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Reflections of solitude: Online exhibit looks at art created in the wake of the pandemic

For many New Mexico artists, the pandemic kindled a creative renewal fueled by isolation.

Open online at the New Mexico Art League, “In the Wake” displays the results of solitude through graphite, collage, mixed-media, acrylic, oil, watercolor and pastel, through Saturday, April 10.

“Hammam,” Juliana Coles, mixed-media on cradle board, 36×36 inches. (Courtesy of The New Mexico Art League)

San Antonio, New Mexico-based artist Betty Lehnus produced a series of 50 masked portraits.

The former Chicago resident took photographs of friends, family and strangers, then put graphite to paper in haunting imagery. Graphite is a softer version of what pierces a lead pencil. Lehnus prefers graphite for portraits because its softness can produce rich darkness and light.

“And you can erase,” she added.

“Far Away,” Betty Lehnus, graphite on paper, 8×10 inches.

Lehnus’ “Far Away” shows the masked face of a Japanese friend. The artist completed the piece at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Everybody was just starting to wear a mask and it just seemed so strange,” she said.

“Her look is, ‘I went so far away from Japan,’ ” Lehnus said. “Her husband got the virus. Of course, the mask concentrates your look on peoples’ eyes; that’s all you see.”

For Lehnus, the results compare to black and white photography.

“I’m not going to distract you with color,” she said. “It’s how beautiful people are when you reduce them to very expressive eyes.”

“We Were Thrown A Curve,” Diane Kell, acrylic on canvas, 17.5×21.5 inches. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Art League)

Lehnus studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago and later at the city’s American Academy of Art. She has lived in New Mexico for 18 years.

When Marian Berg isn’t working as a nurse, she rolls an art supply cart around the University of New Mexico’s Children’s Hospital to work with its youngest patients. The founder of the Art Heals Project, she balances her dual jobs with her artwork. Ironically, the pandemic has been good for her artistic career.

“I painted a mural in my backyard on the ugly cement block wall,” she said. “I painted botanical things and flowers.”

“Covid Scrabble,” Carolyn Berry, collage on paper, 14×14 inches.

She posted the results on Facebook and the commissions came. She also received an offer to teach mural painting at Ghost Ranch in June.

Berg painted “Coronavirus Blues” at the beginning of the pandemic. A herd of floating, spiked orbs surrounds a nude woman. To Berg, it symbolized human fragility.

“I was trying to express how vulnerable we are to this virus, and how resilient we are if we follow the CDC precautions,” she said. “But she’s got a mask on. I painted it from a model.”

Berg studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before turning to nursing to support herself.

Juliana Coles’ piece “Hammam” emerged from a trip to Morocco splashed with anxiety and gratitude.

The Albuquerque resident often combines text and imagery in mixed-media collage.

“Hammam is the bathhouse in Morocco and a lot of Middle Eastern countries,” she explained. “It’s a real common experience and a real cleansing; they scrub your skin. It’s intense. I was using that metaphor (of) releasing that which we no longer need.”

A private and online art teacher, Coles travelled to Morocco in 2017. She used Arabic calligraphy for the call to prayers with portraits and skulls in “Hammam.”

“Its’s such a different lifestyle,” she said. “You stop and listen and you go within. In our culture, we’re so not present; we’re so distracted.”

Although the skull can be a symbol of the Day of the Dead, for Coles it reflects a deeper meaning.

“Being epileptic, it seems like death,” she said. “I never know if I’m going to come back. It’s processing feelings we all have – anxiety and doubt.”

The artist needs substantial rest when she returns home from her travels because of the disorder.

“I felt bad that I needed a lot of alone time,” she continued. “Now that’s been somewhat normalized because of COVID.

“COVID has inspired that feeling of being blessed,” she said. “Without getting in a car or going anywhere, (Albuquerque is) beautiful. Now what I have is plenty.”

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