Being an artist in uncertain times; an exploration of creativity in lockdown.

In this essay, I attempt to draw on my own experiences during this period of quietness, isolation and discontent, as well as touching on works and experiences of fellow artists as we tread through this fog together. I say fog, because whilst we have certainly been experiencing some incredible weather, and more importantly, environmental healing as touched on in Rebecca Solnit’s article for The Guardian as she describes “the air above Los Angeles, Beijing and New Delhi is miraculously clean”1,  this pandemic can without a doubt be described as a fog as it will indeed eventually clear. 

Artists, creatives, writers who do not work at home, have suddenly found themselves without a studio or workspace and without a plethora of materials and, or a welcome collection of daily incidences that feed their creativity, including but not limited to, engaging with other people. Something, that I think we can all agree, we have until now, taken for granted to some extent. Bumping into someone in a supermarket, encouraging an older person to take our seat on the bus, complimenting a stranger on their hair etc. 

Now we find ourselves confined to our homes, and whilst there are by far more unpleasant places in which to be confined, we are limited as to our reasons for venturing outside of our own borders. Particularly from my own perspective, this is brought about an inward search, a period of self-reflection and a time to connect to our practice in a new, more introspective light. Previous works of my own have touched on the notion of the sacred in contemporary art; during my university years I was interested in materiality in relation to the spiritual and found myself making very quiet, contemplative sculptural works and interventions (see Fig.1). 

Fig.1 – “Pyre”. Bethany Murray, 2014.
 Fig.2 – “Third Chakra”. Bethany Murray, 2020

My research led to contemplating artists who have, in some way, also touched on the spiritual or the sacred in contemporary art, whilst not as the primary subject but this was for me, a palpable element of the reading of their practice. Doris Salcedo and Ana Mendieta whose works, while visually vastly different, are about exile, displacement and death, and Cai Quo Quang whose otherworldly works, some seen from space, draw our attention to our sense of temporal existence on earth. These artists, and the themes noticeable in their works, seem even more poignant now as we tread gently into the unknown. 

This exploration, combined with a continual interest in writing both poetry and essays, is still at the heart of my practice. However, during this unique and unusual time, combined with recent struggles with mental health, I have taken to creating paintings abstract in their visual nature however rooted with a deeper internal search for inner strength (see Fig.2). Being particularly drawn to the colour yellow, the colour that represents the third chakra otherwise known as the solar plexus in some spiritual practices, these paintings have included a beginning layer of striking yellow before adding other materials. 

Also I have been using social media to positively keep myself engaged creatively, in particular engaging regularly with a group of printmakers on Instagram called @InkyRebels who have been posting themes each week throughout lockdown, calling artists to respond with the materials and skills that they can apply at home and share with each other via this network. Other more well-known collectives, such as The Poetry Society have also presented daily challenges to keep poets and writers engaged; these challenges are welcome invitations to consider aspects of this profound moment in life creatively and most importantly, positively. One of the themes that I have found most interesting thus far from @InkyRebels is “Dreams”. This allowed for consideration of my ongoing search for inner strength, it has also enabled me to contribute creatively to the wider collective of “artists in lockdown”. For this piece, I considered a photograph taken of my shadow at an exhibition at FACT in Liverpool a few years ago and used it to experiment with print transfer using wax paper, a method that I have used often with text only up until now.

Unland, Doris Salcedo, 1998.2

I found myself thinking about Frida Kahlo’s painting The Two Fridas (see Fig.3); there is a dream, or desire to be less fragile and be more resilient, something that I have found is an ongoing struggle, particularly during this period. It has also opened an interesting discussion of duality with some close artist friends of the Rooftop Arts Centre in Corby. 

The duality of fragility and strength, of safety and fear; aspects of life that simply cannot exist without the other. Like The Two Fridas, these feelings go hand-in-hand. When discussing this, artists Sharon Read and Warren Shaw3 drew my attention to the duality of the self, apparent in this work. The use of such delicate material married with the persistence and strength of the print transfer itself; while I myself feel fragile, the works I make have an element of resilience and determination (see Fig.4). Something that is also evident in my aforementioned paintings as I have not used typical painter’s materials but instead have used plaster and varnish, along with household paint and graphite for elements of handwritten text. These items, when brought together on paper or canvas, have a certain resilience themselves; the search for inner strength during this time, is apparent in the persistence of the text through layers and layers of plaster and varnish (see Fig. 2). These materials all represent qualities of my personality that not only cannot exist independently, but often find themselves in conflict with each other.

Fig.3 – “The Two Fridas”. Frida Kahlo, 1939
Fig.4 – “Dreams”. Bethany Murray, 2020

Besides painting, I have taken to writing poetry in the form of haiku. Poetry and my artistic practice have always developed in tandem but in this particular format, it is the rhythmic counting of syllables whilst considering my words has brought a sense of calm and meditation, allowing me to touch on the raw realities of this lockdown with particular focus on mental health. 

Hope, quiet challenge

met with birdsong, and absence.

Speak of dreams, and change.


Love, in a time of 

pandemic exile of self.

Presence of mind, life.


Life, manifesting

itself as a river, wild.

Washing away death.

Pandemic Haikus, Bethany Murray, 2020

Fortunately, I have a garden to enjoy during these unprecedented times and the birdsong seems more prominent, most likely due to less traffic and activity occurring in the surrounding area. The sky is clearer as the world lies fallow. It is, however, noticeably quiet and at times can feel lonely and brings to home the feeling of isolation that, like the aforementioned fog, will eventually pass. As referred to in Solnit’s article, “it’s a very profound transformation that takes place during catastrophe.”4 It is the knowledge of this transformation that enables us to keep going, to keep opening the door to the garden and taking a deep breath in gratitude for simply being. Feeling this profound sense of being that we usually must remind ourselves to acknowledge, is now the norm as, during lockdown, there is no choice but to acknowledge it and contemplate our existence. It is only natural that artists, creatives, writers take up a pen or pencil to convey this, to archive it for future generations who will attempt to make sense of this strange and rare moment in time, in which the world was put on hold. Fanoulla Georgiou puts it beautifully in the last stanza of her poem Blank Canvas5:

Let’s pick 

up the pieces,

the words

left

behind

and 

start a 

blank canvas,

with

new mindsets,

perspective 

and colours

that utter

the rumour

that all

will be

fine.

Fanoulla Georgiou, 2020

Artists and writers have always pursued, in one way or another, a way to make sense of the world and our place within it (see Fig 5), instilling in the viewer or the reader a new or different, at times more thoughtful perspective. Using colour, material and words to convey something unknowable, something intangible and something fleeting. 

Fig 5 – Ana Mendieta, Traces exhibition at the Southbank Centre, London in 20136

Bethany Murray, May 2020


  1. R. Solnit, 2020. ‘The impossible has already happened’: what coronavirus can teach us about hope. The Long Read, The Guardian.
  2. Image: https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/exhibits-books-etc/doris-salcedo-without-space_o
  3. S. Read & W.Shaw are both artists living and working in Northamptonshire and are members of Rooftop Arts Centre in Corby, as well as founding members of ARC: Aesthetics Research Collective.
  4. R. Solnit, 2020. ‘The impossible has already happened’: what coronavirus can teach us about hope. The Long Read, The Guardian.
  5. F. Georgiou, 2020. ‘Blank Canvas’. Permission gained from artist, originally posted on Facebook.
  6. Image: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/venues/hayward-gallery/past-exhibitions/ana-mendieta-traces

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