Whether we are all alone or squashed together, working or not, worried or relaxed, everything has changed because of coronavirus, and this feels deeply unsettling for everyone I know. The death rates are mind-boggling. How will we get out of this? What was true last year is now nonsense, things we now know to be true were unthinkable a few months ago, and nobody has a clue what the world will look like once the virus is under control (if it ever is under control).
So they say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. This may sound glib, but in these troubled times of lockdown, all we can actually do is make the best of it. People are finding comfort in simple pleasures like reading, doing jigsaws, knitting, cooking, taking long baths, maintaining a steady supply of chocolate, giving each other shoulder massages, listening to the Desert Island Discs back catalogue on BBC iPlayer. And this is all good.
But, many of us have a nagging suspicion that we should, somehow, be ‘self-improving’ in lockdown. This is not so good. Social media has just found another way to make us feel guilty and inadequate. If I see on Facebook that my friend has dug a new flower bed, I’m thrilled for her — but if I read an article that says everybody should be self-improving by becoming a master sourdough-baker, or learning Portuguese, or finishing their novel, or recreating the Hanging Gardens of Babylon on their balcony, I just want to cry. Because for so many people, this bizarre situation is simply about survival. People are losing their loved ones, they are losing their jobs and businesses, their support networks, their homes, hopes and identities, and their delicately-balanced states of mental and emotional wellbeing. Making the best of it comes in many different flavours nowadays.
I have more time on my hands than usual and I am enjoying the headspace, the extra sleep and being with my family, despite my low-level Armageddon anxiety. For me, a brief respite from the quiet, structureless days came in the form of a two-hour life-drawing class hosted by Jo Harris of The Henley School of Art, which is now running online instead of in the studio. The session consisted of 30 artists of all different abilities coming together via the miracle of Zoom, with Jo leading, and Bella (the professional life-drawing model with tumbling blond hair and beautifully drawable curves) posing for us in her own home. We warmed up with some short poses, sitting, lying down and standing up, and we then had a quick break before two longer poses.
We could all see each other during the session, but for most of the time it was just Bella on the screen, with the rest of us muted so that we could listen to our own music while we worked. Drawing is an absorbing and single-minded activity – you can’t think about the humdrum when you’re trying to figure out how long someone’s arm is compared to the width of their belly, and you’re trying to get the angles and the face and the shapes just right. I was so absorbed in my drawing that I completely forgot about coronavirus, I forgot about all the other artists, and I even forgot to drink my tea. At the end, a few artists held up their work and others asked questions about materials and commented on the lovely lines and fabulous shading. But it didn’t really matter if what we had produced was any good or not because this wasn’t about self-improvement, it was all about creativity and connection.
Life-drawing is obviously better in the studio, but we aren’t allowed to go there. So, this was a masterclass in not being defeated, in making the best of it, in taking them lemons and making lemonade.