Art in the Time of Covid: Michelle Saffran
Vermont artist Michelle Saffran expresses herself through multiple roles as a photographer, a book maker, and an educator. When COVID-19 hit, her many creative practices were challenged on all fronts. As a visual artist, her connection to people, places, and current events became restricted; as a teacher, she had to find new ways of supporting her students online. However, these constraints allowed for new perspectives to crop up in Michelle’s work.
In her visual arts endeavors, Michelle Saffran alters photographs by hand and through the use of her computer. She often combines digital images with found materials, personal writing, and drawings. It is through this physical manipulation that she intends to demonstrate the effects of time, place, and personal history on identity. Michelle earned her MFA at Lesley University College of Art and Design, her BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and her BA from Oakland University. Her work is displayed in public and private collections across the United States, Mexico, and Australia. Recently, Michelle received an Artist Development Grant from the Arts Council.
Michelle shared her thoughts on art in the time of COVID.
How has the pandemic challenged your creative practice and/or business?
Almost overnight the COVID-19 virus went from an event affecting China to a global health catastrophe impacting the world. Our normal lives became overshadowed with confusion and fear. We were forced to isolate ourselves and stay home. Internet platforms became our primary means of communication. One of my biggest challenges was how to continue teaching and finish a semester that still had six more weeks to go. I had to find new ways to teach and support students, some of whom had little background in online learning and limited access to the Internet.
Like other artists, I also faced the challenge of remaining engaged with my peers. My photo-based practice reflects my thoughts on contemporary issues coupled with research in science, philosophy, and history; I depend on feedback from others to keep me grounded and moving forward. The art groups I belong to began meeting online. I was grateful for the contact, but virtual critiques are a poor substitute for in-person conversation. Looking at art online has its limits.
The first pandemic-related series I made, Vestige (2020), developed from a process of hand-sanding and overprinting photographs. Prints were abraded by hand with sandpaper, then sent back through the printer and reprinted with a different image on top. I would repeat this process as many as four times. I saw these acts of scarring and merging as a reflection on how our lives were recast by the pressures of the pandemic.
How have you found strength or support since the pandemic began?
A few months into the pandemic, I was offered an unanticipated opportunity to share a studio in Montpelier with a dear friend and fellow artist. The studio was large enough that we could follow the CDC guidelines for social distancing and masking, and both work in the space at the same time. I was motivated and strengthened by the energy of a new place. I was inspired by the history of the building and felt supported by regular contact with another artist. I found strength from looking at the pandemic-themed work of others, and the work of artists who were responding to the important political and social issues of today. The pandemic brought new ways for artists to show and promote their work. I was encouraged by the variety of creative ways I saw artists reinventing their practice. Galleries, arts venues, and arts organizations pivoted from in-person events to virtual exhibitions, e-publications, and online artist talks. This change in service delivery made art accessible to more people. The shift to the Internet allowed me to attend openings and participate in artist talks that I wouldn’t have been able to attend in person. I received an Artist Development Grant from the Vermont Arts Council to attend an online residency through the New York School of Visual Art. This online residency was developed to bring artists together and support them during a time when the pandemic prevented in-person residencies.
What are your plans or hopes for the future?
I will continue to make work that responds to how our lives have been altered over the last two and a half years, and that illustrates how we move forward from this point in time. It’s important to document a long view on the COVID-19 experience and reflect it back to viewers for examination and understanding. We will never forget that we lived through this anxious time, but we may not remember our feelings and the more subtle ways our lives have been changed as the pandemic continues. The work that began with the Vestige series has been followed by other series that mirror the human cost and economic impact of the virus at a variety of stages in its progression. The most recent series Who Am I Without You? considers the social and cultural impact of the death of over six million people. When you look at my website you will see work that began with one thought and continued through different concerns that emerged as the months went by. The work will continue to grow and deviate on its own volition. Ultimately my hope is to integrate and publish this work into a photo-book.
What are some ways people can support your work right now?
There are many ways you may support my work right now. One way is to look at my website, and add yourself to my mailing list. Being on the mailing list lets me send you notices of where and when you may see my work in person. I won’t clog your email. In general I send out less than a dozen announcements in a year. I invite you to come by the studio during open studio events and/or contact me directly to arrange a one-on-one studio visit. Follow me on Instagram and I will follow you back. If you have a gallery space you may invite me to show my work. You may also support me by purchasing my work. Ask for pricing.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I am continually on the look out for encyclopedias printed before 1970 and books with scientific illustrations from that same time period. I can use single books from the set or complete sets too. If you have some on your hands and want them to go to a good home, let me know! I am open to collaborator projects.