Creative Quarantine: Artist Julia Haw

Self Portrait in India

1. How are you holding up?

I’m not sure there’s an easy way to answer this considering the emotions have ranged from deliriously high to the hardest wrenching sobs I’ve had in years.  Positively though, I maintain daily practices of yoga, fitness, clean eating, and meditation holding my mental state down in a good way.  Through these immune-strengthening acts, I am able to maintain equanimity and inner peace throughout most of my day, with the exception of some anxiety.  For a while, I was nauseous every day to the point where I vomited a few times.  This is something I’ve never experienced before!

In Delhi, Day Three of Coronavirus Shutdown, March 24th

I am currently based in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  The reasons for this, even for me to think about, are pretty nuts.  As a brief backstory, I had just moved to Cambodia with my partner in January – a dream I’d worked toward for all of 2019.  I’ve been visiting Cambodia on and off since 2015 and spent quite a few months volunteering with an NGO called Colors of Cambodia.  My partner and I found and set up a gorgeous sun-drenched apartment with a porch bigger than my Brooklyn apartment.  What I thought would be a brief trip to India in March to obtain a yoga certification, ended with a desperate attempt to get out at the last minute.  I caught the last flight leaving Dharamshala and wound up in the midst of complete governmental shut-down in Delhi for ten days.  I was banned from re-entry to Cambodia being a U.S. citizen and was evacuated by the Mormons and repatriated to the U.S. My heart weeps selfishly due to my shuttered dream, but significantly more-so because due to the literal flatlining of tourism, Cambodians are now starving.

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so in what way? 

Absolutely.  After a dry spell due to the big move and extensive travel, I’ve begun a new body of paintings that detail the subtle and radical changes in contemporary society due to Covid-19 and its rippling effects.  The floodgate has just cracked open, with regard to what we are about to witness and experience due to this virus, as a global species.  It is an imperative and fertile time for witnessing and documenting vast unforeseen transformations and new ways of life.  The paintings will be observances and examinations spanning from the mundane tangible objects we surround ourselves with for comfort, and the dynamics within our insular familial units we are contained to, to the further depictions of  immediate community and global metamorphosis, and how others reactively reckon with the crisis internally and externally.  

Comfort | 9x12in | Oil on Archival Paper | © Julia Haw 2020

In the past week also (writing this on June 3rd), we are still witnessing another INSIDIOUS virus.  That of American racism.  I am sickened, saddened, and disgraced at the horrific nature of racists and hellish injustices now boiling at the surface of every square inch in America like hot lava. It seems we are also entering into a dictatorship.  I am however equally bowled over by the unfathomable mind-blowing strength, compassion, and power I am witnessing in individuals and communities coming forth and taking a stand for our nation. 

Dark | 12x16in | Oil on 100% Cotton Oil Paper | © Julia Haw 2020

The poignancy of continuing an approach as a pictorial documenter, in this strange and quite disturbing time in history, one wrought with emotion, devastation, and divisive political bargaining, is clear.  However, seemingly negative aspects we are currently experiencing, are in fact paving the way for a robust reinvention of societal landscape, and the absolute way in which we experience the world.  The ways in which we interact with one another, the nearly-involuntary internal rumination, and the subtler ways in which we eat our food and dress ourselves (or don’t…) are evolving quickly as our new reality sets in.  There is a visible shift into self-reliance as well as the interdependence of family, neighbors, and friends.  This shift reveals itself in rudimentary ways: bread-making, seed sprouting, reliance on local farms for produce, home-schooling, meditating, sewing, and learning.  The cracks are becoming chasms in the overall functionality of our society.  Change has been crucial, and now it’s unavoidable.  In Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self Reliance,” he states, “Let us advance on chaos and darkness.” I am a firm believer we will do just that, through the teacher of a virus.

In Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self Reliance,” he states, “Let us advance on chaos and darkness.”

It’s easy to feel helpless or weak in the surmounting wake of Covid-19 (and other extreme factors), but as artists, we must tell the story of this time.  There is simply nothing more important for me to paint right now.   The works in this series will act as windows to the present and future-past, as a way in which we can witness how far we’ve come in five years’ time, and know vividly what we endured.  With this body of paintings, I will honor not only the darker moments but also the magnificent strength and resilience of human will.  These midnight hours are only understood through knowing the brilliance of light.

Death Crow Effigy | Acrylic on Archival Paper | 9 x 12in | © Julia Haw 2020 |

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice you’d like to keep up after this is over?

I have been continuously adding to my YouTube Channel, “A Painters Vlog,” and in sharing my story have reached a broader audience than I knew possible.  About a month ago I made a video in India while experiencing the total shutdown in a hotel for ten days and it garnered over 135K views.  I will keep sharing my story in the purest way possible – through the act of painting and video.  I’ve also recently bought an older 1995 Ford diesel ambulance I will be converting into my home to maintain the lowest overhead as possible. This van will carry tactile messages on the outside to serve as a symbol of solidarity with those hurting in our communities.  The possibilities with this mobility are limitless and fall in line with increasing radical views. I vow to keep up a practice of living as FREELY as possible, as well as reverse-engineering my life.  This means imagining myself at the age of 96 looking back, and knowing that I never let fear guide me… and that I possess nothing, not even regrets.  I will know that I did everything to protect my family and all of those I revere and love.

Meditating on Hotel Rooftop, Delhi

4. Of the artists you follow who’s been handling this well? 

This answer is supremely easy and two particular artists come to mind: Daniel Maidman and Vahid Sharifian.  I am privileged to consider both as my friends, so I’ve kept a close watch on their prolific work output still.  I think for many artists the virus has stalled work, which is completely understandable.  But for Daniel and Vahid, both have not only continued their incredibly strong output, but both artists’ styles have changed.

Daniel is currently more focused on form and light as it deals with his mainstay subject matter: the human figure.  Being confined to his home in Kingston, NY, and unable to routinely work out of his Greenpoint studio held certain challenges: no access to oil paint and no access to life models which he regularly draws from.  Additionally, a particular gray paper he normally used was discontinued.  During this time Daniel has added highly unique elements of color use to his work, as well as perspective and it’s been a complete joy to see his daily drawings.

As for Vahid Sharifian, at the start of the shutdown, he made stylization changes to his work – working away from more painterly or slightly realistic works into a sort of 1920’s movie screen noise overlay on his daily paintings. I’m also noticing more political tones with an even more pronounced perverse-ness.  I have seen Vahid create a work before my very eyes in a matter of hours, and let me tell you…. he’s put in his 10,000 hours.  The deftness of his hand and mind are brilliant. Because of these gorgeous changes, everyone has started sharing his works and thousands have started following his work in just a matter of a month! It’s been exciting to witness the response!!! I applaud my fellow artists!! Go, go, go!  Poetry and art are ESSENTIAL and vital to our salvation.  Period.  

As an oil painter, I approach my work with an ingrained, and deep-rooted curiosity stemming from a rural Michigan upbringing, one that embedded memories of broad fields, mysterious woods, blazing blue skies and feverous sketching in a makeshift studio in my parent’s basement.  That framework of bare-foot liberated youth, as well as living as presently as possible in adulthood, translates into my work as a now experience-rich blend of empathy and open-eyed perspective.  The influences in my work draw first from that endless well of living a seasoned life, as well as traveling to perspective-shifting places in the world, daily meditation, hardships, the deep desire for continual education, and leaning into fear unabashedly.  As I learn to observe the world in a more concentrated sense, the deftness of my brush to paper or canvas increases.  

My paintings are generally viewed as emotive, bold and color sensitive, and are often described as memorable. The content and message of my work emanates from a sincere examination of a broad range of topics, with a high focus on themes surrounding feminism, fear, faith, intimacy, control, and death.  I highlight aspects or objects around me that are often considered by most to be arbitrary or mundane, but which are actually laced with undertones of those political and social themes.  I tend to give people that have been marginalized or stigmatized in society, a platform of respect in my paintings.  The elevation of the overlooked, both animate and inanimate, feeds my work.  One of the highest goals I strive for is simply providing my audience with a palatable 2-D entry-way into approaching more difficult subject matters, by harnessing the use of intrigue, humor, and beauty. This approach creates a safe groundwork in order to facilitate thought-provoking dialogue and ultimately shared human connection.  I am above all a narrator telling the story of this moment.

My work has been exhibited internationally in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and in the U.S. at the Chicago Cultural Center, IL State Museum, P.S. 1 Biennale (New Orleans), and various other galleries located in Michigan, New York, Illinois, and Louisiana.

I live and work in the US and Cambodia primarily.

You can keep track of Julia at her website, YouTube, and Instagram.