somewhat empty downtown photo

Reporter Gabby Lucas discusses how art, such as taking photos of their empty hometown, has brought them comfort during the pandemic.

It has been 42 days, five hours and 36 minutes since I began social distancing. As you might imagine, I miss my friends, and I’m not quite as busy as I’m used to.

One of the more interesting things I’ve been up to since this whole “quarantine” business started has been tarot. A friend from work taught me a little bit about it, and I decided it would be a fun thing to add to my mountain of idiosyncratic half-hobbies. 

As I sit here and write this in my parents’ house in Des Moines, the upright high priestess is staring back at me. Representing intuition and insight, the appearance of this card allegedly signifies the presence of hidden talents and a need for spiritual reflection. That is, if you’re into that kind of stuff. I’m not quite sure if I am yet.

Another way I’ve attempted to fill my days has been to grab my camera, get in my car and drive aimlessly until I don’t feel like driving anymore. Due to muscle memory, downtown is always where I end up. I open my sunroof, pull myself on top of my car and take photos of the vast desolation. 

Downtown Des Moines on a Saturday night should be a thicket of families meandering around the East Village, teenagers taking Instagram pictures in front of the Chris Vance mural and middle-aged punks waiting in line outside of Fong’s Pizza on Fourth Street for hours at a time, just because the food is worth it and they have all night to kill.

That doesn’t happen anymore, though. What I capture on my camera are images of dim, empty streets. The parking meters are all free, but there are only two or three cars on all of Locust Street. Sometimes I don’t even take pictures. Sometimes I just sit and stare.

The other night, I went downtown yet again. The emptiness never gets easier to stomach, and I was a little emotional this time. It was a ghost town, but the usual buskers still performed on the corners of Court Avenue, despite not having an audience. Stone-faced and donning their acoustic instruments, it was kind of Titanic-esque, in a weird way, how the ongoing disaster didn’t deter them from making art. It really put into perspective for me how everyone copes in their own way and how heavily some people rely on art to cope.

My high school art teacher always said, “Art requires negative space.” The reason she said this was definitely partially so I would stop cramming my canvases so full of unnecessary acrylic details, but in a more metaphorical sense, I’ve been taking that statement to heart lately. 

I’ve been spending a lot of time in between fleeting productive streaks reflecting on how all the “negative spaces” in my life have created room for something beautiful to bloom. I’ve been thinking about how deeply and universally we turn to art for comfort.

It’s my personal belief that art is one of the most powerful forms of expression. It’s cathartic in that emotions are expressed, statements are made and fantasies come to realization, and the beauty of it all is that there are no rules. There is no structure. Art seems to be what's keeping all of us even remotely calm during this pandemic, whether it be through bingeing sappy films or sketching to relaxing music. Art still requires productivity, though, and productivity is difficult to muster these days.

It’s difficult to find joy when you’re used to being productive, and it’s difficult to be productive when you’re all alone. The lack of structure in my day-to-day schedule has left me largely lackadaisical, and these days, giving into the depression is a lot easier than writing, painting or picking my guitar up and performing a song to no audience at all — much like the buskers downtown do every night simply because it brings them joy.  

The most important thing I’m trying to remind myself during quarantine is how to let the small things in life bring me joy. I attach myself so tightly to my routines I often forget to take a step back and reevaluate the world around me when those routines are unwillingly broken.

Walking through my neighborhood and seeing families sing songs together around a bonfire brings me joy. The intricate chalk drawings covering every driveway on my block bring me joy. Seeing my far-away friends post their watercolors, sketchbook doodles, favorite shows or loaves of bread on social media brings me joy because, even though we’re apart, I feel like I’m still learning so much about them every day. Art is something so universal yet so individually unique, and I think that’s what makes it such a powerful force. Watching people create things and find beauty in art brings me joy because to me, it means they’re finding an escape.

Art is something that comes so naturally to us. We all have this deep, biological drive to create things and express ourselves in one way or another, whether it be out of boredom or something greater. I started painting and taking photographs to document the state of the world around me because, one day, when all of this is over, I know I can look back on my art and remember how far we’ve come. My documentation of these “negative spaces” in life gives me a weird, twisted sense of hope, and that hope brings me joy. That hope is my escape. That hope keeps me motivated.

While I don’t necessarily think I have any “hidden talents” or need to do any real “spiritual reflection,” I can definitely see where the universe was coming from when I drew the high priestess. Honestly, keeping my thoughts organized for long enough to write this column has been one of the most difficult things I’ve done all month. If anything, maybe my hidden talent is being self-aware enough to recognize that’s a problem and to want to change that about myself. 

I can try my best to find joy in that, and I can try my best to continue finding joy in the art I make to cope with the pandemic. Much like how negative space is necessary for great art, negative spaces are also necessary for meaningful, personal growth. That is, if you’re into that kind of stuff.

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