Space and What Fills It: A Pandemic Response

Where I Lived

I moved several times during the Pandemic — for lots of complicated reasons. I moved to a smaller apartment in Washington DC (right next door to where I was) because I needed less space (for reasons that will be clearer below), and I desperately wanted a totally different ambiance. I wanted modern and edgy and even fun. That move occurred in June 2020.

Then, my husband of 39 years, who had been living in our home in Vermont, passed away after a lengthy and horribly difficult battle with Alzheimer’s disease. That was in August of 2020. So, I put that house on the market in October of that year after getting it repaired and spruced up and all the medical supplies removed.

My amazing VT home had to be sold. The more recent memories of that home and the charming guest cottage (both of which I once adored and saw myself retiring there someday with room for my son and his future family) were staggeringly bad. It has become a home where I had had to barricade myself into the cottage to avoid the Alzheimer’s based wrath my husband displayed. The safe home I once knew disappeared.

The home sold almost immediately (folks were escaping cities) and, with the help of an amazing friend and an auctioneer/realtor, everything in that house was sold or given away, except a few personal items I preserved and now keep for happier memories. And yes, I did visit twice, seeing what I was giving up and helping make it a wonderful home for new owners.

In the meantime, I had moved to Gloucester, MA, at a place on the water, to wait out the Pandemic. DC was not the place to ride out COVID. Even before COVID, Gloucester had been a refuge for me. I lived where I could see the tides come and go. I could watch the sunrise and sunsets. And while the places I rented changed, the views and colors and sea air never changed. With the Pandemic spreading everywhere, the ocean seemed like a safe place where I could walk and work.

I had food delivered; I remained alone; I knitted; I took the dog to day care. I chatted at a distance with neighbors. I watched sports and a myriad of series on TV. I talked with friends and I “zoom taught” both adults and children. I wrote many articles; I released a new book on trauma (actually written pre-Pandemic). Even the book release party was online. I read, when I could as my concentration was oft-time off par. I worked hard and didn’t play enough.

I created a series of scheduled events to encourage order in an otherwise disorderly and uncertain world. Every Monday morning, I spoke to a friend in VT; every Tuesday, I participated in a virtual book club and while we only discussed books once a month, we meet weekly to discuss life; I had a standard work call with my team every Wednesday and while we oft-time just did the work before us to help others educators and students address trauma, we did lapse into Pandemic discussions of a wide-ranging sort. Every Thursday, my Delta Kappa Gamma Honor Society Chapter for Women Educators had a chat and even when I was not online, I knew that chat was there if I needed it. Every other weekend my adult son called and we’d chat — sometimes for a minute and sometimes longer.

Then Something Happened but first…

Before I explain what happened, I need to share a story from 1995–6, to contextualize what will follow. In that 20th century year, I was writing a book while on year-long sabbatical. At the time, I decided I needed to do something in addition to writing a book. I needed some way to release the pressure, to learn a new skill, to explore things other than writing and editing. I needed to expand my thinking and urge on my creative thinking.

My husband (who was working full time in NYC) and our son (who was still attending school in the Bronx) were busy during the day. So, I decided to take a drawing class at the 92nd Street Y. Readers may know of or have been to this remarkable place. It was known for its adult and children’s excellent courses (and concerts) and people came into NYC just to go to the Y.

As I signed up for a drawing course, I read with care that it was open to students at all levels and was taught by an established Y instructor. The only supplies needed were paper and charcoal. It met weekly for several hours on Wednesday mornings as I recall. To be blunt and clear, I did not know how to draw. I drew stick figures for people and made chairs that lacked perspective. My drawings resembled those of a child.

I had read an article in the NYTimes magazine by Tony Schwartz (I knew his dad actually which gave the article added credibility) about how he learned to draw, relying in part on a book by Betty Edwards called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In the article, Tony shared his early drawings (they resembled mine) and then his work following the course. The post-course drawings were stunning and remarkably advanced in both technique and style.

I imagined myself learning to draw.

I arrived for the first class, found an open spot at an empty easel and sat down. We were in a large square. Some of the attendees knew each other; I assumed they had been together in other classes. Then, once the room filled, a stunningly handsome man entered the center, took off his robe (which left him totally naked) and a female voice from the back said: “Begin.”

“Begin?” I thought to myself. How am I going to do that? I thought we were drawing flowers and vases and eggs and wine bottles. I was panic struck when the whole point of attending was to ease the panic of writing a new book. I raised my hand and the teacher approached. I said, in short, “I am an educator; where are the lessons? Where are the instructions for how to draw.” The instructor, Enid Braun, paused and said gently, “I teach differently perhaps from what you are accustomed to in your university. I ask people to just draw and I come around and look at each person’s work and maybe add a line or two with my own charcoal. Sometimes I will hold up a student’s work and share its strengths. So, just begin.”

I balked. “I can’t, I almost shouted. “I have no idea how to draw the naked man in front of me,” And everyone else in the class was sketching away. They seemed totally accustomed to drawing and to human models. “Just put the charcoal on the paper and something will happen,” the teacher calmly responded. I protested and said, nothing would emerge, sounding very much like a petulant child.

The rest of that first class is a blur but by the end of two hours, I did have something on some pieces of paper. True, they were abstract in a sense, given that drawing what was actually before me seemed near impossible. And, at times, I just looked at the model, wondering how I could possibly capture this man on paper.

At the end of class, the teacher said that she wanted to keep one of each of our drawings from each week and at the end of the year, we would do a retrospective, inviting other classes and outsiders to attend. One student replied, “Well, that’s hard because I like to take everything home for my husband to see.” To that, I replied way too fast, “You couldn’t pay me to take my drawings home for my husband to see.”

And, over a year, I learned to draw. I never drew as well as virtually all of the others but I improved remarkably. And, I had a sense that I was drawing better because I was seeing better. What I really learned is that what I thought I saw and tried to draw was different from what was there; perspective is tough to recognize, let alone master. And, that observation enhanced my writing; what we think is there is not always what is there if we try to capture it.

Now, I could never draw outside that classroom although I tried from time to time. I needed Enid Braun if I were to draw. I thanked her in my book — which won a prize and has been cited by hundreds over the years. And, I am absolutely sure that the book succeeded and its layered meaning expressed well because I learned to draw.

Fast Forward

In the midst of the Pandemic, for reasons that remain totally unclear to me, I started to paint. Not as in painting the walls but as in creating art. And to be clear, between the drawing escapade and the commencement of painting, I had never created a piece of art.

Yes, it was a respite from the trauma work I was doing and I surely needed some relief. But, I took up painting without a class, without Enid Braun, without experience, without any sense of what I was doing. Yes, I went online and saw a few videos of white on white painting, something I thought I wanted to create.

I bought acrylic paints and some brushes. I bought some spackle to create texture. I bought white paint and black paint and many shades of blue and green paint. I bought colors of the ocean. I bought different canvases, some with frames and some without. And, just like that, I started painting.

I created texture with sand and yarn and tissue paper and spackle. I painted every day for weeks on end. I was in a rental place and there was no place to hang my art, so I just stacked it in an empty room. I took some photos and shared some images with the illustrator of my children’s books. She’d usually give me a one word or one sentence observation like “Keep going.” “Improving.” “Use craypas too and water.” “The direction of lines matters.” And I kept painting. And painting.

Moving and My Art and My Friends’ Art

I found an amazing loft in an art community to buy with up close water views on three sides. The light was amazing. The sunsets and sunrises were equally good. The 17' high ceilings and porthole windows way above normal site lines were and are stellar. So was the open piping and the square windows. The place needed work and while the workers worked their magic, I continued to paint. And then, when the place was ready, I started hanging my art on the walls with their help. Deciding what went where seemed easy enough through trial and error and the workers shared their views as well.

But I was not done. I started painting a mural on a wall. Then I created a mask and mirror exhibit on another wall. After that, I painted pretend cushions on my outside Adirondack chairs. I painted a table cloth on an outdoor table. I began painting pears — in pairs — for reasons that also escape me.

And, within 8 weeks, the open spaces in my new home were filled with my art. Everywhere I turned, space was filled with art. And, to my art, I added the art of three of my closest friends. One piece of art is a painting, one is a quilt and one is an alpaca pillow. So, now I am surrounded by my art and the art of my closest friends. My space is now complete and it is mine. All mine to the core.

Recently, since I live in a location with many galleries and working artists, I bought a sculpture and a small painting. I am thinking of commissioning another painting from a local artist. These will all add to my space and place.

When the sculptor delivered her work, she looked around the loft, focussing on my art and said, “Where do you show?” I paused as I initially didn’t get the full meaning of what she was saying. “Show?” as in what? “I don’t show,” I replied. “I’ve never shown.” “You should,” she answered immediately.

Yes, I write and publish books. Yes, I share them and sell them. I give speeches and share PowerPoints. But, so far, my art has remained private except to the extent that I use it in my teaching and as part of my blogs. And yes, I did put some of it on a website with no expectation of selling any of it as it not actually for sale.

What I have is the art that enabled me to navigate the Pandemic and create my own space. It is the art that allowed me to make a home. It is the art that allowed me to express myself. It is the art that facilitated my working with traumatized individuals.

Some of my art appears below — not because it is for sale. But, I thought readers needed to get a sense of what I created, if only to know that we all find different pathways for dealing with the Pandemic and making our space our own. And the image under the title above is mine too.

And, for the record, now that I don’t need more art in my home, I am wondering what is next. I might start painting by changing my color palette from the blues/greens to the colors of fire. Maybe I’ll paint for a friend or two, to put in their houses (free of charge). Or maybe I will just paint — for no particular reason and for every reason imaginable.

A Sampling

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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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Karen Gross

Karen Gross

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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