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Three Artists On The Expansion of Work, Creativity and Caregiving In A Pandemic

"Pandemic life changed my relationship with my studio back to what it had once been, not somewhere of guilt and stolen time but a sanctuary where I need to be to be my full self, and consequently the best parent and partner as well."
'Love In The Time Of Coronavirus' by Soumiya Krishnaswamy 

'Love In The Time Of Coronavirus' by Soumiya Krishnaswamy 

If you are the main caregiver in your family, you may relate to feeling like an octopus, because your two arms just aren’t enough to keep up with life these days; making snacks, typing an email, helping with homework, breaking up an argument, answering the phone, and participating in a Zoom call all at the same time. Over the past 18 months, things have been on overdrive all the time. It wasn’t until speaking with friend and artist, Allison Hester, that another animal came to mind, the camel.

The emotional and mental loads on our backs have had us at capacity, yet we keep going. The weights we carry have not eased as COVID stretches on, if anything, it often gets heavier. While the load does not get lighter, it is divided differently over time. What happens when one piece gets too heavy? Health concerns, financial concerns, work/life balance, pre-COVID life/maybe someday-post-COVID life stresses.

For caregivers who are creatives, the balance of unseen labor and paid labor is precarious, especially when trying to find time for artistic practice. We spoke with three women whose creative COVID journeys have led to common paths: a renewed focus on their art, and even through difficulty, an appreciation for finding what was most important in their lives. We are so grateful to have the honor of introducing you to Allison Hester, Soumiya Lakshmi Krishnaswamy, and Alexa Weitzman as we hear how they have navigated changes in paid work, managed home life, and found space for imagination and creation.

'Work In Progress 2021' by Allison Hester

'Work In Progress 2021' by Allison Hester

I’m Allison Hester and I make art and do bookkeeping in exchange for money.

I am Soumiya Lakshmi Krishnaswamy. I am a painter and sometimes mixed media installation artist living in Brooklyn, New York.

My name is Alexa Weitzman. I am a mother, a wife, a friend, an artist, a sewer, a cook.

Challah Cover by Alexa Weitzman 

Challah Cover by Alexa Weitzman 

Who have you been at home with in this COVID era?

AH: The one-and-only Matt Crane (partner/husband/artist), his soon to be 15-year old and the wildlife in the yard….every window is rabbit TV right now!

SLK: In these COVIDien days, my family has been home together. My husband Robert is a master carpenter, builder, and designer. It is nice to have him help build supports for me when I need it and be my personal art handler. He was home for most of the pandemic, back at work the past few months. We have 2 boys who are the best of friends. Jagger is turning 8 in November, was 6 when the world shut down and will start his 3rd year of pandemic-affected school as a 3rd grader. He attended school for 1.5 years before COVID, and has had 1.5 at home doing remote school. Thelonious, or Lolo will be 5 in September and was 3 when this hit. He started his education in remote school PreK, and will go to Kindergarten this fall. I guess they’ll both be starting back in person. It will be good for them to be with friends and teachers, and a massive weight off of me to not be managing their schoolwork. The “motherload” during this pandemic, as we all know, from parenting to educating to surviving with no or modified income while redefining how we live and who we are- it has been far too much. It felt impossible to live beyond the scope of one breath. But I’ve really cherished this time I’ve had with my kids, especially since I have never had child care or help. This will be the first time in 8 years that my kids will both be in school and away from me! I already miss them! Luckily I’ll have my trusted pup and studio mate, Kalliope Malizia, who has been through all of it with me.

AW: I live in an apartment in Queens with my husband and our 7-year old. He was in the middle of kindergarten when this started. My husband worked from home for about 3 months before returning to work in-person at a NYC hospital in the summer of 2020, so since then it’s been me and my kid through ½ of remote kindergarten and many weeks of remote first grade.

'Into The Blue Again' by Soumiya Krishnaswamy 

'Into The Blue Again' by Soumiya Krishnaswamy 

What was your paid labor before COVID? Has it remained the same or changed?

AH: I was bookkeeping before COVID and assisting an artist, gallery sitting, and other random projects. Most of the in-person projects stopped completely or were taken over by someone in their family/health bubble. Even with the random projects disappearing, the ability to work remotely on bookkeeping put me in the very lucky position of being too busy at times and I had to turn away work. My workload has evened out since 2020, though mentally, the money work has become more challenging. I’ve always kept hard-line boundaries between work and my personal time and with EVERYONE experiencing their own COVID life, I feel different energy returned from those that pay me. Like, having boundaries means I’m slacking off and don’t care enough about the job….hard to say if that is COVID or a new norm (If any of my clients read this, I’m not talking about you..you’re great!). COVID, and these assumptions, have blurred the definition of my workday. There was a long stretch where I’d wake up with the birds, grab a coffee, and sit down to work at 5 am thinking I’d get through the workday quicker, which mostly resulted in working a 12 hour day and being a brainless, hangry puddle of a person when it was supposed to be time to enjoy my family. I started feeling like a robot set to Work Mode or Dinner Mode. As much as I like repetition, all work and no play makes Allison an unbearable lunatic.

My remote home office is the same room as my art studio, so creating systems to transition between money work and art work was a new necessity, replacing the commute. Some things that help me are hiding work-related calendars, notes and to-do lists out of sight, silencing the phone if not leaving it in another room, changing clothes...anything to try and stay present. I feel guilty for not making art when I’m making money and guilty for not making money when I’m making art, but that’s nothing new. Oh, and everything in the studio/office is on wheels so I also can physically rearrange the space, sometimes blocking me from the computer to avoid doom scrolling.

SLK: This question makes me do the completely physically encompassing laugh-cry! Ugh. Having given up all other paying gigs when I had kids, I’ve been nothing but a working artist for years now. Paid? Sometimes. Labor? Always. Parenting and house and life management? Do unconditional love and tiny little boy kisses and hugs count? My actual real paid labor before, during, and after COVID is my creative practice. No pressure.

The limits of space and time, with kids at home and a home studio, means that the installations are on the back burner of life, but always in progress in my head! Before kids, I taught, usually as a university professor, and sometimes in other grades and schools. Unfortunately, the university system -definitely in regard to adjunct faculty- isn’t set up to support mothers, particularly artist mothers. But I’ve been happy this past year and a half to not have to take on anything beyond what I already do! My 2 kids and husband keep me spinning, and I try to sneak into the studio for peace. In the BeforeTimes, we traveled heaps, which I’m missing desperately. And in a past life, I ran bars and restaurants, so frequently all of my identities come together in pretty cocktails that I’ve been sharing during the ‘rona days.

AW: Before COVID, I worked in the healthcare space for over 10 years as an acupuncturist. I did some clinical work, but most recently the majority of my paid labor was working on a panel of physicians doing Independent Medical Exams for no-fault insurance claims. In this role, I commuted all over the metro area performing evaluations on injured people. Occasionally I would provide testimony in court when those claims made it through the legal system. When COVID hit, since this was not essential healthcare and since my son’s school was closed, I stopped working. My job didn’t translate to remote work, so overnight I was unemployed. I was able to pick up a few shifts when the company opened back up in the summer of 2020, but once the 2020-21 school year started, I was unable to continue working that job since my husband was back working in-person work and I needed to run the remote school situation. By the time schools were reliably back open, the company I worked for had gone out of business, so I had no job to return to. My professional life and career just fell off a cliff.

Since then, I’ve been fortunate to start a part-time job with my Jewish spiritual community, Malkhut, doing development work. It’s an opportunity that came at just the right time. I’ve been involved with them as a volunteer leader for a number of years and I’m passionate about securing funding to sustain its growth. It’s also great to be working with a team again - I missed that during the year+ I was inside an apartment with only my child! Not that that time wasn’t incredibly special, and I’ll never have that close one-on-one opportunity to bond with him like this, but the 180-degree shift from full-time work outside the home to no work and only inside the home caused a good deal of distress along the way, so I’m thrilled to be working again.

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Allison Hester's studio 

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How has your artistic practice changed in the past year and a half?

AH: I can honestly say I’ve spent more time in the studio...you know, since I work in here now. ;) I’ve most definitely become more aware of the privileges I possess, of the time I have to make work, of the world being on fire...feels uncomfortable and that feeling is important [cue the Rabbi Lobster video]. The imagery in my work has always circled portraiture and while I don’t think the work has changed, my viewing of it has. Time does this with most art, but reflection seems to follow creation more immediately these days. I love drawing hands and one of my current series initially started with a super fun eczema diagnosis and dealing with the crushing hand pain from too much computer work. “How am I going to continue to make money using my skill set if I destroy my hand’s function while performing my job?” is a recurring thought bubble of mine (I don’t think any of that comes out in the work, nor do I think that it needs to...just the origin story for the kind people still reading this. You’re the best!) These days, if my algorithm is focused on the virus, I think about hands in the way of cleanliness and connection or distance. If I’m hearing a lot about the oppression of BIPOC, I think about the skin I embody and depict in my work and the unearned privileges I just get to wear every day. The list can go on and on and I have to compartmentalize and limit my news intake, otherwise, quite literally, I’m not sure I’d make it out of bed. As an ever-emerging artist, I’m used to rejection through repeatedly applying to opportunities that I don’t get, and in the last year and a half, I’ve opted out of sending in these applications, just to avoid piling on more disappointment since I’m pretty sure I’m a camel now, and that straw looks pretty heavy.

SLK: Coronavirus has brought an interesting evolution to my work practice. Before the pandemic, with two very young kids, working was always ‘stealing time’, being selfish. We all know the nonstop demands and exhaustion parenting brings, and I am the primary, full-time caregiver. But also, I’m a full-time working artist, and my entire life, my studio has been the bringer of sanity, centering, problem-solving, emotional and psychic well-being. So since having kids, I’ve always held my artistic practice as the third ghost kid in my head, always worrying, guiltily knowing I’m not giving it what it needs, guilty if I do, and “neglect” Jagger and Lolo. Then I had started stealing time, making little windows, late nights, and starting new very small-scale projects that I could do in small daily bites. Interestingly, once the pandemic hit and we were on stay at home, it manifested my ghost child art practice as one of the bits of us that we were home living with now. My studio has always been at home, for better or worse, and now so was everyone else all the time. Because I was so inundated, and giving every bit of everything I had to the family 24/7, the guilt I have carried about my having to “go to work” and be in the studio floated away- maybe in fact I smashed it to pieces. In order to maintain the intensity of pandemic parenting, and not just go berserk on everyone, I needed to actually create time for my practice, regularly, and guiltlessly. The more frustrating and insane the weight and stress of pandemic life was and is, the more I ran to the studio to work it out. All of the freedom and confidence of choice manifested in my work too, and I have gotten a lot done and am still working away. All the little daily work emerged in paintings I felt that I could give myself back to. Pandemic life changed my relationship with my studio back to what it had once been, not somewhere of guilt and stolen time but a sanctuary where I need to be to be my full self, and consequently the best parent and partner as well. I think there are mythical ideas about troubled artists, raging around the studio and coming out mad, but for me, it is quite the opposite. Studio time = centered mama.

AW: When COVID hit, I pulled out my sewing machine to make my family masks. I always knew how to sew, but never did much more than small craftsy projects. But after making masks and reacquainting myself with the machine, I pushed myself to make a small quilted block. Quilting is something I always loved but never understood how it was actually possible - it looked so hard and I was intimidated! But I had a lot of time and so I watched a lot of Youtube videos and gave it a shot. I LOVED the process. I love being able to translate playing with color to something tangible. I also love the mechanicalness of sewing, the technical nature of the craft. I love that it busies my hands and that sometimes I have to do the math to figure something out. To be learning something new during this complete rearrangement of my life and the world around me has helped me a lot.

Pouches by Alexa Weitzman

Pouches by Alexa Weitzman

How would you describe the balance between your unpaid labor, paid labor, and creative practice and would you say that balance is different today than last year and the year before?

AH: I don’t think much about balance. When things are balanced, nothing is happening. Having a balanced life would mean that any change leads to disruption and even chaos; it's a setup for failure, whether by your own definition or by society’s judgments. If I can manage not to think about money when I’m not on the clock, I’m more pleasant to be around.

SLK: As I mentioned, I’ve always worked from home. And if I’m being honest, I think it is always out of balance. It is a constant pendulum swing. Correct, overcorrect, moment of zen, tornado. But maybe I’m getting better at adjusting the flow?

I always give maybe too much of my energy to my family, but I understand better now how if I don’t give the energy into my creative practice, which is my paid work, then I indict myself in my own feelings of being undervalued and I am the reason it is out of balance. I’ve always said you can’t control the wind, but you can adjust your sails, and this year, I feel like while it has been in the perfect storm and I’ve damn near drowned and sunk the boat, I have learned how to sail.

AW: While I was working in the healthcare sector this past decade, I didn’t have a true, formal creative practice, and looking back on it, it showed. I was dissatisfied and unfulfilled. Although I always made space within my paid and unpaid labor to find outlets to be creative, now that I feel anchored in a creative practice, I feel more fulfilled. Not that it’s a clean and easy exchange, though. My paid labor was a grind pre-COVID, but it was lucrative and while we’re fine financially without it, making money and contributing financially to my family’s life was important to me. Before COVID, I paid someone to do many of my household chores since I worked out of the house so often. Now, since I’m home all the time, that doesn’t make sense (and I’m still fairly traumatized from COVID and since my child isn’t eligible to be vaccinated yet, I still worry about having people in my apartment), and I’ve absorbed these chores into my routine. My husband is back to his pre-COVID, in-person job and is out 9-10 hours a day, so the lioness’s share of household labor falls on me. When I’m home, I sew a lot or work for Malkhut, but I also run up and down to the laundry room and set time aside to scrub the bathroom. Being at home for the majority of my paid and unpaid labor is new for me. In my pre-COVID paid labor, I commuted many hours and many miles away from Queens. Now, I work from home and barely leave. I’m an extrovert and this year of isolation has really taken a pretty serious toll mentally and emotionally.

I have a lot of unpaid roles in my life and they’ve increased since COVID. I volunteer as a member and, since September 2019, chair of my local community board. In the “before times” this role fit neatly around my paid labor, family, and personal obligations, and I found a lot of meaning in the role giving back to my local community. But with COVID and the increased needs of my community, this role has increased in time and scope.

But, on the flip side, to be making money making art is a dream come true! I’m getting a lot of orders for custom challah covers and I love working on them. Sometimes I think back to my pre-COVID days, dropping my child at early school drop off at 7:30 am so I could commute up to 2 hours to one of the offices where I would evaluate countless claimants just to come home and pick him up at 5:30 pm, and I shudder. I feel like I’ve reclaimed my time and my essence now that I’m using my time creatively and I’m grateful for all the time I’ve spent with him this past year+, but wow is it different!

'Even Your Emotions Have An Echo In So Much Space' by Soumiya Krishnaswamy

'Even Your Emotions Have An Echo In So Much Space' by Soumiya Krishnaswamy

Where do you hope your creative practice goes next?

AH: Hopefully, my work is included in a group show or in people’s art collections. Hopefully, I can continue being able to make things, until I’m dead, which hopefully isn’t soon, but if it is ...borrowing from Tripper Harrison in Meatballs, "It just doesn’t matter."

SLK: Forward. Out. Sideways. Across the pond. I’m hopeful for what comes next. Scared of continued pandemic life, but hopeful, at last. It is time to let my ghost third child get attention and time, get shown! My work is moving forward, and in theory, my kids go to school for the first time in forever. I have a show in Italy on the horizon, and some projects brewing, and I’m ready to get this pandemic to work out and get back into the world. As my family prepares to leave the nest and each go down our paths, I hope my creative practice can continue to grow and evolve, and more than anything, I trust it. I hate this pandemic. Who doesn’t? But I think somehow, it has landed me in a good place to move forward.

AW: I’m really happy with the trajectory of my creative practice. I’m getting a lot of orders for custom challah covers which I love because each person that orders sends me unique inspirations and I love taking their ideas and making something meaningful and beautiful. I love knowing that these covers will be used, touched, and viewed each week and will go on a person’s shabbat or holiday table for years to come. I feel useful! I love combining my spiritual practice with my artistic practice and I’d like to expand to other ritual items like a tallit. I’ve started a new Instagram account for @blvdsew and I’m enjoying creating Reels and using that medium to have fun and share the techniques I’m using. I want to keep up this momentum and keep creating every day and see where this can lead and I also want to be able to expand to more collaborative and in-person creative spaces. I would love to have a small studio space surrounded by other artists and I would love to start to work on larger-scale projects. One of my goals with Boulevard Sew Shop is to have my pouches and challah covers end up in stores (if I’m dreaming HUGE, The Jewish Museum shop) and boutiques in Queens and NYC and, eventually, beyond. I remember being in art school and thinking to myself, “I could never make money creating art,” but I am, and I want to keep going. 

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