Nua Collective artist Lesley Cox writes about overcoming the infliction of the global pandemic and the unexpected gifts that came from it, as she travels uphill through rural Cork with her then, 15 year old son.
Who could have guessed that the early months of 2020 were the last times in this year that we all could behave normally? In January, like every other artistic friend and colleague, I was busy planning my year of world domination: organising exhibitions, completing submissions, painting, creating and teaching. Then barely without warning – game over. Everything was cancelled almost overnight, a literal game changer for everyone on the planet. Options were suddenly limited to a microscopic window, finances dried up, opportunities vanished, inspiration evaporated and questions went unanswered.
Personally, the scariest and most serious parts of the first few months were definitely financial. Most artists are self-employed, so most had no COVID-19-payment or social welfare to soften the blow. Not being able to teach anymore because of restrictions meant that a more reliable source of income was gone overnight with no foreseeable expectation of a return. After the financial difficulties came an even more alarming aspect of the pandemic and indeed in hindsight, of my personality; a complete lack of drive, a feeling of hopelessness and pointlessness. Pyjama days were now the new normal and I very nearly finished Netflix. Chocolate and wine became less treats, more essential; wallowing was unquestionably the order of the day. But then to my surprise – my then 15-year-old advised me to have a word with myself. He was right and I did. A big word.
People were dying all over the planet, people were losing loved ones every day, and here I was feeling sorry for myself because I was feeling constricted and uninspired. In the habitual way that teenagers have of stating the obvious with little regard for your feelings, the then 15-year-old pointed out that if I wanted to get back creating and earning money then I needed to actually do something about it. God, for the wisdom of youth. So, he devised a cunning plan that would help me, help him to help me and get us both out the house for a bit of a giggle and some bonding time. He also wanted desperately to play with my Canon and practise his photography, so not an altogether altruistic act. We hadn’t quite figured out the financial benefit part yet, but it could solve the creativity issue.
That very afternoon we made our first 5km journey. He had Google Maps and Spotify, I had a 10-year-old Peugeot and a bag of cola cubes. Like a hybrid of Magellan and Palin we set off in a circle around the house. We live half way up a very steep hill, roads wind around it like a skein of wool, tumbled ruins of past lives crouch near brand spanking new two-storeys. Dairy farms with ancient outbuildings are in every visible direction of my acre; the tails of sleepy cows flicking off flies as they chew and glare while we pass their land. Grass grows through the middle of the roads, barely wide enough for the Peugeot let alone milk trucks and silage tractors. It is within this confined quarter that we find the incredibly simple beauty of our immediate locale and we discover that a then 15-year-old and a 53-year-old can actually have a rare old time within 5km.
Over the next few months, we settle into a pattern. Jumping into the Peugeot armed with sounds, map and cameras and within a 5km restriction (later 20km) we drive in circles, up and down roads never travelled before and every road offers up a treat. The then 15-year-old introduces me to the wonders of rap, we blast Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Stormzy and da baby among others to unsuspecting walkers and cyclists. I am however, never ever, under any circumstances, allowed to sing along. I discover that I am a very observant driver – not particularly of the road but definitely at spotting a gorgeous vista from the top of a hill, a treasured little ruin tucked away in a field and I regularly screech to a halt much to the then 15-year old’s horror to ask him to photograph a cloud.
He delights in directing me up ridiculously narrow roads usually with a sheer drop which he knows terrify me. Recently, he dragged me up Toe Head, which just might be the steepest climb in Cork for a 10-year-old Peugeot. As we rounded the last corner of a sheer vertical hill, the Peugeot cut out, we started to roll backwards, I’m screaming and pulling the handbrake and he photographs me screaming. Another occasion sees me, nosy as I am, peering into what I thought was an abandoned house, only to be totally startled by a really angry farmer, shouting and waving a three-legged dog at me. The then 15-year-old was nearly hospitalised laughing.
Laughing and talking are the sounds I look forward to most on our road trips, the scenery, the research for the studio takes a certain 2nd place to the precious mum and son time this pandemic has gifted to me. We will get back to normal, we will return again some-day to the unrestricted, dynamic, exhilarating, exuberant life and with that my little road tripper will be gone – phfft – disappeared back to his regular, too cool for school, hormonal adolescence and this life line of escape and bonding will have ended. But thankfully that’s not the end of the story because I have literally made memories of our road trips and in between lockdowns I even managed a 5-week exhibition of the paintings.
With a wonderful eye for photography and a steady hand, unlike mine, my son takes the most amazing photos so we always have a trove of research material for paintings back in the studio. From February to date I have painted our road trips using photos, notebooks and sketchbooks. Sometimes it’s a combination of various photos to create a scene which sums up the day and the light. When I paint, I listen to music or the radio and this really influences my mood and brush strokes. I take notes of something that struck a chord with me as I paint; a line from a song, a headline, a news story, chats we had in the car, all of these elements pour into the painting and also influence the idiosyncratic titles which reflect a whole range of emotions and local circumstances relating to that time.
I have never painted so many paintings in such a short period of time, I have never observed my immediate landscape and responded to it like this, Covid-19 in a strange way gave me the gift of a fresh practise, a fresh eye, a fresh perspective and an appreciation of the stunning beauty that surrounds me in the simplest of forms. But mostly it has given me time, time with my practice, time with my media, time with my subjects and probably more importantly, time with my now (since last week) 16-year-old son.