We all remember when the pandemic shut us in- doors closed, families retreated, life changed, times were unprecedented. As the world adjusted and we accepted our time in confined spaces, social media gave highlight reels of new projects that arose for some and snapshots of creativity blooming for others. Baked bread, puzzles, sourdough starters and DIY projects flooded peoples’ homes and reels.
Michelle MacKinnon (she/her) is an artist who dug into water colours during this time to deal with the anxiety lockdown had created. She developed a series titled Pandemic Portraits.
“I found I was having a hard and anxious time, and finding it difficult to go from working full-time to being at home. I wasn’t making anything for awhile. One day I woke up and wanted to paint a portrait. It’s something familiar and comforting. I painted myself and I put a perameter on it for just three hours. I just let it be three hours for just painting,” explained the artist. “While I was working on it I was thinking about mundane things that had happened during the pandemic that suddenly became important to me. On that day my hair straightener had broken, so I noted the date and wrote something along the lines: ‘On this day my hair straightener broke.’ onto the portrait”
At the time, Michelle thought it was a nice way to get back into things. Before lockdown she was an artist and educator living in Corner Brook and the water colour portrait allowed her to revisit her craft in a new way while she wasn’t working. The next day, she painted her partner and underneath his detailed face she noted that during the pandemic he started carving spoons.
Michelle found herself enjoying the release and turned to a friend and asked them if she could paint their portrait, marking it with something notably mundane they did during the pandemic. And she kept going.
Everyday for three hours, the artist worked on other artists’ portraits while highlighting small portions of perks they experienced during the pandemic. A small scribble underneath their paintings stating something that brought them joy at the time. Once she decided to post them on social media, people started connecting to the paitings and Michelle met new Newfoundland and Labrador artists online who she didn’t know before. She asked them if she could paint them and she kept going and going.
Eventually she wound up with 144 portraits.
“I look back at it now and it is not even a drop in the water of all the artsy folks we have here in this province,” she said.
The series features a broad width of artists across the province: visual artists, musicians, people in culinary arts, dancers, a selections of Newfoundland and Labradorians which Michelle refers to as only a small survey of the vibrant art scene in the province.
Michelle stepped back from the portraits once everything started to open back up because it felt less relevant, but it had brought her calm and relaxation during an anxious period.
“I allowed myself time to work in a way that didn’t feel pressured and it was only about enjoyment.”
Which is impressive. Although most of us hit the proverbial pavement at home and took on the pandemic with great exuberance, the majority of us hit a wall. Creativity sunk and motivation became nul and void. During a time when there was essentially creative burnout and people were sticking to the basics of simply trying to survive, Michelle was discovering calmness and connections through water colours.
It didn’t come without adjustment. Michelle was used to being in the studio five days a week and for months after lockdown, she hadn’t picked up a paint brush. She was spending her days filled with activities she didn’t normally do – watching movies or exercising until she felt an urge to come back to something familiar. Art is not only her profession but it has always given her calmness. Because her artwork had originally started in portraits, that form of creativity provided familiarity and a safe space for her to start.
“Portraits feel mathematical to me – how the face is laid out. It’s all relative measurement. They are like solving a puzzle for me and I think that’s why I did those specifically, because you use your mind to make a portrait. It’s a meditative process that allows me to be mindful, yet mindless and an opportunity to allow my brain to wander around.”
Then she published a book: Pandemic Portraits. Working alongside graphic designer Hazel Eckert, they set out to publish Michelle’s first art book. It was important to Michelle that the project felt more like an art piece, rather than just a book.
“I felt like the book itself was a cumulation of pandemic portraits and I wanted it to feel like a precious object, because I had spent so much time doing it. Luckily Hazel and I clicked on all of our ideas. Like having the texts and essays in there about the works and it had this beautiful colour scheme that was bright and a fold out section with a start to finish process series of one of the portraits.”
Only 300 copies of Pandemic Portraits were published to make it a limited edition piece of work.
While Pandemic Portraits is now further down Michelle’s social media feed, her creativity did not go to the wayside. She moved away from the familiar and started created detailed drawings of wool – finely crafted pieces of mittens, gloves or socks twirling together on paper. The pieces are so detailed, at first glance it appears to be photo. The warm wool is laid out in unique positions, making you stop what you’re doing and take a moment to really take them in. Your eyes are trying to rework the imagery and figure out where they begin and end until suddenly they make sense, creating a sense of calm and comfort.
“When I first moved to Corner Brook, I didn’t know anyone and I wasn’t familiar. It was a point in my practice, I didn’t know what I wanted to work on. A very transitory point. I immediately felt at home here, but there were some adjustments and one of them was heating my home with a wood stove. My basement was always cold,” recalls Michelle. “A friend of mine stopped by the Cash and Carry in Mount Moriah and she picked me up a big pair of wool socks and said it was to keep my toes warm. It was one of the most sincere gestures I had ever experienced. It was someone giving me something warm to feel more at home.”
That moment stuck with Michelle and she started drawing knit objects after that. She started to explore the idea of home in terms of comforting objects that we can take with us, rather than a specific place.
“It’s about objects that can give us comfort wherever we are. I started drawing items that I either purchased or were given to me or I had borrowed and letting them act as a symbol of time and place, as an object that represented home for me at that time,” said Michelle. “I find knitting such a beautiful gesture of kindness because it takes time to knit something and you’re making it with your hands, and then giving it to someone. It’s intimate.”
The knit images are now on display at the Arts and Culture Centre in Gander as an exhibit tied to the Come From Away musical.
Michelle is now working with a new body of work, she transitioned from these knitted images about home in terms of objects into knit work representing the body as home. The artist is currently making knit skin drawings – drawing the body as if it were made from knit. She is also exploring the body through knit with these large scale neon pink silicone arms that are largely knit pieces – that are “intriguing and very very weird and hard to look at,” as she describes it.
On the same theme, Michelle also had an instillation at CB Nuit, Corner Brook’s night art festival of an 18-foot long hot pink knitted glow-in-the-dark arm hung on a clothesline, with oversized clothes pins, which she created to “bridge a gap between the seriousness of anxiety and hypochondria by making it more accessible through a fun, bright, in your face medium of knitting.”
When she first experimented with knit pieces as art, it was an expression of transient living, but a few years ago Michelle and her husband decided to call Newfoundland home permanently.
“Making work about transient living isn’t relevant anymore. I started to think about how home was resonating to me at that moment and started to tackle the anxiety of living in my body and anxiety around hypochondria I have experienced and thinking about the body as the site of home and seeing it through knit,” she explained. “The question I am exploring at the moment is how we can sit comfortably with things that are uncomfortable and how can we look anxiety and hypochondria through the lens of knit.”
For Michelle working with art is a form of therapy that can be expressed in a softened way, allowing her to be vulnerable in a comfortable space.
“This new body of work confronts emotions and it took a long time to get to the point of being ok with the vulnerability. I think it’s important especially through hypochondria, because I do find that it is an anxiety disorder that is commonly met with humour, I don’t think it’s talked about as much. I think if I can talk about that, it’s important to do and setting my own boundaries to know what I can and can’t talk about.”
For more of Michelle’s work, check out her instagram: @michelleleahmackinnon and website: https://www.michellemackinnon.ca/