Torontonians capture life during lockdown for AGO portrait series

Portraits Of Resilience is an online group exhibition of paintings and photographs about how people are coping through the pandemic


Neighbours - Heather, Nyiah, Isaya, Koa Béo & Mischa, June 2020 by Rick McGinnis
Courtesy of the Artist / AGO

In March, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) put a call out asking people to submit art to commemorate this “momentous and very difficult year.”

Portraits Of Resilience came together as people of all ages in Toronto and outside of the city submitted photographs, paintings, quilted pieces, illustrations, collages and more to the virtual platform. Now at over 2,000 submissions, the series is an archive of the small and big ways people have survived the pandemic.

Paintings from kids as young as eight are displayed beside the work of seasoned artists well into their careers in an online exhibition that prioritizes community sharing in a time when we can’t convene publicly in the gallery. Some works grapple with immense loss: Joyce Crago’s Worn: Brown (in the gallery below) sees the artist adorn herself in the clothing of her late sister, who she lost to COVID-19.

Portraits Of Resilience also taps into the many ways we have become resilient over the past year, with a clear focus on the virus but also the social and political upheavals we witnessed last summer and the willingness we all have to maintain our connections to humanity despite immeasurable isolation.

Submissions came in from around the world, including Hong Kong, Italy, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States and Turkey, further indicative of the widespread desire to understand these times through art. The AGO is accepting submissions until June 25.

The gallery plans to exhibit some selected works in person next spring, but for now here is a sneak peek into the creative ways Toronto is reflecting on the past 14 months. We asked seven artists to share what resilience means to them right now and how they channelled it into their art-making for Portraits Of Resilience.

A photo of Alexandra Kim's painting, Self Portrait, created for the AGO's Portraits of Resilience
Self Portrait, Alexandra Kim

Eight-year-old Alexandra Kim painted this self portrait to express how she was processing the mental toll of the pandemic.

“I don’t like online school because I can’t see and play with my friends and it hurts my eyes. But my teacher is amazing! While painting I wanted to express that even though last year was difficult and I found myself sometimes in a bad mood for no reason and things felt wrong at times, that things were still okay somehow. I love that you are free when you make art and there is no wrong way to do it, you can draw whatever you like with whatever you like. You can use many colours and lots of different materials and there are no rules! I like drawing when I am sad because it makes me feel better.”

Julia Pletneva, Alexandra’s mother, says her daughter “has been drawing non-stop ever since she saw the online exhibition. Looking at other artist’s pieces gave her so many new ideas! So much better for her than sitting in front of the TV.”

A photo of Amanta Scott's encaustic painting of Dr. Theresa Tam
Hygieia’s Voice – Impressions Of Dr. Theresa Tam, Amanta Scott

This encaustic painting of Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer of Canada, is from the artist’s Eyeing Medusa series. It is one of 25 works that were exhibited at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre gallery in March.

“I noticed that in the arts it’s normal to depict women being raped or abused or belittled as frivolous playthings. Women of colour are either hyper-sexualized, depicted as servants or notably absent. Women are either idealized and objectified or vilified and blamed. Prior to the pandemic I was in Italy prowling the galleries and museums, discovering artworks depicting women in various stages of violation and abuse and I found myself thinking that these works demanded a response.

“As I dug deeper into the issue, I realized I needed to do something to stop this pernicious cycle. I decided to start a new painting series that looked at women in an entirely different way. I decided to paint just their faces; recognizable yet abstracted, painted closeup so we look into their eyes without distractions. In avoiding the things and situations typically used to objectify women and focusing entirely on their faces, I aim to show what remarkable people they are. I chose to focus on contemporary women so that we could learn more about amazing women shaping our world today. Each painting has a title and story connected to mythology. Conceiving the paintings, I reimagined ancient goddesses as contemporary women because I see women today as drawing from the strength and resilience of these ancient archetypes.”

A collection of images taken by artist Deborah Farquharson as part of an artistic ritual practice that helped her through COVID winter
ICE MOONS, Deborah Farquharson

Throughout the winter Farquharson started foraging things from the forest floor on her daily walks. She placed her findings into her dog’s bowl and let them freeze together overnight. It became a ritualistic art practice to see how the discs would form together each day.

“My idea of ‘resilience’ has shifted over the past year. It has transformed from hustle towards the goal to an intentional focus on playful inquiry. I’ve found that when my resilience is driven by curiosity rather than end results, there is more energy, delight and surprising outcomes. The series came about one early morning in January. I noticed our pup’s water bowl had frozen with a few leaves and windblown bits in it. When I dumped it out, a beautiful ice disk flipped and landed in the snow. It’s luminescence and the dark shadows embedded in the ice made me think of the full moon. Paying attention to the arrival of the full moon each month had also become a ritual in marking the passage of COVID time. I photographed the ice disc lying in the snow – loving the variety of muted shapes held in cool whites. Then I picked it up and held it up to the morning sun where it glowed and presented the resilient bits of nature in a whole new light. They seemed to be crowned by the sun refracting through the ice. It felt like a treasure and I decided that I would give myself this little viewing gift each morning.”

Two photographs taken by Katy Catchpole, one of her father and one of her brother
Who’s Afraid Of Their Own Shadow, Katy Catchpole

Catchpole is an emerging artist who began contemplating the intergenerational personality traits within her family while living in lockdown.

“We often think of resilience in terms of a very outward expression of strength and fortitude but there are so many things that go on internally that are less apparent, such as mental health. As a youngest child I think I have been sheltered from some of the mental health issues that are present in my family. This pandemic has forced us all into close quarters with one another, where we have to acknowledge the emotional and mental states of our loved ones. I’ve come to realize that resilience means simply taking it day by day, especially as we are all thinking about and anticipating the end – of this pandemic and potentially the end of life of our friends and family. I was moved to create this work when I saw my dad sitting on the couch, underneath a photograph of his father.

“The photograph of my grandfather on the wall made me begin to think about intergenerational experiences and identity. I viewed the photograph as a sort of makeshift family tree and I got my brother to sit in the same position, to really emphasize this theme. There is a running joke in my family that I am my mother’s shadow and my brother is my dad’s. When I produced this work I was thinking about my own identity and wanted to produce something that reaffirmed that I stem from something bigger than myself.”

A photo of Keith Eager
I Can’t Breathe, Keith Eager

Emerging artist Keith Eager wanted to chronicle the uprisings, movements of solidarity and general societal upheavals that he witnessed throughout the past year.

“Resilience right now means staying present, embodied and following my own path. Our lives and careers have been put on hold in many regards, but even slow progress is still progress. The painting I Can’t Breathe is part of a series of works that I painted in the spring and summer of 2020. I was responding to events in the news, from seeing our society shut down due to coronavirus, to seeing American society torn apart by authoritarianism and to seeing the just civil rights uprisings in response to a slow burn of state sanctioned discrimination, disenfranchisement and violence. I painted this piece from an outsider’s perspective but felt a strong charge around the subject. I had attended protests at the G20 summit years ago, but what I was seeing in America was so urgent, much larger in scale and so much more extreme. I couldn’t possibly look away from this moment.”

A self-portrait taken by Mariana Topfstedt of herself working as a cleaner inside of a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic
Cleaner, Mariana Topfstedt

Topfstedt is new to presenting her photography as art, formerly working as a photojournalist. Her documentation of her time working as cleaner in a hospital during the pandemic highlights the crucial role that cleaners hold in keeping us all safe.

“When I worked as a freelance photojournalist in Brazil, I photographed the reality of ordinary people, which has always been my main subject. For the first time, I decided to document my existence and what I am experiencing. My days at the hospital with different patients and co-workers made me perceive cleaners and their importance. What was supposed to be just photographs for myself has become a small project to honour and remind others of the importance of cleaning workers. The method is simple, I waited for the COVID assessment centre to close and then started what we call ‘terminal cleaning.’ I supported my camera on the cleaning cart, pressed the timer and started cleaning as I usually do. In this photograph, I convey the invisibility and erasure of some workers in our society, who are essential. But at the same time, we do not do this work for recognition. The statue of a saint made me reflect that something more significant, beyond religion, protects us and certainly knows what each one of us is doing.”

A photo of Roman Bulgakov's painting The Flame, created for the AGO's Portraits of Resilience
The Flame, Roman Bulgakov

Eight-year-old Roman Bulgakov uses painting to pass his time in lockdown. This painting was the result of a recent round of experimentation.

“The last year has been bad since I haven’t seen my friends at school. I don’t miss my homework though. It’s been hard to stay home for so long but at least I can play with my friends online. There is not much to do at home, so I wanted to make something new and colourful. I didn’t have a plan when I made this painting, I just picked my colours and went with it. I was very happy when it turned into a cool fire. It’s fun to try new ways of making art and I like giving my pictures as gifts to my family because it makes them happy.” 

Check out more highlights from the over 2,000 Portraits Of Resilience submissions below.
Life Under A Pandemic, John Hryniuk
Courtesy of the artist / AGO
Fortune Teller (Bay), Shanan Kurtz
Courtesy of the artist / AGO
my my, there, there, Kelly Cade
Courtesy of the artist / AGO
Worn: Brown, Joyce Crago
Courtesy of the artist / AGO
Frontline, Kari Visscher
Courtesy of the artist / AGO
Pandemic Self Portrait, Tanya Hendriks
Courtesy of the artist / AGO
In Anticipation, Subarna Talukder Rose
Courtesy of the artist / AGO
Displacement, Gwen Hopkins
Courtesy of the artist / AGO
Covid-19 No 65, Mahmoud Meraji
Courtesy of the artist / AGO
Under Construction #5, Dionne Simpson
Courtesy of the artist / AGO
Peony, Mallory Tolcher
Courtesy of the artist / AGO

All images courtesy the artists and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Responses have been edited for clarity.

@kelseyxadams

Artists Amanta Scott, Deborah Farquharson, Katy Catchpole, Keith Eager and Mariana Topfstedt discuss their submissions with Kelsey Adams and Norm Wilner on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

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