when lockdown ended.

Cheese brought over by Mario Avallone of La Stanza del Gusto.

Caring meticulously for the plants on the terraces. The small jasmine flowers honored us with their intense sweet smell in the evening, while the perfume of yellow roses along with wafts from the rosemary bush filled the day. The glory of the pink-orange and dark wine-hued flowers of the bougainvillea greeted us each morning. And just as we were about to leave, a nice harvest of olives from the one tree. With the second wave of COVID, we are remaining in Berlin and will miss the offerings from lemon and kumquat.

Virtual dinners with friends where we all cooked from the same list of ingredients, taking into consideration local possibilities such as Rotterdam with its sad vegetables.

The young man who delivered our fruits and vegetables and brought news of outside and cheered us with his smiles as he sweated profusely with the added heat of plastic gloves and mask.

Friends that passed by and talked through the intercom system and left gifts on the door handle. 

And, yes, a new daily program of Pilates by Kit in calming Portuguese from Rio de Janeiro which I hope to never give up as my neck, shoulders, and back thank us. 

Read Richard William Hill’s interview with Maria Thereza Alves here.

Carolina Caycedo

Brindis del sustento
(para leer con su bebida favorita)

Sostengo la vida
salud – tómese un trago
por la maternidad deseada
por la libertad de amar sin normas
por el placer de gozar y mucho
por el gusto de disentir
salud – bóguese el segundo
por las plantas y los ríos libres
por las bahías con ballenas
por el carbón, el gas y el petróleo
por que se queden bajo tierra
por los comunes
salud – el tercero
por las abuelas
por la gente rara
por la gente luchona
por la gente que resiste
salud – beba el cuarto
por la gente que enfermó
por la que sanó
por la que se fue con la pandemia
por las siete generaciones anteriores
por las siete venideras
sostengo la vida
por Una
por Niko
y usted por qué la sostiene?
Brindemos, salud.

***

Sustenance Toast
(to read with your favorite drink)
I sustain life
cheers – have a drink
for desired motherhood
for the freedom of loving without norms
for the bliss of bountiful pleasure
for the joy of dissenting
cheers – take a swig
for free rivers and free plants
for bays full of whales
for the coal, the gas, and the oil
for them to stay underground
for the commons
cheers – drink another one
for grandmothers
for weird people
for the strugglers
for those who resist
cheers – take a sip
for those who got sick
for those who healed
for those who left with the pandemic
for the seven generations before
for the seven after
I sustain life
for Una
for Niko
and you, why do you sustain it?
Let us toast, cheers.

Read Louis Bury’s interview with Carolina Caycedo here. 


Ws Jennie C Jones

Nina C. Jones, official studio portrait, circa 2015.

Jennie C. Jones

Things that sustained me this past year include all of the projects that distracted me from heartache during COVID: my Dia Playlist, a deep dive into early ’70s radicality; my first outdoor sculpture at the Clark Institute; a Fred Moten book collaboration for the Arts Club of Chicago; a new relationship with Alexander Gray Associates; and my BOMB interview with Jared Quinton! (Writing this opener is really a very deep gratitude shout-out and a pinch myself moment.)

BUT I have to say that in 2020 I was sustained more than ever by my dog, Nina, who turns fourteen this month. She’s a constantly barking, fierce sister, rascal, full-time studio assistant, and a daily joy. In March and April she was with me when I made black paintings marking the early dark days of our scary new reality. Then during the peak of a summer heatwave filled with injustices, loss, uprisings, sorrow, and relentless politics, I knew I could always stroll with my sidekick and exhale. In August I found myself walking without her after her collapse and surgery. The reality of my isolation deepened, and my time with her felt even more finite than the usual artist existential doom cloud I saw when looking into her aging eyes. I practiced walking alone, after walking with her for over a decade. 

I am grateful to have made my break from the city in 2018. Nina got a yard, and I got to ease into my fifties with a little more sustainability. I miss friends in the city, diversity, food, and the collective experience of Brooklynites during this time, especially Election Day jubilation. Nina misses the street smells and dust-ups at dog parks. I’m glad we have each other a little bit longer especially with winter coming. For now, she’s holding on, and we are watching time, move, slowly, forward, together.

Read Jared Quinton’s interview with Jennie C. Jones here. 


“Blackbird” by The Beatles sung in Mi’kmaq by Emma Stevens.

Alan Michelson 

The British (later American) invasion of our Mohawk homeland, now a huge chunk of New York state, was a sin. The second British invasion, spearheaded by a Liverpool band, was the opposite. I was swept away not only by their sound but by their understated collective cool. They’d forged something transformative out of drab backgrounds, lives laced with loss that resonated with mine. I started learning chords on a borrowed guitar.

Fast forward to early ’70s New York. One of the invaders, now a solo musician/activist married to a conceptual artist, moved there the year I did for the same reason—the vibe of the city. I joined a band, the house band at Columbia, a year or two before dropping out. Eventually, I gravitated to art school, sold my Fender, and didn’t pick up another guitar for thirty-five years until I played one in the collection of an old friend coping with stage four cancer.

Over his last years, we jammed in his basement. By miraculous agency, the Telecaster belonging to fellow Six Nations Mohawk Robbie Robertson entered my friend’s collection. I was thrilled to play it but hardly in a way that did it justice—the guitar that Robbie wrote most of the Band’s songs on, that Dylan played onstage.

Music from that era has seen me through life’s travails. My friend died last year before the mortal plague descended, and I think of him whenever I play those songs on the guitar that I bought this year.

Read Jessica Lanay’s interview with Alan Michelson here

Ws Jordan Nassar

Jordan Nassar in the glass studio.

Jordan Nassar 

Long story short, it took a lot to sustain me. I’m so grateful for my little family—my husband, Amir, and our dog, Kasha, cooking and eating meals together, taking care of each other, watching lots of TV together, being punching bags for mood swings, and offering embraces when comfort was needed. I couldn’t have done it without them. Both my husband and I have studios where we have been able to retreat and distract ourselves with our work, which has been such a blessing. For once, the fact that my embroidery work takes forever has been a good thing! The protests and widespread attention to social issues has also been a central element of my life; and with what feels like so much free time, I have certainly been able to do more, whether it be donating to or organizing or buying things from fundraisers, attending Zoom events, sharing and discussing information with my communities, and so on. I’ve also been doing online Arabic language lessons to improve my Palestinian dialect, which has been great. Lastly, I am also so lucky to have been able to learn a new craft—flameworking glass—at a glass studio near my house and studio, where I spent many socially distanced days since May. Being able to go somewhere new, and focus on something new, made the time feel less monotonous for sure, and provided me with new challenges to concentrate on, and a whole new body of work.

Read Will Fenstermaker’s interview with Jordan Nassar here

Ws Vick Quezada

Fonz.

Vick Quezada 

Running, always running. I guess I’ve always known that I find escape in the hustle and all the phone apps. Then there was 2020; I felt thrusted into the abyss, and the only way out was to accept things, just as they are. 


I’m grateful for Fonz, eighty-six pounds of fur and infinite tail wags.
I’m grateful for the rising sun and the warm rays that take me home.
I’m grateful for Thích Nhất Hạnh’s words that keep me company on walks.
I’m grateful to be on the Pocomtuc Nipmuc land.
I’m grateful for my friend Al suggesting I buy a dashboard cell phone holder.
I’m grateful for all the professionals who made Lexapro possible.
I’m grateful for Susan, her voice, and her ear.
I’m grateful for all the workers.
I’m grateful for my daddy, Bill Wilson.
I’m grateful for Tracy Chapman’s all the right words at the right time.
I’m grateful for mom checking in on me every day.
Last, after a two-year hiatus, I’m grateful that my lucid dreams have returned.

Read Alexis Salas’s interview with Vick Quezada here. 


Ws Jacolby Satterwhite

Still from Jacolby Satterwhite, We Are in Hell When We Hurt Each Other, 2020, virtual reality color video with sound, twenty-four minutes and twenty-two seconds.

Jacolby Satterwhite

During the pandemic, protests, and economic crisis I have sustained myself through a suite of micro-rituals including rigorous exercise, podcasts, and working on my recent solo exhibition. Having my sense of certainty and community destabilized reestablished my sense for limits and boundaries, which was the ultimate silver lining. I found myself having longer conversations of substance on dating apps since I couldn’t go actually see the person. I also found myself establishing pod communities and teaching myself different artistic processes I otherwise didn’t have the patience for before. Ultimately the main principle I gained this year was to pare things down as much as possible and value every twenty-four hours. Recently, small gatherings at the East River amphitheater accompanied by our stereo and subwoofer have made an amazing tribal dancing and friendship experience. 

Read Sean Capone’s interview with Jacolby Satterwhite here. 


Ws Hiba Schahbaz

Hiba Schahbaz studio portrait. Photo by Meiying Thai.

Hiba Schahbaz

This year has been heart opening. I’ve spent much of my life being a hermit, afraid of letting the world in. Some years ago I began meditating to access my emotions. When the pandemic began, my healer Frank Vogt initiated twice-daily meditations as an act of service. My inner hermit was hesitant, but I committed and joined the virtual group in holding space for what was unfolding around us. Together we created love and healing and beauty. Opening my heart and spirit in front of others is teaching me to share more of myself. And so the intentions I held while painting began shifting. 

Painting has sustained me all my life, and I’m so grateful for it but also possessive of it. I’ve held it tightly, afraid that something will come between us. Slowly the way I paint is shifting. I feel less alone in the studio; I bring the world in with me, still afraid but willing to connect. I hold space for the people I love and healing for the world as I work. It’s been a time of grace, perhaps born of pain and heartbreak. And a year of feeling love. I’m grateful, and I regularly want to rip my heart out because feelings can hurt so bad. I used to be proud of my impenetrable fortress of indifference. True vulnerability has humbled me, and I’m sustained by the people in my life who stand by me and show me love, along with the books and music that nurture me: writers like Lao Tzu, Eckhart Tolle, Cleo Wade, Deepak Chopra, and Ram Dass are my teachers. Music and dance in the studio bring me joy and energy.

Read Christina D. Bartson’s studio visit with Hiba Schahbaz here

Ws Diana Thater

Installation view of Diana Thater, Yes, there will be singing, 2020, remote video and sound installation. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

Diana Thater

A combination of art, teaching, and generalized anger has kept me going for the past nine months. It’s been a productive mix. Artists are lucky because we can make a lot out of very little. Putting that into practice, I made ten short films over the summer, a few video walls, and one livestream installation for my gallery. At the same time, I’ve had the shoot for a new work cancelled twice, and it remains unfinished, and my upcoming shows were all cancelled or postponed. The most challenging and rewarding thing was making a gallery-sized installation to be shown online while locked in the house. My thoughts have mostly been taken up with how to communicate with people at a distance and in a meaningful way. This is my artist’s report. 

My report as a citizen is far darker. I’ve been, like all of us, angry about mushrooming fascism in the US, horrified by blatant displays of systemic racism, and personally pissed off about the oppression of women. It’s hard not to get sick of it all and depressed. At the same time, the calls for climate justice, and the recognition that it is linked to social justice, have been amplified by the current crises, and I feel that the time may have come for art to do what it does best, which is to contend with the impossible, the invisible, and the overwhelming. That is the source of my hope.

Read Joey Orr’s interview with Diana Thater here. 


Ws Dyani White Hawk

Dyani White Hawk, She Gives (Quiet Strength VII), 2020, acrylic on canvas, 84 × 120 inches. Photo by Rik Sferra.

Dyani White Hawk

What has sustained me through the past nine months is not much different from what I usually rely on for mental, physical, and spiritual health. The foundational elements are constant: family, spirituality, the land, and my “work”—various forms of creation that fulfill my spirit in ways utterly necessary to my wellbeing. Other elements that are essential to remaining centered and that I cycle through in response to my current emotional state and ability to prioritize them include running, yoga, walking, headphones with a wide range of music, audiobooks and podcasts, Zoom and phone calls, long text threads with friends and family, coffee and water (repeat), and, most importantly, an active practice of gratitude. 

What has changed is that I have had to allow my family and friends to support me in heightened ways. I have had to prioritize rest, rewire how I think about productivity, and practice compassion for myself in the ways I offer it to others. Yesterday was tough. My energy was low and so were my emotions. I pushed through and got work done with the following mantra: I am doing good; I am strong; and, I am a human living through a pandemic, and I am affected. Both are true and that is ok. No self-imposed guilt trips. Then, as the evening approached, I went for a run to shake the blues. It was a cool, crisp evening, and on my route back home I ran toward a low, golden, full moon and felt myself reset. 

Read Sheila Regan’s interview with Dyani White Hawk here. 

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What Sustained Us: Film
What Sustained Us Film

For this particularly challenging year, we’ve asked Garrett Bradley, Courtney Stephens, Alex Strada, Ephraim Asili, Nicholas Elliott, Mary Lucier, Tania Cypriano, Alan Licht, and Nina Menkes to tell us what sustained them.

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A virtual encounter with whale song.

Diasporic Landscapes: Jordan Nassar Interviewed by Will Fenstermaker
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Embroidery and beaded glass sculptures combine craft with history.