How Sonoma County artists transform their work, themselves after isolation
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed down our world, Melissa Jones followed her first instinct, to roll out of bed before sunrise each day and paint quietly in her Occidental art studio.
The Windsor High School art teacher, once busy teaching daily classes of 35 students, suddenly had time to reflect on her life as a 52-year-old single mom and cat owner.
Her self-realizations were mirrored in her paintings, which once mostly featured whimsical artwork parodying social and political matters. Now, her artwork dives deeper.
“My work changed. ... I changed,” said Jones, a folk artist. “I had time to go inward.”
Her shift reflects an evolution among many Sonoma County artists that stemmed from the pandemic, which disrupted our daily routines.
People were stuck inside and isolated from the rest of the world. Long to-do lists shrunk. Physical connections faded.
As the pandemic has substantially subsided, artists say their work has transformed since early 2020, when COVID-19 first spread. Each artist changed, too, along the way. Some found self-acceptance; others have reset and re-energized their artistic ambitions and some feel uncertain about the future.
“For several years, I denied myself of being truly honest in my work,” said Rachel Sager, an oil painter in Petaluma. “The isolation forced me to get intimate with myself, people and my own existence.”
Melissa Jones, folk artist
Jones is embracing aging as time passes.
In spring 2020, she created “The Spinsters and Their Pussies,” a 10-piece collection of black-and-white paintings of single older women with their cats.
The series examines single-hood, aging and solitude, plus the value of wisdom and experience that emerges when physical beauty fades.
“Many older women feel invisible,” Jones said. “When physical things that are tied to our identities fade, other valuable things emerge that go unseen.”
An artist for more than 20 years, Jones once created pieces that were sarcastic and witty. She explored capitalism, the housing crisis and mass shootings, among other topics.
For example, she and her son once lived in a basement in Sonoma County, so she created art in 2016 that conveyed being trapped in a cage.
“My work was only poking at those topics but not truly examining the spiritual part or root of those issues,” Jones said.
Free of distractions of everyday life during the pandemic, she could reflect.
“I asked myself, ‘Why am I unable to stay in a long-term relationship?’” she said. But she drew a profound conclusion: Her longest relationship had been with art.
“I wasn’t distracted by the noise in my life; it was like a meditation,” Jones said. “I’m finding my natural power as a woman. How can you stop the clock? We can’t stop aging.”
For the series’ final piece, she depicted herself and her cat, Moon.
“I’m owning my aging; I’m embracing myself now,” Jones said. “These spinsters changed me.”
To see more of Jones’ art, go to missjones.carbonmade.com.
Chris Beards, mixed media sculptor
Chris Beards reached his tipping point.
As uncertainty from the pandemic loomed, the Santa Rosa artist became prolific. In his studio, he hammered, twisted and formed metals, plastics and other materials into abstract pieces.
He created 15 or so pieces swiftly, pouring into them all he had to express about the rising social and personal ramifications of the pandemic.
“I thought, ‘What’s going on in the world? What happened? What’s going to happen next?’” said Beards, 58. “I wanted to say so much.”
Beards felt out of control. This is reflected even in the materials he used — plastic, translucent pieces and other materials that are hard to control.
Among Beards’ flurry of artwork is a pedestal piece, “Tipping point,” made of bronze, a modified tree branch and pages from a science book. The piece is 52 inches tall, its height symbolizing that its topic is beyond us.
“As a nation, we’re kind of at a tipping point,” Beards said. “We are at the edge of things.”
The piece, created in 2022, is covered in “unspecified information” — text and random numbers. The branch balances on a bronze bowl painted to look like it’s going to overflow.
“Sometimes events cause you to rethink things in life,” Beards said. “You have a bucket list for your life, then you think, ‘I’m going to do this.’ It’s about changing things you don’t want to admit about yourself.”
Beards is hopeful, yet uncertain about the future.
“The work is not only personal but it’s universal,” Beards said. “I think we can all understand that idea (that) we have suffered a moral injury from the pandemic.
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