Last week, I caught up with Pollinate artist William Baddour over Zoom, a Memphis native currently based in New Orleans. Amidst the twin pandemics we’re witnessing -- COVID-19 and nationwide protests in solidarity for George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement -- we reflected on the meaning of art and community in this time of isolation, refraction and anxiety, and how it can be transformative for communities and individuals alike seeking solidarity and strength.
“I’ve been making art since I could hold a pencil,” he says, reflecting on a childhood spent doodling over schoolwork and keeping sketchbooks, drawing as self-expression and as an arena for trying out new ideas. His art is a meditative process through which he processes emotions, events and other subconscious, creating visceral images that reflect our shared humanity, and the experience of being a creative.
In this time of international quarantine and isolation, personal expression and self-care can often be forgotten or suppressed as we grapple with the unprecedented events that infiltrate our news cycles every day. But even talking over Zoom, it’s easy and comforting to connect over art and this shared, absurd moment we are all experiencing, together yet apart. Read on to learn more about how William views art as a form of meditation and tool for individual as well as collective processing, and more about his practice as an emerging visual artist.
Emily Conklin: How has your art practice or studio culture changed during this pandemic?
William Baddour: This crisis brought on such an intense flood of anxiety for me, and for many of us. I relocated at the very beginning, driving about an hour to my girlfriend’s home in Baton Rouge, where things were a bit more calm, the city being so much less dense than New Orleans. I planned to stay for a week or so, and ended up quarantining there for two and a half months!
EC: So many of us had that feeling, that we’d only be gone until it all cooled down, but the quarantine went on and on. How did you adjust your art practice to fit this unexpected relocation?
WB: I packed some paints, and of course my sketchbook -- I always have one on me. The loss of my studio in NoLA was a big hit: I really value having a studio separate from where I live. There’s no internet there, so fewer distractions, and I feel like I start my day “going to work.” Losing that was a big change, but my girlfriend was so supportive of continuing my practice, telling me to of course bring my paints, my work. That was really important, because artmaking is how I process anxiety and emotion. It’s been a really important personal practice during this time of intense trauma and emotion for all of us.
EC: Can you tell us about some of the work you’ve started during quarantine? Has any specific project really resonated with you during this moment?
WB: One piece has really taken hold of me, I call it my “quarantine piece:” it’s a painting, figural, of a man sitting under a colorful dome. He’s watching TV, and I think that this confined space, and his reliance on that one source of information to understand what’s going on outside his bubble… it’s evocative of my feelings of pent-up anxiety and worry. The piece uses color very liberally, with brighter colors like yellow used to highlight, and deeper colors like red used to shadow. I use colors instead of grayscale, to give value to the image I’m working towards. The colors though, they also help communicate this aura. The dome and the figure are enveloped in colors, and the colors show his personality. There is a communication, this aura-as-emotion, that’s at play here.
EC: Would you describe this as an autobiographical work? Do you identify with the figure inside?
WB: I wouldn’t say it’s a self-portrait, no. It’s more like a universal portrait, a shared humanity. It’s easy to feel like you’re alone and isolated, like the only one experiencing self-loathing during this time of quarantine. But reaching out and talking to others, and processing these thoughts through my work… pieces like this encapsulate the moment, not just for me, but for many in my community and, I believe, around the world.
EC: Does this “quarantine piece” seem to fit in with styles and techniques you’ve been utilizing lately? Or does this colorful, auric style seem to represent a break, or a new direction in your practice?
WB: I feel like this piece fits in with a pattern I’ve been noticing, of these colors being used for dynamic, abstract purposes rather than just pure photorealism. I’ve always used art as a personal, subjective tool to filter experiences, and this is definitely aligned with that way of working I’ve always been drawn to. I don’t just sit down and think, formally, that ‘this is what the canvas is going to look like’, or ‘this is what I’m going to finish painting today.’ It’s a trial-and-error process, where I revisit images, techniques, and see what I like, what sticks. What doesn’t work, I forget. My process is a continual refinement of the images that resonate with me, and this work is no exception. It’s very exciting really, to look back on old sketches or sketchbooks and see what I was working with months, or even years ago, and bring those ideas back to the canvas today.
EC: What other images have you been playing with? Give us a glimpse inside your sketchbooks!
WB: Recently, I’ve really resonated with this exploration of vintage illustration styles. I’ve done a lot of drawing as well as watercolor -- these mediums make it so easy to express my thoughts quickly in a sketchbook format. I think this idea of vintage or classic illustrations, it harkens back to the days when illustrators and artists were truly integral to production and commodities. When you had artists working on things like ads, posters, and packaging.
EC: That idea of art as a commodity has really been top of mind during the pandemic, with arts and cultural institutions shuttered and often deemed superfluous or shallow, naturally when compared with the efforts of medical professionals and other essential workers. But it makes me think about how we’re all staying sane now -- watching TV shows, listening to podcasts, trying new recipes, looking at virtual viewing rooms -- artists and creatives, and their production, is what’s connecting us all during this difficult time, and offering comfort as well as excitement amidst the grey days of quarantine. What do you think about the role of art in your communities, and as an artist yourself, during these pandemic times?
WB: I think that’s such an interesting thought, and I know a lot of artists are feeling like, well, I have no excuse to say I didn’t have time to start something, finish something, do something now: we all have too much time, in a way. But the ways I’ve seen other artists in my networks still communicating, it reminds me that our artmaking is our way of life, our way of processing information; it’s a lifeline. We couldn’t just stop making, even though the galleries are closed and the gigs are cancelled. I’ve seen a lot of my musician friends, all individually logging into Zoom and playing their parts together, but separate. It’s really inspiring.
For me, my visual artmaking has been a form of meditation. I feel like I’m replenishing my arsenal, and using the time I have to revisit old images and refresh them, processing things that I usually wouldn’t have time for if under pressure for a gallery, etc. I feel like I’m adding valuable pieces to my collection, even if they aren’t on public display right now.
EC: Art is interesting as it can have both this intense internal meditative power, but it can also incite action and new modes of representation when consumed by others. Do you think the current Black Lives Matter protests and calls for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the others, have stirred new ways of thinking in the past few days?
WB: I recently listened to one of my favorite podcasts, an art podcast that highlighted the work of Titus Kaphar. He uses white paint to blot out the overwhelmingly white, male figures in the foreground of classical portraiture compositions, leaving only the black figures often lurking in the background shadows or relegated to the bottom corners uncovered. This simple technique showcases the role of minority figures throughout history in a profound way, and makes the painting more interesting: we’re so conditioned to seeing these large groups of white men celebrating or banqueting. It’s refreshing to have our eye so directly drawn to something else, and it’s time that the art world comes to recognize these faults.
This podcast got me thinking about the importance of representation, and how powerful art can be, especially when taken in historical context. Powerful people, like kings and generals, of course could afford to have their portrait painted, have it framed and hung in public places, and of course eventually end up in a museum. As an artist, I have a fresh perspective on the power behind my choices of who or what to paint or draw. I’ve been aligning my practice towards impactful people that haven’t gotten this ‘established’ spotlight: currently, I’m working on a portrait of BB King. It’s this idea of increased awareness of our own power representations that’s affected me most, and recognizing that artists have the opportunity to give a voice to those who need to be amplified. It might not sound like much, but it’s due time for this renaissance to occur.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.