Sure, social media is filled with your friends’ photos of amateur stews, homemade sourdough and makeshift masks crafted while staying home due to the coronavirus. But look more closely, and you’ll find another layer of at-home concoctions: scenes reenacting famous paintings and photographs in creative ways. As the trend has continued to spread online since starting in March, helped by social media challenges broadcast by institutions including the Getty Museum in California and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, it’s become a welcome distraction and source of humor for audiences and creators alike. Step back, viral TikTok dances, livestream concerts and quarantine memes; this intensive form of expression is a whole new world of creative labor. In the middle of global uncertainty, it’s even become an important anchor for some.
Just take Chiara Grilli, a teacher at the Università di Bari in Macerata, Italy. Grilli, like many in Italy, has been working remotely. “This gives me plenty of time — too much, actually,” she told TIME. She lives in a two-room apartment with her boyfriend — “no balcony, no garden” — and after two weeks, she says she felt “asphyxiated.”
“One day right before lunch I went into my bedroom and I saw this beautiful sunbeam entering the window and stretching over my bed. The first thing I thought was, ‘How I wish I could go out!’ but the second thing was Hopper.” That’s a reference to Edward Hopper, the 20th century American painter known for his dramatic yet minimalist scenes of daily life.
“The way the light entered the room, its glow, my mood, the silence all around. It was [like the light of the painting], but it was real,” Grilli said of her moment of inspiration. After finding the right dress in her closet and enlisting the help of her boyfriend, Grilli re-created Hopper’s “Morning Sun” and shared the image on Facebook.
“I thought that it represented the quarantine-like condition of many of us without using many words, hashtags or mottos,” she said. Her friends were enthusiastic, and Grilli went on to create social media pages under the name “Quarantinart.” She now has over a dozen photographs up, and intends to continue the project well past the impact of the coronavirus. “I found something that really helps me to have fun, and at the same time express my creative side,” she said.
Katrina Karkazis, an anthropology professor at Brooklyn College who’s been socially isolating in her New York City apartment alone for about a month, came to a similar project organically. “With a public health background, I felt like the federal government was out of step with what I thought should be done, and that created so much anxiety for me,” she told TIME while on her daily walk in her neighborhood with her dog, Abbey, who also co-stars in many of her photos.
“So this is a complete outlet and distraction from grief and rage and loss and fear. It’s the one time during the day where I feel completely able to focus.” She shared her first photo in March on Facebook, and her mom was so enamored that she offered to pay Karkazis to keep posting. “Of course, no,” she said with a laugh, “but of course I’m going to do this for her.” She added that the overwhelmingly warm response she’s gotten from friends has convinced her to keep it up. “I feel so helpless. I can teach my students, and I can do these ridiculous photos that make people smile or laugh for a moment. I mean, I just got a message from someone I haven’t spoken to in years. I’m going to cry right now.”
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Karkazis started out reenacting easily recognizable pieces — Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” with Abbey and a mop, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” with a mask as part of the headwrap — but has been evolving her work past the traditional European and Western canon to reflect her own politics. She has her eye on pieces by Carrie Mae Weems and Kehinde Wiley, and has convinced Abbey to dress up as Frida Kahlo. The challenge: taking the photos without a tripod — and finding the right supplies. “It feels like a very technical practical problem. It’s almost like a recipe. I get energy trying to do it. I find it funny,” she said, recalling using medical gloves as a stand-in for flowing hair in one instance.
The creativity required — and the fact that you don’t need specific art materials to make these projects happen — is a big reason why it’s been such a global hit, says another creator, Holly Bess Kincaid, an art teacher in Harrisonburg, Va., and the president of the Virginia Art Education Association.
Kincaid’s school closed for the year on March 23, the same day she launched an “#ArtEdPortraits” challenge on social media. She shared her idea on a Facebook group of 9,000 art teachers, all trying to figure out how to teach art to students remotely, and many have picked it up. “I’m getting these little smiles in my message box daily of students who are reenacting artwork and playing and finding joy — just with the things they have around the house,” she told TIME. Kincaid’s own creations draw on her reactions to the conditions of the coronavirus; she’s made a Chagall out of a pile of laundry, drawn on the longing theme of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” while reaching toward her school while safely at a distance and used an iPad instead of a sketchpad to reflect our new reliance on video chatting in “Young Woman Drawing” by Marie Denise Villers.
“In a time when we are seeing so much in the news and media that scares our students and adults alike, what better way than to go back to your childhood and play pretend — and be someone else for a few minutes?” Kincaid asked.
All three of these creators found their way to the project through their own impulses. But they are not alone. Hashtags like #BetweenArtandQuarantine and #Tussenkunstenquarantaine help organize submissions from around the world. One of the most popular new accounts dedicated to this form of expression is @covidclassics, in which a group of roommates post detailed recreations of classic works. Alex Akesson, a freelance writer based in Reykjavik, Iceland, happened upon one of their photos through Facebook, and was inspired to share on Twitter on March 28. The tweet went viral, racking up over over a quarter of a million likes on the image of a pair posing as Arnolfini’s “Marriage Portrait.”
Akesson is now acting as a signal booster, continuing to share the art that comes her way. “The treasure trove had opened,” she told TIME of finding the photos online. “I like to share art and literature when I can, and my feed was full of incompetence and death.”
The human drive to engage with culture hasn’t diminished, but with cultural institutions closed globally, that desire is manifesting in an alternative way. “People all over the world are going back to art. It must mean something,” Grilli said. “Of course, it is a way to fight boredom but it also helps you to connect, to express your discomfort.”
As an art teacher, Kincaid knows that art is fundamentally healing; that’s why it’s important to keep it up, even in quarantine. “Other projects feel like a gift to me,” Karkazis said of seeing the growing movement. Grilli had a more literal take: “I was thinking about transforming Mondrian’s compositions into recipes as decompositions. I’m making a Mexican-style salad for lunch; I may try and see if anything comes to my mind,” she said. “In a sense, it’s as if art is feeding you.”
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