We Found Art in a Quarantine Place: How Covid-19 was the Gift of Time for 2 Artists
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
By Ellen He
Leah Flanagan/Flanzella, 24, and Noelle Lalonde, 26, hosted their OURS Art-Exhibition at Darren Gallery, August 3-9, 2020. Many wondered if the event was canceled due to Covid-19, then brought back as we moved to Phase 2 of re-opening. But turns out it was born out of—rather than despite—the pandemic, proving how opportunity can present itself in even the most unprecedented times, so long as you look beyond limitations and get creative.
Tell me about your art pre-pandemic, and how it evolved in the thick of Covid-19?
Leah: I made art as more of a hobby, but as we had more time at home, it opened a doorway for me to have less plans, less things in the way of that full potential to create. I felt very motivated to use the time positively, and I think boredom sometimes helps you do the best things.
Although I love my normal life as well—all the socializing—I think the ‘isolation’ was a great opportunity not many people get in their mid-20s. It’s almost like an early retirement to really invest in yourself, and the first thing I did was want to create a lot. And I wouldn’t have been able to do it without all the extra time quarantine gave me, or at least not as large a body of work in such a short period of time.
Noelle: I’ve been painting my whole life, and pursued it at OCAD in their Drawing & Painting Fine Arts Program. It’s been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember; something I’ve always tried to make time for between work, life, friends, and family.
So when Covid hit, it was a great opportunity for me to really push my passion in a way I’ve never been able to since university, and even more so because I wasn’t studying at the same time. It was scary and very uncertain at the beginning of Covid, so creativity stalled for a lot of people. But as things progressed and isolation became the new norm, investing in my art became a natural transition.
What motivates you, or makes you want to do the art in general?
Leah: It’s funny Noelle said this, but I don’t think we have a choice sometimes; it’s just kind of a way of expressing yourself and getting true with yourself. For me, it’s a lot about emotions, and you can feel it in the painting; how I felt that day.
And it’s almost like a form of mediation—of breathing. Your body needs different types of breathing, not just air, and this one’s the inspiration-creativity kind. As a creative, it’s something I need to do or I go a little bit crazy, or I don’t really feel like myself, so I don’t know if it’s a choice (laughs).
Left to Right: Leah Flanagan, Noelle Lalonde
So it’s like a form of self-care that gives back to others.
Noelle: Ya it’s very therapeutic. For me, it’s like going running where you get endorphins. It’s something you can go to when you’re not feeling well, or when you are feeling well. Somewhere you can channel whatever’s happening inside your soul and heart, and for me, that goes out onto the canvas. It’s kind of like when you’ve been eating terribly for a week, and then decide to have some spinach or something and you’re like, “Oh ya, that’s what it feels like to feel good.” That’s what it feels like to paint for me; chasing that feeling as part of your health.
So art is the spinach of your life!
Noelle: Ya it’s like an antioxidant pill! (laughing).
With the two of you combined, there were 50 pieces in total—paintings, collages, and posters. Leah, what made you get into collage, and what’s the difference between the mediums for you?
Leah: I’m not sure if I even know! Some days I wake up and I want to paint, others I want to collage. I guess it’s about having diversity in your artistic process, even though they’re both visual end-products.
Painting is something you can plan more, where you get a colour palette together and have a general idea of what you’re trying to create. Collage is more like, as our friend Bob Ross says, “happy little accidents,” where you get whatever paper visuals you find. I figure out how they go together or contrast, how they can have stronger messaging with one another, or juxtapositions to provoke people’s thought process of the pieces.
Collage also takes more time because it’s an ‘assemblage,’ an art style meaning ‘the collecting of things.’ It’s an action of art—where you cut pieces from other visuals to create a whole new one. It can go fast, or it can sometimes take years to have the right cut-outs, if you’re looking for certain pieces, or you switch things out
It’s more of a practice than execution—and it depends on what the pages give me that inspiration comes. I have a woman who sources vintage magazines she’d otherwise throw out. I still have so much to sift through, which adds to the chores of the art, but it gives me way more options. I have 1990s National Geographic’s and newspapers dating back to the 1930s for example, which are really interesting and give insight into the parallels and progress in society, through the decades versus now.
How did the art-exhibit come together?
Noelle: Well, Leah and I had lived together pre-Covid. We shared a studio, and seeing each other work in the space was super interesting to me. We had different styles, different ways of approaching a canvas or paper. Having someone else in the same space that was creatively driven was also really inspiring. With both of us entrepreneurially spirited, we thought, “Why don’t we put on a show, and our work would bounce and play off one another!” There’s also a lot of organizing, prep, etc. that’s involved in a show, so it’s not something to partner lightly with. But with Leah, I felt very confident it’d come to life – having someone else who’s motivated is key in planning a successful show.
Leah: We’d also talked about doing an art-show for more than a year at that point, and I thought Noelle was going to be too pregnant. But then she was like, “Let’s do it!” So we went in a frenzy putting it all together in 2 weeks—a very fast production time—but it worked out really well and now we’re thinking of doing it annually!
Noelle: Ya and a huge thank you to Ryna —the rental company we became roommates through. They sponsored our donation to Street Haven Women’s Shelter by matching 10% of the proceeds we earned from the show. They also did an excellent job of promoting the event and bringing people out, like their other Ryna tenants (thank you, ladies!). Thank you’s also go out to our copywriter for some of my painting names and our print messaging. And last but not least, curator Apollonia Vanova of Darren Gallery, for giving us the perfect pandemic-friendly venue.
The big-ticket question—how did the show go!
Noelle: Surpassed expectations tenfold! We thought perhaps a few family members would show up. We’d sell 1 or 2 pieces to cover the venue rental. But we both had overwhelmingly positive feedback from people we know, friends of friends, complete strangers off the street who came in.
Leah: It’s comical for us because we had very low standards (laughing). You never know what you’re going to get right—will it be good? Will people come out? Will they have a good time?
Accessible prices were important to the show’s success, as was the accessible venue. It was easy to get to by subway or car, not well out of the way, a shallow storefront with windows for people who would rather stay outside to see the artwork. People could say, “Hey I really like that one, can I have a card and pick a piece up later?”
We also branded the event as a dinner & show outing, recommending our 10 favourite restaurants in the area. So it catered to people’s fears in a pandemic, as well as that excitement to get all gussied up. After not having something ‘normal’ for a while, everyone enjoyed getting out of their PJ’s for once and seeing people they haven’t in quite some time.
I feel a lot of people making art are focused on the outcome, but you both are very process-oriented – any advice to artists from that lens?
Leah: Ya well I mean, every piece in the show was not made for profit. It was all from passion you know, and me just having the time when I wake up and saying, "I want to collage” (laughs) and figuring it out from there. I wasn’t sure if other people would like my artworks; there’s some that I don’t really like that other people will say, “this is the best thing ever!”
So if anything, I’ve learned to not judge the art—let it speak for itself—see what speaks to people. What they like (and don’t like); I take notes from that and move on with the practice to see how it forms later on. Noelle’s the same, she paints whatever her internal self says to her. So she’ll come up with Peplum and Lace, for example, saying “I’m doing this super pink one and it’s not very me but…I love it!” And then it became one of the pieces that everyone walked in and gasped, “I love it! I want this piece in my house!” But if she hadn’t just gone with the flow and worked with it, and been like “Oh, I need to tone this down, I gotta put some yellows or oranges in it,” then it wouldn’t have had that impact for people who were like “It’s so pink and I love it!”
Right to Left: Peplum and Lace, Revolution, Hanoi (Two-Plants), Berlin Smoke
And with my Revolution piece, I was actually embarrassed to showcase it. But then so many people were like, “That’s the best one!” But I wasn’t in love with it because it didn’t speak to me. But it spoke to so many other people who thought - “it’s a landscape / reminds me of childhood / steam engine / forest on a fall day / war - I learned all these incredible stories from the different connotations they got. If I’d never shown it, I wouldn’t have had those conversations with people and learned all these crazy cool stories from the 50s and 60s from older guests. It was so cool! So I think it’s about trusting your gut, going with the flow, not judging your own art, and seeing what people like.
It’s interesting because I feel like a lot of artists get trapped in wanting to be a certain way, emulate a certain reputation, and that trips them up. But it seems you just gotta operate from the inside, get what you get, and that's okay because you’ll evolve as you keep going. Be, do, see what happens, and continue with your learnings.
Leah: Totally—that’s an important takeaway for all artists no matter the medium.
What did you learn from the show?
Any other advice to artists whether they’re hobbyists, aspiring, or emerging?
Noelle: If you believe in and want something, just go for it—two feet forward. You can talk all you want about doing it, but actually doing something and making those steps forward is super important—and in that way, I learned to take more chances.
Put the time in, too. Establish a body of work you’re proud of. Go to galleries, see what you like, what inspires you, be active in the art scene, believe in yourself because everyone is their own worst critic. There are vulnerabilities attached to doing something where your work is publicly shown. But you’ll realize there are people who see something in your work, so just put the time in and stick with it.
Leah: I also noticed the most common thing with every single person who came to the
show was their, “Oh I’m doing this thing, but…” There was always a but. Some reason why they weren’t doing it, whereas I’m the complete opposite. People will say it’s cuz of the pandemic, or maybe their work’s not good enough, or they haven’t filmed enough, etc. It felt like there was a lot of low confidence in the room towards their creative side!
I think that’s how you put boundaries up and self-sabotage as an artist. Everyone had something beautiful to show me, “I’m in the works of…” but wouldn’t pull the trigger themselves to publicly showcase it. But I’m happy many were inspired by the show—thinking it was happening against all odds (pandemic, Noelle very pregnant, etc.), and then learning our decision to do it was because of the pandemic rather than despite it. How it was seeing the opportunities rather than the setbacks that made it happen.
Speaking of putting boundaries up, I remember Leah saying, “There are academic artists but I’m more the entrepreneurial one.” Can you elaborate?
Leah: (Laughs). A lot of people ask me where I went to school for collage and I’m like, “Why would I ever have to go to school for that?" And it’s interesting because my friends with more entrepreneurial roots say the same things as me, like, “It’s unique because you weren’t told how to do something, so you’re kind of figuring out your own way, doing what works for you. And there may be a “professional way” of doing things, but then maybe you’d have those boundaries because people have told you what you can and can't do, versus I just went at it.”
I did go to university, but I don’t think it’s a tell-tale sign of what you need and what you can do. I think applicable knowledge and motivation are king – do whatever you can. If you stop yourself because you don’t have ‘the skills’ then practice every day. Eventually, you’ll be able to do it yourself. With painting, I went to some high school classes but mostly watched a bunch of Youtube videos – did that for collage too. I’ve never paid for any online class. I’m very much ‘the cheapest way possible' when it comes to learning. I’ll go through online resources then figure it out myself – it’s the same for my DIY projects, picking up those weird little skills.
You’re a human - you can learn, so don’t limit yourself by things like, “Oh I can’t write a book I’ve never done it!” Release a zine and test the market.
Why do you think people have those boundaries and reservations?
Leah: I think it stems usually from a fear of failure. I do think failure is good. If you fail and give up—that’s how you put up walls. Instead, learn lessons from it. People are fearful of, “What if I don’t get good results?” or ‘What if I do get good results and then my life has to change?”
I think it’s kind of a weird world and you have to go with the flow; you don’t really have control over those things. But if you put good things into the world then good things will happen, even if it takes 10 years it’ll still happen.
I was always criticized when I was younger for being in the arts and being ‘dumber’ than those who were in the academic fields of math, sciences, business, etc. But now I’ve developed business skills over the years by ‘doing.’ And I didn’t need to be ‘academic’ in those ways to succeed in life.
If what’s true to you is there but you’re fighting against it, you won’t get there. But if you follow your dreams, then you’ll get there (I’m sounding like a Disney princess haha). If you follow what your heart tells you to do, don’t give yourself limits, you’ll get everything you want in life…with hard work.
Great points. Anything else you want to add?
Leah: I’m definitely a tough lover (we laugh). But it’s also how you get places. You can’t just tell yourself you can’t do something because those voices are not even your own most of the time; it’s someone else’s that you’ve internalized, or maybe it is your own but it’s out of wanting validation from other people. Don’t listen to your own excuses; just start doing!
Noelle, how did you manage with your pregnancy and being less than 2 months due?
Noelle: Well I’m one that works well under pressure and high-stress situations. We’d been talking about doing the show for so long, and we wanted to do it before all these changes were going to happen, so we just said, “Alright, the time is now.”
I also knew that when I have my child, I’d like to pivot more to my painting career (as opposed to my previous work-full-time-paint-on-the-side). So the art show was a great test run for that, with all the feedback, interest from the general public, and the sales it had. It gave me encouragement that when I do have my child, I will be able to do that. Of course, it was exhausting, but having a partner as flexible and understanding as Leah was very important.
Mama artist here you come! Any advice for other mama-to-be artists?
Noelle: Be near a nap spot, wear comfy shoes, and don’t do mid-August! (Too hot).
How was doing the show within the context of Covid-19?
Noelle: People at this stage are quite responsible with Covid. People are taking the necessary precautions, wearing masks, having extra’s in the space, and 3 opening nights to alleviate one crowded opening.
So doing an exhibition is totally possible! People are hungry to go out, do events. As long as you acknowledge a show will not be the same as it once was, i.e. it won’t be one packed opening night where alcohol is served, and everyone is talking loudly and in each other’s space.
People shouldn’t let the pandemic stop them from pursuing a common goal or dream. And I think it’s important for people’s mental health to go out and do things, and we were able to offer that.
More from the Co-Founders of Ryna.
We were thrilled to hear Leah (a current Ryna tenant) and Noelle (a former one) were putting on an art show together. It seemed the perfect opportunity to live out our mission—a trusted rental company for women in the city to empower and encourage each other. We were a donations sponsor, promoted them on our IG that whole week + a Takeover in Stories. We told our Ryna tenant community and our other networks about the show. Leah and Noelle put on a fantastic exhibit, and it was so great to see people we knew come out and purchase their pieces.
More from Darren Gallery’s Curator and Director, Apollonia Vanova.
When Leah and Noelle created a post through Kijiji wanting to rent a space for their art exhibition, I decided to reach out to them. Normally, pop-up event inquiries come from TheStorefront.com or ThisOpenSpace.com.
They did a phenomenal job with curating the exhibition and transforming the space into a welcoming, interesting, and vibrant exhibition. Being a gallery, our sculpture plinths, chairs, table, and digital outdoor sign were made available to them. The space also has a huge boulevard frontage, which they tastefully decorated with benches, art easels, and balloons to draw people in. As a result, this exhibition had a steady flow of people viewing the work and buying art, which is great, because the works were well priced. There have been many compliments from the neighbours about how wonderful it is to have pop-ups in the neighbourhood.
In terms of Covid-19, I think people are sick of being inside, especially on beautiful summer days.
What is so unique about this space, is the 40-linear-feet of floor to ceiling glass facade that envelops the space with natural light, and allows visitors to see the exhibition from the outside as well.
What you didn’t know about Darren Gallery
Darren Gallery reopened its doors prior to the pandemic in February 2020, with a brand new concept of “sleeping with art”. The idea was to book overnight sleepovers at the gallery, in order to gain a more intimate understanding of art by spending private time with it. The exhibiting artists were paid a portion of the overnight stays. Unfortunately, Covid-19 happened before this concept really took off and we had to shut everything down. Darren Gallery hopes to bring the “sleepover immersive gallery” concept back in the future, but for now we—as well as most other businesses impacted by the pandemic—are working together and finding new creative ways to keep going forward.
These artists, curator/director, and co-founders found possibility in a pandemic
We hope this story inspires you, as it’s inspired many others who attended, supported, and reached out. If you’re aspiring towards a goal, we hope to see you out there, keeping it safe and getting creative! Stay the journey, own your unique one, and you’ll break through what you once thought were limits. Here’s to making it happen!
Ellen He is a Freelance Writer and Poet who loves helping people bring their voice, stories, and wisdom to the world.