WINSTED — Artists like Gay Schempp thrive in their studios, where supplies are plentiful and inspiration is around every corner. When the coronavirus pandemic forced this particular painter to stay home, she found herself wanting — even needing — to create.
That’s where the crow came in.
Her whimsical, daily drawings of a crow express Schempp’s view of the coronavirus: the black bird with a face mask, Zooming on a laptop, poking a bottle of Lysol, and flying over an deserted downtown. She’s done more than 30 drawings of the bird, one of her favorite featured creatures, while she and her husband, Glen Zeh, practice social distancing and isolating in their Winsted home.
“It started when I pivoted from my 900-square-foot studio to a kitchen table,” Schempp said. “To amuse myself, I started drawing what was going on every day, through quirky crows. I’ve done around 30 so far, and I’ll keep doing them.”
Schempp is a member of the art community at Whiting Mills, where she gives lessons in painting and encaustic painting — a method using pigmented, melted beeswax — and does her own work. “For the last two years I’ve done encaustic paintings of crows. But for this, I’ve been doing pen and ink drawings.”
The crows capture scenes of the pandemic. There’s one standing with rolls of toilet paper, another on empty grocery store shelves. The crow with the bottle of Lysol disinfectant was inspired by President Donald Trump’s recent comments about using disinfectant to clean the inside of a person’s body — something that drew attention in the media last week. The New York Times reported an “uptick” in calls to poison control centers regarding his suggestion. Trump later said he was being sarcastic when he made the statements.
“I’ve been trying really hard to stay away from political statements,” she said. “But I just couldn’t resist that one.”
When the crisis is over, Schempp wants to do a show featuring her crows, and to compile a book
“My thought is that this will continue until I’m not on lockdown anymore,” she said.
Schempp’s revenue resources — her painting students and several now-canceled art shows in spring and summer — have evaporated for now, she said.
“I lost seven students and several shows, and though I’d like to make a book out of the crows, but I just found out how much it would cost to professionally photograph them,” she said.
But the response to the drawings has been so positive, she said, that she’s not giving up on the idea yet. “I”m kind of amazed at how many people like them,” she said. “I haven’t even signed them. The response has been ... kind of viral. I’ve been hearing from people in Europe, Mexico, all over, and of course in town.”
One drawing shows a crow sipping from a can of beer from Little Red Barn Brewers in Winsted. “People love that — they recognize things, like the crow drinking beer from the local brewery,” Schempp said with a laugh.
Before becoming a full-time painter, Schempp was a potter, an art form she pursued for many years. After an accident, she was unable to work with clay without physical pain, and turned to her skills as an artist, painting and honing her skills with encaustic painting. She teaches the method at her studio, and plans to do so again when she’s able to reopen.
The crow project has brought Schempp comfort and focus during a difficult time. “For me, my whole life, whenever things really got bad, I’d go to my toolbox and ask, ‘What can I do?’ This time, all I had was pens and paper. So for me it’s continuing to live a creative life when you don’t have what you need, whether it’s money or tools,” she said.
“Without having to think about these crows — without that anchor, I don’t know what I’d be like. It’s been gray and rainy. ... I have a hip problem, so I can’t walk very far,” Schempp said. “So the crows are working for me.”
Artists and other businesses at Whiting Mills aren’t allowed in the building for now. “We can go in, but we’re advised to get our supplies but not to go back to a regular schedule,” Schempp said. “Other artists are also finding a way to work from home. I just went back to my studio recently for some supplies, and it was like a ghost town.”
“I’d love people to go to the website and see what I’ve done,” she said.
Monday, she was drawing a “frustrated” crow walking off a cliff.
“It’s hard to stay positive, so that’s what I did today,” she said. “I want the sun.”