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Harford County artists reflect on pandemic in works of art

It’s an oil painting for the times: a young woman sitting on a throne with a leather mask on her face, defiance in her eyes and a sword in her hands to fend off the pandemic.

“I call her Saint Corona Quarantina,” artist Pam Wilde said. Behind the heroine are prison bars, symbolic of the confinement wrought by COVID-19; meanwhile, in the background, a city burns.

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The image came to Wilde in the midst of the outbreak.

“All I had to do was turn on the news for inspiration,” she said. An oil painting, she would make — for herself and the public at large.

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While the pandemic shuttered art galleries and exhibits, it didn’t stop Wilde, of Abingdon, and other Harford County artists from continuing to work and, often, addressing the crisis in their craft.

“I did the painting because I was feeling lonely and isolated. I put a lot of my frustrations into this thing,” said Wilde, 57, who studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. “Some artists get so busy watching the doom-and-gloom channels that they find it hard to stay creative, but I keep painting, no matter what. If you stop, it gets overwhelming to live in so much fear. Besides, it’s important to document what we’ve been going through.”

Artist Pamela Wilde poses with art pieces that she has created. “I called it my Quarantine Project,” she said, doing the $150 paintings in part as a fundraiser for the Artists’ Emporium. One portrait was of a Harford County police officer, another of a 3-year-old boy.
Artist Pamela Wilde poses with art pieces that she has created. “I called it my Quarantine Project,” she said, doing the $150 paintings in part as a fundraiser for the Artists’ Emporium. One portrait was of a Harford County police officer, another of a 3-year-old boy. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

For the painting, Wilde used a live model, Dani Kurta of Aberdeen. Completed in May, the 30-by-40-inch work will be shown in an October exhibit at the Artists’ Emporium in Havre de Grace.

It wasn’t the first pandemic-related painting Wilde did. In March, as the outbreak intensified, Wilde turned out a series of portraits of people wearing masks. On Facebook and her website, she offered to do 12-by-12-inch likenesses of subjects covered up, working from their photos.

“I called it my Quarantine Project,” she said, doing the $150 paintings in part as a fundraiser for the Artists’ Emporium. One portrait was of a Harford County police officer, another of a 3-year-old boy.

“When [the child] is older,” she said, “that painting will be a bookmark in his life.”

Parent and artist Amy Fix and 3-1/2-year-old child Ezra Smith pose with their charcoal work in progress at her home in July.
Parent and artist Amy Fix and 3-1/2-year-old child Ezra Smith pose with their charcoal work in progress at her home in July. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Amy Fix and son create art together

If she could paint a rosy picture of life during the pandemic, said Amy Fix, it would be that of the charcoal artist and her 3-year-old son, Ezra, side-by-side in her Abingdon studio, creating a drawing together.

The time brought them closer and taught Fix, who exhibits nationally, that one’s career can survive having a child underfoot. Before the pandemic, she worked on her art while her son was in preschool or sleeping. Then that program shut down and Ezra outgrew his naps, leaving mother and son as a duo all day.

The pandemic “helped me reassess my priorities and made me connect with my family. Before, I had all of this work lined up to show at art festivals, and with that gone, I had only my husband and son to focus on. Seeing the work/life balance I’d been living was eye-opening; I’d been more invested in the studio than I should have been.”
The pandemic “helped me reassess my priorities and made me connect with my family. Before, I had all of this work lined up to show at art festivals, and with that gone, I had only my husband and son to focus on. Seeing the work/life balance I’d been living was eye-opening; I’d been more invested in the studio than I should have been.” (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

That was a blessing, said Fix, 33, who has a master’s degree in fine art. The pandemic “helped me reassess my priorities and made me connect with my family. Before, I had all of this work lined up to show at art festivals, and with that gone, I had only my husband and son to focus on. Seeing the work/life balance I’d been living was eye-opening; I’d been more invested in the studio than I should have been.”

Fix and her toddler have collaborated on a series of creative projects such as coloring the front pavement with sidewalk chalk, creating pipe cleaner bracelets and making charcoal pencils for her drawings. They gather flexible sticks of pine and willow from the yard, shave the bark (Fix with a knife, Ezra with a potato peeler), wrap them in foil and place them on a smoldering grill for several days.

“Homemade charcoal pencils are smoother than store-bought; they give you a wider range of values,” Fix said.

Parent and artist Amy Fix's son, Ezra Smith applies his hand print to a charcoal work in progress at her home.
Parent and artist Amy Fix's son, Ezra Smith applies his hand print to a charcoal work in progress at her home. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

For a time, an 8-by-3-foot sheet of cotton drawing paper hung on her studio wall. While Fix did her thing up top, creating three-dimensional designs of magnolia blossoms, hyacinths and other flowers they’d collected, Ezra worked below, making charcoal handprints and scribbling up a storm.

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“Sometimes he’d come over to where I was working and say, ‘Let me color that for you, Mom,’ " she said. “It’s not exactly marketable stuff, but it looks pretty good, even with his marks. "

She left those scrawls on the drawing.

Parent and artist Amy Fix brushes charcoal on 3-1/2-year-old child Ezra Smith's hands to apply his prints on a charcoal work in progress at her home.
Parent and artist Amy Fix brushes charcoal on 3-1/2-year-old child Ezra Smith's hands to apply his prints on a charcoal work in progress at her home. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“It may never see the light of day, but it’s important to incorporate his work,” Fix said. “Trimming off [Ezra’s portion] would ignore the fact that he’s a part of the piece — and a piece of these times.”

Her goal now is to find more ways to mix the two hues on her palette: motherhood and art.

“I have ideas, but as yet they are just kernels,” she said. “When I was in college, all I heard was, ‘You can’t be a mother and an artist.’ I want to invert that old myth.”

“Doing that painting made me feel less worried about the [virus],” said Barnum, 35, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. “Working with darker themes can be a personal catharsis; if I’m feeling some anxiety about current events, I sort of work it out in my art."
“Doing that painting made me feel less worried about the [virus],” said Barnum, 35, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. “Working with darker themes can be a personal catharsis; if I’m feeling some anxiety about current events, I sort of work it out in my art." (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Joanna Barnum embraces the macabre

Fantasy art is Joanna Barnum’s forte. Scary paintings of skulls and skeletons give some the willies, but others embrace the oft-eerie works that the watercolorist creates in her Abingdon studio. The pandemic only helped tighten her grip on the genre.

In March, as fatalities from the coronavirus began to soar, Barnum reflected on the crisis and painted “The Masque of the Red Death,” a nod to the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name. The macabre painting, nearly 2 feet by 4 feet, captures the depth of Barnum’s fears about the pandemic. At the same time, she said, creating the creepy piece helped calm her concerns for the present.

Artist Joanna Barnum poses with "The Masque of the Red Death," inspired by author Edgar Allan Poe.
Artist Joanna Barnum poses with "The Masque of the Red Death," inspired by author Edgar Allan Poe. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“Doing that painting made me feel less worried about the [virus],” said Barnum, 35, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. “Working with darker themes can be a personal catharsis; if I’m feeling some anxiety about current events, I sort of work it out in my art. Why do people love horror movies? Because they are fiction and a safe, controlled way to deal with things that are scary. My paintings are the same — a way to deal with our mortality through art.”

Barnum, whose works are a mainstay at fantasy and pop art conventions nationwide, has sold a few smaller prints of the Poe-related painting for $75. The original bears a price tag of $4,500. That the works have piqued the public’s interest buoys her spirits in turbulent times, she said: “When I share a dark piece and it connects with others, I feel less alone these days.”

Someday, said Barnum, history may pay homage to art that evokes the pandemic.

“Some people would rather look at works that distract them from negative emotions, but others want to make sense of difficult situations through art,” she said. “A lot of stuff that winds up in museums portrays moments in time of conflict and loss.”

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