Art in a Time of Covid

Artists Emma Bossley and Nicol Sanders-O’Shea share how they found creative inspiration during lockdown, and how their compelling art reasonates with people grappling with challenging times.

Artists Emma Bossley and Nicol Sanders-O’Shea share how they found creative inspiration during lockdown, and how their compelling art reasonates with people grappling with challenging times.

In a large painting titled Waiting, a woman sits alone on a bed looking at her lap. Another finds
a teenage figure sinking into the couch, eyes staring blankly into the distance. Across town on Durham St, colourful flags fly from poles, in one a ‘Welcome Home’ banner is strung across the entrance as a panting wolf-like figure welcomes two children home. Whilst on another, two young girls from the 1950s, one in a mask, are surrounded by bubbles containing fighter planes.
Exploding text reads ‘POP!’.

March 2020 lockdown was the start of what has been a strange and uncertain time. Since then, emotions and anxieties have been, well, all over the show. It’s been hard.

For Tauranga based artists Nicol Sanders-O’Shea and Emma Bossley, the pandemic inspired a shift
in their respective creative practices. Through printmaking and painting, they began attempting to understand and process emotions and experiences that had become part of their everyday.

Emma painting in her home studio

Waiting, 2021 by Emma Bossley.

Emma recalls the first lockdown, which closed her workplace Tauranga Art Gallery. At home, she suddenly had all her children back under the same roof. Her eldest, in her 20s, had been planning
to travel but overnight everything changed. “Moving out of home, travelling and exploring the world is a Kiwi rite of passage. It’s such a special time. As a mother, I was so anxious and disappointed for her. You want your children to have every opportunity to become their future selves, just as we did, and there we were, all stuck at home together, staring into devices”.

Nicol is the Academic Leader Art and Design at Toi Ohomai. Her family had just moved into a new home, but their furniture was being used to stage the old property. “My husband and I had two teenagers, mattresses on the floor and some fold-out chairs from Kmart. Being in lockdown in the new home was hard. The empty house was our entire physical world”.

Emma set up a studio in a spare bedroom, and Nicol began a big project, utilising her empty rooms.

Nicol often sources post-WWII imagery from ‘50s and ‘60s boys and girls annuals, ‘how to’ and first aid guides. Through playing around with the composition and repetition of imagery, she has established a distinct aesthetic that has a sense of nostalgia and familiarity.

With plenty of time on her hands, she started printing and repeating a single image from a 1960s
first aid guide, with a man trying to resuscitate a woman. At the same time, the Government started to roll out the now familiar advertising campaign, New Zealand’s own first aid guide to surviving Covid-19. It was a light-bulb moment as the artist introduced the radiating imagery, QR codes and warning text to her screen prints.

Each artwork contains a mini narrative, played out mainly at home. Hands are washed over and over, disinfectant is sprayed, curbside rubbish overflows and bomb-like courier packages are dropped off. A man is breaking into (or escaping from?) home, whilst in another, two boys battle it out in a boxing ring. A game of snakes and ladders is played and a rocket ship (or is it a needle?) takes off. Pops of fluorescent colour punctuate the works. There’s a sense of evil lurking with slithering snakes, skulls and alarmist messages. On the home front panic, anxiety and terror is barely contained.

Meanwhile in another part of the city…

Emma talks about time during lockdown feeling “simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic”.
This is echoed in her semi-abstract paintings of figures in interior spaces. Her subjects embody
the ‘emotional heaviness’ of lockdown. Shoulders hunch and sag, bodies are perched at the end
of the bed or sink into the couch. Their gaze never catches your eye. As a viewer there’s a sense that you are intruding on what is a private moment, full of vulnerability. Sitting in the bedroom, lounge or kitchen. Locked up in the home. Are they protected or trapped? Earthy tones anchor each work, although there’s nothing light and airy here.

Windows offer views to the landscape beyond. A power pole makes a regular appearance between paintings, situating the scene in an urban setting. Shoes have been slipped off, a single stool is empty and, in another, a bowl of arranged fruit — but for who to eat? Time is passing by. It’s about the now.

Nicol working on screenprint designs for her show, Brave New World.

Brave New World, 2021, Durham Street Flag Series by Nicol Sanders-O’Shea.

Each artist brings a strong domestic perspective to their artworks. Tension, frustration, sadness and love are emotions often at play in any home. Covid-19 just upped the stakes. Collectively their artworks are symbolic of the many emotions we have all felt at some time. As a friend commented, “it’s a mood”.

For the artists, taking time to think, draw and paint has been essential to their personal wellbeing. Being able to disappear into the daily repetition and detail of artmaking has been soothing, and days have passed quicker for it.

Nicol and Emma both comment how, over the last 18 months, our focus on the domestic environment has become central to our lives. Not only do we want our homes to be more comfortable and functional as places of work and play, we also wish to contemplate the difficult world unfolding around us through original artworks.

This has meant their paintings and prints have connected with new audiences and collectors. Both artists have had recent exhibitions, with Emma selling her piece Waiting to a collector from one of the world’s most locked-down cities, Melbourne. “The painting resonated with the buyer,” says Emma. “It captures an important moment in time.”

Emma Bossley  bossleydraws.co.nz Nicol Sanders-O’Shea   @nsandersoshea Brave New World (commissioned by Supercut Projects @supercutprojects for Tauranga Arts Festival) is currently on show until late December at the Durham St flagpoles in Tauranga.

Story by Sonya Korohina
Emma’s art & portrait photography by ilk
Nicol’s portrait is courtesy of the artist.