Partners Julia Thompson and Kiri Williamson are in many ways typical of the artists that I’ve been interviewing for Art on the Air since the shelter-in-place order was enacted. Thompson, a painter, is unemployed, having been laid off from her job selling Disney vacation packages in early March. Williamson, an actress, continues working at Squirrel’s Pizza in Starland out of financial necessity, in spite of the inherent challenges of such a position.
“I’m still lucky enough to go to work.” She proclaimed.
“It feels like in the United States pizza is like grandma’s hug whenever everything is going wrong.” Added Thompson, “Pizza in particular, that’s America’s comfort food.”
Still, being around so many folks right now is definitely a stresser. We connected by phone with the intention of talking art (of which Thompson is making plenty-more on that later), but Williamson’s work in the restaurant industry and the emotional weight on her shoulders dominated the early part of our conversation.
“It’s hard to tell who is also going out of their way to not interact with a lot of other people before they’re coming to the restaurant and interacting with those of us who really don’t have a choice,” she lamented. “I’m happy to serve the community in any way right now but you know slinging pizzas doesn’t always feel essential, as grateful as I am to have my job still.”
Although her restaurant has done everything in their power to ensure a safe working environment, Williamson went on to say that, “less than half of the [patrons] that I interact with everyday have on a fabric or paper mask, or anything like that.”
In spite of the lack of protective measures that some customers have been taking, Williamson did note that, “the community has been taking care of [the staff],” presumably by leaving the kinds of outrageous tips that I, myself, have been leaving every time I’ve guiltily ordered takeout or delivery, including from Squirrel’s.
Once off the clock, she goes into full escapist mode, reading and “playing a lot more video games than [she] used to play before all of this was happening,” about which she bears no guilt.
“Stop expecting me to lose weight or paint something in my house or improve a thing,” Williamson demanded. “Right now going to work and hoping that I come back still healthy is kind of the capacity of my presumptuousness.”
Meanwhile Thompson, who, as noted above, has been out of work for nearly two months, has found a different kind of escape: Her artistic practice.
“I’ve really been thinking more about how the way we work, especially as an artist, how I have to change the way I work,” she said. “Even just thinking how am I going to contribute to society?”
As part of that process she’s been taking the online class “The Science of Well-Being,” offered for free by Yale, designed to help participants get to the core of what truly makes them happy.
“This is something I can explore within my artwork,” Thompson explained. “For the class you have to write essentially a thesis for what you think happiness is…and my thesis is going to be this twenty yard [long] drawing that I’m working on right now.”
It’s the kind of ambitious project that only months without a day job can give rise to. The piece is an abstract panoramic that is informed by a process of “collecting data” while watching the videos in the course, mostly in the form of blind contour drawings. From there she takes the “data” and uses it as a jumping off point for thinking about her own happiness, applying those ideas to the larger piece.
To fully immerse herself in the concept, Thompson’s using “primarily colored pencils and these fun little children’s crayons that are multicolored that change as you draw,” she said. “And really just drawing like a child draws, without thinking about what they’re drawing, they’re just doing it.”
Thompson feels as though it’s a huge positive for her and her work, and something that she’s noticed that a lot of her artistic peers are doing in their own practice.
“As an artist you almost feel like you want to contribute to society with your work,” Thompson noted. “And for a while when I was making artwork I was just thinking that I need to make something that people think is meaningful and that people want to buy. I was forcing something. And now I feel like there’s this uncertainty that’s looming [so] people are just saying, ‘well forget it, I’m just going to create stuff that’s being created for me.’”
Thompson admitted that “there are days during this quarantine where I don’t feel happy,” leading her to work more sporadically. Like her partner Williamson, however, she doesn’t feel guilty about it.
“I’m not going to force myself to create something when I’m not feeling happy,” she asserted. “Because that’s also not the point of what I’m trying to do with the twenty yard drawing. I’m trying to create happiness. And sometimes that’s also hard to do when you’re not feeling great, especially given the conditions that we’re in right now.”
“Hopefully while I’m creating this I’m creating more joy,” Thompson concluded, “and then whoever looks at this I hope that they see [that] joy.”
Listen to my entire conversation with Julia Thompson and Kiri Williamson embedded here. Next week I’ll be speaking with Bak Muhammad, aka Really Kahlil, and his brother Ijtihad Muhammad about the Love Matters movement and their upcoming collaboration to help flatten the COVID-19 curve.
Tune in to “Art on the Air” every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show “Art on the Air.”
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.