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‘A place of solace’: Arts in 2020 helped UNC, Chapel Hill communities cope and connect

Junior Anna Eskew paints a Christmas ornament on Nov. 30, 2020. Photo courtesy of Anna Eskew.

Despite the challenges of 2020, many members of the UNC and Chapel Hill arts community felt the changes imposed by the pandemic increased connectivity and meaning in the art world. 

This year, student artist Anna Eskew found more time to focus on her work. Instead of only painting during break, she now paints eight to 10 hours per day.

Her art business is called Creannative, a combination of her first name and the word creative. Eskew said she expanded her business this year by selling some of her work to a local boutique, Whilden. 

“In a social sense, the pandemic has affected a lot of people negatively,” Eskew said. “As far as my art business, it's really helped me to focus on improving upon my skills and allowed me to get my name out in the community more.”

Eskew said she looks to those like mixed-media artist Ashley Longshore for inspiration. She said that in 2020, much of Longshore’s work has centered around current events — ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

“It’s just been really interesting to see the way that different artists use their art as an outlet to convey their thoughts and feelings on the current social setting,” Eskew said. 

Carolyn Allmendinger, director of education and interpretation at the Ackland Art Museum, observed several changes in the arts world over the course of the year. She said one of the most apparent changes was gallery closures – the Ackland closed to visitors in mid-March due to the spread of the pandemic.

The Director of Education and Interpretation at the Ackland Art Museum, Carolyn Allmendinger, poses for a FaceTime portrait from outside her home on Nov. 30, 2020.

To make up for exhibit closures, the Ackland has made artist talks and interviews available to the public, beginning in April and continuing through the summer and fall.

“In normal life, or pre-pandemic life, people might have been busier or they might have had a hard time getting to a location where an artist was talking,” she said. “Something about the relative ease of just logging onto a Zoom link means that for many more people, it's logistically simpler than it might have been.” 

Allmendinger said these talks have helped people escape the constant conversation about infections and the economic impact of the pandemic. 

The current installation at the Ackland is “Holding Space for Nobility: A Memorial for Breonna Taylor,” by Atlanta-based artist Shanequa Gay. 

Gay said installing this work was different than previous years. Due to COVID-19-related safety precautions, instead of having nearly 24-hour access to the space, she had limited time frames in which she could work. 

Regardless, Gay completed the installation on Oct. 30, 2020 and it will remain in the space until July 4, 2021.

“I did have a chance to see (this installation) in person,” Allmendinger said. “It’s pretty powerful and it’s sobering and it’s serious. And it’s also meant to be empowering, and it is empowering.” 

For the first two and a half months of the pandemic, Gay moved from being an active installer to being stationary at home. She said she was not creating much up until the Black Lives Matter protests.

“It’s almost as if the world began to turn to art as a way to find resolve,” Gay said. 

Since May, Gay has done about five or six installations. She said that art has been a good distraction from dealing with personal traumas head-on. 

Gay said she has seen changes in the way that art functions in 2020. Artists have put their art on masks, and restaurants have been commissioning mural work for their outdoor spaces. 

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Gay did an installation at another restaurant in Atlanta, Kale Me Crazy, intending to tell customers that the space was safe to come into. 

“It's been a great platform for artists for those of us who've been able to benefit from it,” she said. “People are turning to art to find a place of solace.”