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Staving Off Pandemic Panic, an Artist Turns to Masked Portraits

The humble act of pencil drawing has given Nancy Boyd a kind of peace. A Tyee Q&A.

Dorothy Woodend 20 Aug

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Many artists are contending with the double-edged pandemic sword of unfocused time and existential angst. But the humble act of drawing can offer a way to calm the mind and chart a path forward.

Drawing isn’t a panacea, but a discipline. For artist Nancy Boyd, it’s also a way of making sense of the world.

Boyd, who taught drawing and painting at Capilano University for more than two decades, works from her home studio in East Vancouver. In the early months of the pandemic she turned her hand to drawing masked people. A few were people she knew, but many more were faces from the news, health-care workers and frontline folk, with only their eyes visible. She has drawn more than 50 masked faces so far, representing a broad range of ages and backgrounds.

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Throughout her career, Boyd says, drawing has helped her refresh her vision as well as access a deeper understanding. “Drawing has always been the mainstay of my work and is still present even in the abstract work, often in botanical or sometimes architectural forms.”

The Tyee spoke to Boyd about the challenges of making art in uncertain times, as well as the unexpected benefits. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Can you talk about how the pandemic has affected your creative practice?

Nancy Boyd: My mind tends toward existential concerns at the best of times and prior to the pandemic I was going through yet another period of questioning the nature and purpose of my art practice at this later stage of my life. I’m 71.

But when the pandemic hit, I screeched to a halt from the shock of it all. In one regard, the pandemic allowed me the freedom to feel that there was no pressure at all to produce. Many other artists were having the same trouble under these uncertain circumstances, and certainly there was less expectation from galleries about exhibiting. So, ironically, I actually felt a little better, a little less guilty, about my art-related uncertainties.

In a way, that breathing space was what allowed me to turn to something more straightforward than my larger abstractions. I wanted to be a witness to this extraordinary time but in a way that wasn’t fraught with all the complex considerations that plagued my regular practice. So, a few straightforward drawings of masked faces seemed a place to start. I just needed to look and record in a medium that has always been most appealing to me: pencil drawing. But clearly, I got more engaged as I went on.

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What is about masked people that you find so compelling as a visual artist?

One of my favourite exercises for my drawing students when I taught at Capilano was a project based on wrapping, tying and drawing objects à la Christo. When asked to consider what associations came up, their reactions and observations usually fell into two camps. On the one hand, we had things dark, brooding, mysterious, scarily unknown, perhaps related to restraint, bondage or robbery. On the other, we had references to gift-giving, happy anticipation, nurturing, tender swaddling, protection, bandaging to heal.

When I think about this in relation to these masked faces, I lean more to feelings of tenderness about people doing this to themselves during the pandemic: covering up one of the most expressive parts of their bodies, all in the service of healing and as a gift of caring about others. I’m very touched by that. I haven’t been able to draw a child with a mask yet; it seems so upsetting somehow. And I can’t help but think of the irony of more of us experiencing what it feels like to have your face covered, and maybe more deeply contemplating the reasons that other cultures require or choose to cover their faces.

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Do you see drawing as a means of making order in a world that is increasingly chaotic?

Doing drawings almost daily for weeks at a time does provide a calm, regular, orderly shape to my days. I won’t make claims about how they may affect others... but they certainly give me, daily, several hours of what is very close to a meditation. All anxiety producing news and monkey mind catastrophizing is in abeyance at least for the duration of the drawing.

I’m reminded of something John Berger said about touching the universal by way of the particular. You can hardly get more particular than highly-focused renderings of highly-specific, often fearful faces under these world-changing circumstances.

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Can you talk a little about how you foresee your work changing as social and cultural developments continue to unfold?

I have little to no sense of how and in what manner my work might change as forces unfold in the wake of the pandemic. The implications are so far-reaching. My existential concerns are more heightened than ever, and those concerns are always roadblocks to getting on with work. Since my work prior to these drawings was, in part, concerned with looking deeply inward, both scientifically and psychologically, I suppose I may well get back to just that.

What form that will take, I simply can’t foresee at the moment. But along with the deep anxieties about the world that affect me and my work, there is always that kernel of wonder and hope that maybe some amazing changes for the planet, and maybe for us humans, will come out of all this fear, unrest and dislocation.

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Read more: Health, Art, Coronavirus

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