Elizabeth Schwaiger is based between Brooklyn, NY and Austin, TX—and headed for the latter at the beginning of New York’s stay-at-home order. There, she and her partner Seth have carved out space to work in their living room on drawings and even some collaborative pieces. Schwaiger’s paintings are no stranger to disaster in theme, depicting rising tides, flooded interiors, and elegant rooms awash in blues, greens, and pinks.
When we checked in on the artist a few weeks ago, she was candid in sharing how she felt—relatively terrible. Video calls, we all can agree, are awkward. Expectations and pressure to make work “under the din” are unrealistic. The future still looks like an impenetrable fog, even for the most forward-thinking among us.
Schwaiger shared with Whitewall how she’s planted a garden, found great solace in spending time in nature, and realized that these dark, mournful times may be the early days of the better nation to which artist and author Alistair Gray referred.
WHITEWALL: How are you doing?
ELIZABETH SCHWAIGER: Fine. Terrible? I’d say terrible, but I feel like “terrible” should be reserved for people who are in mourning, and anyone on the frontlines. By comparison, I’m absolutely fine. I’m healthy. Almost all of my loved ones are healthy. I am fine.
Fine right now means I’ve been on that anxious pendulum swing between panic and calm for weeks. I was concerned when New York City wasn’t closing down, calm when it was. Panicked when my husband’s work hadn’t cancelled, relieved when it did. Freaked out the next day about whether to leave the city or stay in place (back when confirmed cases were still under 500). Re-freaked out when we actually decided to leave shortly after. Calm when we left the tri-state area, until we turned on the news in the car. Calmer and calmer as we approached Austin, until we got two flat tires. Relieved when we made it in, then frustrated at how people weren’t (and aren’t) taking it more seriously. I can spend time outdoors here with more ease, and that’s been very good for me, but now some of my friends have mild cases and I’m worried for them.
Basically, I’ve just been living with those same swings bouncing back and forth between news, internet humor, statistics, talks with friends, crying, and animal videos for the last two weeks.
WW: What are you listening to, reading, and watching?
ES: Some favorites on repeat are The Black Drum Set, Juniore, and Elizabeth Cotten. Right now I need books I can really fall into. Magda Szabo’s Iza’s Ballad and The Door were extraordinary and I’m looking forward to reading her other translated works in the next few weeks. Chef’s Table is beautiful, and I’ll be sorry to finish the series.
WW: What are you cooking?
ES: There’s a bakery and restaurant here called Easy Tiger that’s converted to selling their own supplies to stay afloat and combat the flour shortages. So I’ve been making lots of fresh bread. Recipe here.
WW: How are you staying connected?
ES: Can I tell you a secret? [Whispers] I normally hate video calls.
There’s something uncanny about the voice delay and glitchy expressions and the little mirror. It’s even more distracting when I can hear my own voice on the other person’s connection and I’m stuck in this hellish miasma of seeing myself and hearing myself the whole time I’m trying to make a genuine connection.
Anyway, I’m staying connected through video calls mostly. I’m adapting, and happy to see my friends’ faces, even if it’s from a peculiar angle and with awkward freezes.
Other ways? Like many artists, I gravitate more towards Instagram than other social media, and I feel like that’s especially true right now given the ratio on other platforms of politics/news to much needed humor/joy.
WW: Who should we follow, too?
ES: On the gram? You should follow @janelombardgallery and all their artists. You should follow @colabprojectstx and @colabprojectsbitres. I love following creatives way outside my own field like chef’s @davidleibovitz and @mimithor. The writer @brittanisonnenberg is brilliant on and off Instagram. Oh, and follow @sethorionschwaiger and his plague diaries.
WW: What are you doing for yourself?
ES: I spend time in the yard. I’ve planted a garden that I may not even be around here to harvest. I distract myself by naming the animals who visit me: Herbert, the sherbert-throated lizard; Toad of Toad Hall; Scrambled Eggs the feral cat; and Clickety-Kin, a family of squirrels that I pretend are descended from one we saved during a storm several years back. I’m looking for some good moth names, so if any of your readers have ideas please let me know.
Nature is the only balm that has any lasting effect for me right now. Maybe it’s just vitamin D, but I think it’s more the reminder that there are parts of the world that move on uninterrupted through all of this. That’s an undercurrent in my artistic practice and it is both a calming and terrifying thought — nature’s great indifference.
It always reminds me of Rilke’s Dear Darkening Ground which I must have reread 50 times this year. It has a particularly haunting resonance right now.
WW: What are you finding the most challenging?
ES: I am a future-oriented goal-driven person. I like to have plans and something to aim for. I have a solo show coming up next January at Jane Lombard Gallery that I’m really excited about, but lately, other than that, I turn my gaze towards the future and all I see is fog. That fog is the most challenging thing. Uncertainty. Too many unknowns to even bother with contingency.
WW: Are you finding the time/space to make work?
ES: I miss my Brooklyn studio so much. Several years back, Seth and I shared a large studio and it was a challenge. At that time, he was making these wood sculptures and the dust would always find its way into my pallette, and buzzsaws are always good when you’re trying to concentrate. We’ve mostly avoided that setup since, but we are back to sharing space now.
We’ve piled up all the furniture from the living room and cleared the space for art making. I’m fine with it, but Seth is a total Virgo type-A nut, and so the living/piling situation might be affecting him more than me. We both go completely insane without having a space to make though, so it’s a worthwhile sacrifice, and he’s a good sport.
We’re both doing a lot of drawing, which somehow seems appropriate for the pace of how things are changing in the world day to day. We collaborated on some sculpture for an exhibition at Co-Lab Projects, and we’re considering doing more collaborative work during our quarantine, though both of us are concerned that having nowhere to run to might make the collaborative process even more tricky to navigate. I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea that alone time (one might call it isolation) is vital for productive collaboration.
More than time or space, I think artists are struggling with the pressure to make work under the din. Disruption and chaos are fuel for some artists but certainly not all, and I worry that those of us who are taking the most time to absorb and process are being made to feel useless by the insatiable product-hungry appetites of the bored and stuck-at-home masses.
WW: What’s keeping you inspired and hopeful at this time?
ES: The late great Glaswegian artist and author Alistair Gray once said, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” I’d always thought of those early days as ones that were bright, full of hope and opportunity. What inspires me is the possibility that I was wrong — that the early days of a better nation are these dark days of isolation and reflection and death — that we have a chance to make it to the other side with a clearer view and the will to make sweeping fundamental changes to ourselves and our society.