Art ‘hasn’t failed us yet’

Global pandemic puts time, inspiration in hands of local artist


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If you can’t make great art during a global pandemic, when can you?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/04/2020 (1148 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you can’t make great art during a global pandemic, when can you?

That’s the view of Jordan Van Sewell, one of Manitoba’s best-known artists and a man who has been producing brilliantly whimsical ceramic sculptures for 47 years.

“It certainly feeds the imagination, living in these times,” Van Sewell, 65, told this columnist and longtime friend in a telephone interview from his home/studio in the Winnipeg neighbourhood of South Point Douglas. “For me, it gives me an opportunity to specifically address some of the big issues — such as, are we going to make it through the pandemic?

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jordan Van Sewell says he isn’t overly concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on his livelihood because he says artists are used to struggling, even when times are good.

“When I look at some of the things that have happened in my work or my life — whether it’s the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or the moon landing in 1969 or the birth of my children — all these things are huge, but you think the possible end of the world is huge, too,” he said.

“I’ve got to continue doing what I do through this pandemic and understanding it in my little artsy way. In the big picture, none of us has a voice in this.”

The silver lining amid the tragedy is it has given Van Sewell the two things an artist needs most: the time to create and inspiration to fuel the imagination.

Van Sewell is hunkered down in his home/studio with wife, Joanne, son, Zane, and two cats, Pearl and Dude. His gallery on the second floor of The Forks Market has been shuttered since the novel coronavirus took its grip on Manitoba.

“No responsibility other than stay home and take care of yourself,” the artist explained. “I’ve been staying home and making stuff… The pandemic has given me the opportunity to do a lot of work and the subject matter. You try to figure out what the heck is going on, and reflect that in your art.”

It has led him to create five remarkable pieces inspired by the outbreak, whimsical-yet-serious ceramic sculptures to offer a sense of hope in dark times.

“All the pieces are meant to hang on the wall,” he said. “Three of these are called Heavy Seas. Each… has a plague doctor (a physician who treated victims of the bubonic plague) in it like you’d see in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.”

The first features the long-nosed, sunglasses-and-babushka-wearing plague doctor on a raft with a skeleton and a dog. The second has the main character paddling a canoe in heavy waves. The third has the pointy-beaked figure and a surprised-looking dog in a barrel riding the waves.

Van Sewell works in his South Point Douglas studio. One of his latest pieces is called Heavy Seas, inspired by the pandemic and by artist Hieronymus Bosch.

“Each one also has an element of optimism about it,” Van Sewell offered. “The waves look like comforting arms that envelope you. It’s a double-edged sword: the waves could topple the boat but, at the same time, they look like welcoming arms.”

The last two pandemic pieces depict heaven and hell. “Those are the logical options. The idea that, inevitably, that’s where it ends, either heaven or hell.”

Van Sewell said he’s not yet worried about keeping his famously beret-clad head and signature beard above water as the pandemic crushes the economy and threatens lives.

However, he said, most artists throughout Manitoba are used to struggling, even during good times.

“Everybody is going to be affected by it and, unfortunately, the effect is the money,” he said. “Most artists are used to the idea (of scraping by). For a lot of these people, the idea of an income from art is not in the equation.”

His few outings in recent weeks have consisted mostly of visiting his shuttered gallery to water the plants.

“I go to The Forks, and there’s nobody there,” he said. “It’s like one of those dystopian or apocalyptic movies. You can see how some people might feel it’s the end of the world.”

The upbeat, self-effacing artist considers the sculptures inspired by reality of a deadly pandemic to be among his best work, and said they are intended to reflect optimism and hope for the future.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS One of his latest pieces is called Heavy Seas, inspired by the pandemic and by artist Hieronymus Bosch.

“I wouldn’t be making this stuff — even if it is tongue-in-cheek — unless I knew there was a future for it and for me,” Van Sewell said. “It’s going to end, and we’ll all end up in a new world and a better world as a result.

Artists have a critical role to play in helping people get through dark times, providing insight and a sense of hope, he said.

“It always has. Every day that goes by, art has helped me… art hasn’t failed us yet,” he said. “It’s a good thing to back during this pandemic. I’m betting on art.”

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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