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Connecting through art when a pandemic keeps us apart


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: American artists of all kinds are responding to the pandemic with new creations.

As Jeffrey Brown reports, the art can be a call to action and a means of healing for the maker and audience alike.

The story is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The song is called "Six Feet Apart," a kind of anthem for the pandemic. Country music star Luke Combs co-wrote it in April, about a month into quarantine at his home in Tennessee.

Luke Combs: You know, I don't want to come from a place that is opportunistic or something that's corny or cheesy. You want to give people hope, I think, that this isn't going to last forever.

Jeffrey Brown: Combs, a triple Platinum-selling artist, would normally be on the road performing for thousands.

Luke Combs: I wanted to voice a little bit, I guess, of my frustration with.

This was set up to be my biggest year of my career by a long shot. And I'm sure there are millions of people around the world who feel the same way about whatever their job is or their passion.

And anything that can give someone even three minutes' worth of relief from that is something that I'm really proud of.

Jeffrey Brown: Around the country, artistic responses of all kinds.

Photographer Carrie Mae Weems, artist in residence at Syracuse University, launched a campaign to raise awareness, combining images of everyday life with direct messages on the need for precautions among people of color, who are disproportionately affected by the virus: "Don't worry, we will hold hands again. Sadly, you are the most impacted by COVID-19."

Sound artist Yuri Suzuki is collecting submissions for his now-virtual installation Sound of the Earth: Pandemic Chapter, a partnership with the Dallas Museum of Art.

To comfort critically ill patients, filmmaker Felipe Barral created a piece call Bella, streaming the natural world. Different creative ways to speak and act now.

In Queens, New York, one of the pandemic's epicenters, a meditation on the ghostly silence of the No. 7 subway line.

Frisly Soberanis: When are we going back to normal?

Jeffrey Brown: Twenty-six-year-old local artist Frisly Soberanis shot this short video of the tracks overhead.

Frisly Soberanis: The memories of the past come up very often, and they just sort of slam in front of what I'm seeing.

I know the people that were moving here, the businesses that were open, the energy of the space. And now I see it closed. And then I see that this structure is still continuing to sort of tower over us.

Jeffrey Brown: Soberanis' work is part of a large instant exhibition involving many artists commissioned by the Onassis Foundation, working with the Queens Museum and others. Soberanis normally makes a living doing video and film work. That's gone, and he and his extended family face urgent financial and other challenges.

The pandemic has hit especially hard in his largely minority and immigrant community, and heightened already profound societal inequities, playing out further now in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. He's made those issues a focus of his art.

Frisly Soberanis: I try to see the powers that are at play at the moment that I'm creating things, whether that's financial powers or cultural powers. Art, at least for me, is essential to capture a moment before it's rewritten in a different way.

Jeffrey Brown: In Duluth, Minnesota, artist Carolyn Olson is paying homage to her community with a vibrant series of portraits of what she sees as essential workers, filling drugstore orders, picking vegetables and fruits, delivering goods by bicycle, repairing a band student's instrument.

Carolyn Olson: Just being angry and frustrated isn't going to fix anything. So I felt like it was something I could do. I'm a -- I can draw. I can paint. I could comment about the people that were doing this kind of work and maybe bring light to it.

Jeffrey Brown: We learned of Olson's work when she wrote the "NewsHour" to say she'd found some of her subjects through stories she'd seen on our program, a bus driver, a sanitation worker, first responders.

But most of her subjects are closer to home, including a daughter who's worked through this period at a grocery store.

Carolyn Olson: I asked my daughter one time about what was going on and said, what about the grief?

And I felt like my drawing at least could talk about some of the things that were going on.

Jeffrey Brown: Artists have always done this, of course, including around pandemics of the past.

Edvard Munch, the Norwegian artist whose Scream is a viral image of our time, painted this self-portrait with the Spanish Flu in 1919, speaking directly to his.

More recently, David Wojnarowicz photographed his friend Peter Hujar as he died of AIDS-related pneumonia.

Choreographer Doug Varone:

Doug Varone: I can think of the AIDS crisis. I can think of 9/11. Artists respond to those moments. And this is no different. I think artists are really driven by the times. Things occur in our lives, they occur in the world around us, and we respond to them.

Jeffrey Brown: Varone and his company have been presenting new works for more than 30 years, but COVID-19 took its toll. In March, he furloughed his team until further notice.

Recently, he was asked to do something beyond his experience, create a socially distanced dance, with Varone working in his Upstate New York home, shown here on the small computer screen, and dancer Michael Trusnovec using his home in New Jersey as his stage.

Doug Varone: The concept behind it has been very much about the isolation that we all feel at.

And, for many people, you know, I have many friends who are in this alone. This piece in many ways is speaking about that. The role of the artist has always been to expand people's perception of what is happening.

Jeffrey Brown: In another sign of the times, the work will receive a virtual performance later in June.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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