Within days of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s March 2020 PAUSE Order closing schools and nonessential businesses across New York State, the nonprofit RxArt—an organization that commissions art installations for pediatric medical settings—launched a series of daily online drawing sessions hosted by contemporary artists. Artists working with RxArt transform places fraught with anxiety into immersive, playful environments, among them a suite of inpatient rooms at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles whose walls and ceiling Urs Fischer covered in whimsical designs, and the entrance lobby of the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., that features a brightly colored monkey atop a 14-foot-tall beaded palm tree by the Haas Brothers. Since 2006, RxArt has also produced a series of coloring books (an eighth issue is forthcoming this fall) with contributions from artists. The books are distributed free to children’s hospitals and to the families of kids undergoing treatment.
As “safer at home” and “shelter in place” orders went into effect across the country, the organization’s live Instagram drawing sessions with contributing artists like Jeffrey Gibson, Andrew Brischler, Katherine Bernhardt, Rashid Johnson, Marcel Dzama—and sometimes their children—offered many people a creative outlet. RxArt enabled free downloads of artist-designed pages from its previous coloring books, and participants could share their colored pages using the #coloringfromhome hashtag. As RxArt founder and executive director Diane Brown explained, the quarantine coloring sessions, which ran through the end of April 2020, were like therapeutic studio visits for a public struggling with the mental health challenges of stress and isolation.
Professional artists as well found catharsis in art-making during the pandemic. For Brooklyn-based painter Brischler, the art world suddenly stopped in its tracks. “In an instant, art-making became completely therapeutic,” he recalls of quarantine. “It became purely a way of understanding my internal world and the world around me, and just making things I wanted to look at to make me feel better and bring me pleasure in a nightmarish environment.” Brischler is known for both abstract and text-based artwork imbued with what he calls “low register” twentieth-century pop-culture references to the movies, music, and television shows that shepherded him through his middle and high school years. “Depression and anxiety are just part of who I am,” he says. It was particularly hard during the first weeks of the pandemic, he adds, to contend with the contrast between the pandemic’s enormous scale and how small and limited our lives became.
At the time, Brischler was confined to a 500-square-foot apartment in SoHo. His “Breathe In, Breathe Out” series, a group of seven abstract colored-pencil-and-graphite drawings made over eight weeks, became a meditative exercise enabling him to channel his anxiety into something concrete that he then shared on Instagram. “I started drawing a spiral motif that I found pre-Covid. I really needed to keep my hand moving to banish a lot of these really scary thoughts during the day,” he explains. “During Covid, we were all torn open, in these small, little bubbles, but we were desperate to feel connected to people.”