Much of what we know today about the Great Plague of London (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666) can be chalked up to the fact that a British Navy bureaucrat, a bourgeois Londoner named Samuel Pepys, decided on New Year’s Day in 1660 to keep a diary – and then kept at it for a full decade. He also captured plenty of inside information about the Restoration of King Charles II and the Second Dutch War, which ended with the treaty that transformed New Netherland into New York. That his diaries survived was a great stroke of luck for historians.
Situated here on the downslope (we hope) of the Great Plague of the early 2020s, one is tempted to wonder who will turn out to be the Pepys of COVID times. Surely a lot of people put their overabundance of downtime in the past couple of years to good use by journaling. But technology and communication options have changed tremendously since the 17th century. What’s the contemporary equivalent of making a daily entry in a diary, hoping to preserve your observations for posterity? Our younger generations like to post selfies on Instagram and make YouTube and TikTok videos; but who knows whether those media will not have gone the way of the eight-track cassette and no longer be viewable by, say, mid-century?
Maybe it’s safer to stick to classic low-tech formats: actually writing things down on paper…or sketching them. One chronicler in our neck of the woods who has been doing the latter since the onset of the pandemic is Sean Nixon, a professor of Art and head of the Graphic Design program at SUNY Ulster. Billed as “a time capsule of our shared collective trauma from March 2020 to March 2022,” Nixon’s new solo exhibition, titled “Drawing COVID: A Story, Two Years and Counting,” will have its opening at the Unison Arts and Learning Center in New Paltz at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 13.
Besides its value as art and as a story of our times, “Drawing COVID” will be special in terms of its participatory design. Beginning with the opening event and all through the run of the exhibition (closing on April 24), visitors will be offered ways to leave their own commentary and reactions to Nixon’s drawings. “We’re going to have paper and pencils and pens out, and tables where people can just sit down and draw,” he says. “We want people to come to the show and do some drawings, write some poems, speak, dance, scream…” Viewing the pandemic as a society-wide traumatic experience, he describes his vision of the exhibit as “a cathartic artistic exhale through the creative process.”
Kids, in particular, are encouraged to participate. Besides making art, Nixon – a West Philadelphia native now based in Rosendale – specializes in giving presentations and teacher trainings in applied learning. His module at SUNY Ulster is called the Real World Program, based on the premise that young people are more motivated to learn when teaching methods are practical, experiential, hands-on: “learning through doing,” as he puts it. The interactive design of the show at Unison is a logical extension of his pedagogical approach.
But you won’t necessarily notice that you’re being taught anything, if you go. Nixon’s simple, elegant ink drawings of his responses to current events and societal trends during COVID are refreshingly accessible – like “New Yorker cartoons without the need for captions,” according to his description of the works. Presented in chronological order in a paperback book that will be available for sale during the exhibition, the drawings begin with Pin the Tail on the Future: a sketch of himself blindfolded, groping ahead, and ends with him juggling planets and peace signs in Give Earth a Chance.
In between, Nixon touches on many a milestone of the zeitgeist during COVID time: Zoom classes, conferencing from home while wearing fuzzy slippers, people fighting over masks, toppled statues of heroes of the Confederacy, the fly on Mike Pence’s head, Bernie’s mittens, the vaccine as a valentine, Texas goes full Handmaid’s Tale, Halloween as scary superspreader event, a Christmas card of a family armed with giant hypodermics instead of guns. Most of the images are black on white, with an occasional splash of colored ink; but Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s iconic lace collar crosshatched in white against a black background is surprisingly moving. “The one that chokes me up is the George Floyd one,” Nixon says of I Can’t Breathe: 8 min. 46 sec., his depiction of the dying Floyd in the arms of an angel, intentionally evoking Michelangelo’s Pietà. “I just broke down when he called out for his mother. It’s such a charged image.”
Some of these drawings are blatantly political, some more personal; some tragic, many humorous. There’s something here for everyone who has endured the past two years. Come on out and check it out – and be prepared to check in with your own reactions. For a preview of Sean Nixon’s artwork, visit www.instagram.com/seannixondraws. Visit www.unisonarts.org for updates on gallery hours. Unison Arts is located at 68 Mountain Rest Road, just west of the Wallkill River from New Paltz.