Artist Bruce Conkle: Isolation as meditation time

Bruce Conkle is a visual artist based in Portland, Oregon. His work in drawing, sculpture, and other media often engages with current events and the ecological effects of human enterprise. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Hallie Ford Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission, as well as many other grants and awards, and his work has been shown at galleries locally and internationally and is held in the collection of the Portland Art Museum. He is currently an instructor at Portland Community College.

a colored-pencil drawing of a figure wearing a hazmat suit and spraying neon green liquid on the ground, the suit's legs are rolled up to reveal a skeleton's legs; in the background the prices of gold and silver on the stock market are written above crudely rendered outlines of service trucks
untitled, 2020/Image courtesy Bruce Conkle

This is the third in a series of short(ish) interviews with Portland artists and arts professionals about their experiences and insights into the effects of the pandemic on our arts community. I hope these conversations will provide a bit of connection, critical perspective, and hope during this difficult time. 

How are you doing? Do you have any strategies for managing the various anxieties, fears, and inconveniences the pandemic is causing? 

Artists in general thrive having a lot of time alone, to be inside their own head, so I think in a way we are getting through this house arrest a lot easier than people who constantly need external stimuli. The creative mental state is a type of meditation—one loses track of time, of place, and of self. I draw mandalas as meditations on a certain subject. After a few minutes (of drawing) you become unaware of the subject itself.

Five men at a restaurant table laden with food, toasting wine glasses in a celebratory manner, the artist is seated and wears a furry hat with cat ears
The artist celebrating Christmas dinner during a trip to mainland China, December 2019/Image courtesy Bruce Conkle

How has all this affected your art practice? Are you currently working on any new projects?

Lately I have been drawing images from the news and adding in some data points such as CO2 ppm, the stock market’s daily fluctuations, coronavirus cases and deaths, runs, hits, and errors, the price of gold, etc. To me that assortment of information gives an overall glimpse into our daily fears and how wobbly the society and civilization has become. This goes into my sketchbook as sort of a diary‚a travelogue without leaving the house. 

colored pencil drawing of a news story discussing the cruise ship carrying coronavirus patients that was held off the coast of San Francisco in early 2020. the ship and the Golden Gate Bridge are colored in while the rest of the picture is sparsely rendered, featuring headlines and stock market indicators
Cruise Ship, 2020/Image courtesy Bruce Conkle
colored pencil drawing of a disembodied snowman face, half of which is fully rendered and has a medical red cross in place of one eye, the other half is transparently drawn to reveal a cruise ship floating along the midline of the snowman's face
untitled, 2020/Image courtesy Bruce Conkle

Obviously the economic fallout from this crisis is massive and is affecting everyone, but the art world may be particularly vulnerable. What have you seen/heard/experienced in terms of how Covid-19 is affecting the arts and artists here? 

Artists of all disciplines are hugely impacted by the pandemic, with groups of people not being allowed to assemble and all theaters and concert halls closed indefinitely. I doubt many people are thinking about buying a painting or sculpture or other works of art right now.

Your work centers on the fraught relationship between humans and the “natural” environment (as though humans aren’t a part of it!), so I’m curious about your perspective on our current situation, which is essentially a natural disaster. 

When the older generation that controls most of the world’s wealth and political power is in danger, it is amazing how quickly everyone, including younger people, take action to protect them, never mind the economic consequences. With climate change, it’s the exact opposite—youth are being thrown under the bus so those in power can keep up their world-destroying way of life.

colored pencil drawing showing a screen shot from CNN featuring an infographic displaying a "Fear and Greed Index", the question "What emotion is driving the market?" appears over a horseshoe-shaped diagram with the words "fear", "greed", "extreme fear", and the number "2". Various market indicators are written underneath
Extreme Fear, 2020/Image courtesy Bruce Conkle
colored pencil drawing of a ship in a bottle, the ship is labeled with red crosses and the name "USS COMFORT" in reference to the Navy hospital ship stationed in New York City, flies swarm outside the bottle's mouth
quarantine, 2020/Image courtesy Bruce Conkle

When this is all over (hopefully soon), what will you take away from this experience? What do you hope the rest of the world will take away? 

Hopefully during the ‘isolation time’ most people have done some introspection, and in theory that should lead to more self-aware individuals. I hope that through more internal thoughtful experiences combined with less shopping, people have proven to themselves that it is easy to get by without buying a ton of unnecessary shit, and that it is not only easier to get along without so much consumption, it can be more rewarding as well. Without things like sporting events to distract people en masse there is a chance that we as a society begin to pay attention to the political sham going on around us, and realize that returning to consumer-oriented business as usual will be a disaster (for the planet).

colored pencil drawing of a smartphone screen showing a ghostly face smiling during a Zoom call, the words "Zoom Happy Hour" are written at the top of the picture
Zoom Happy Hour, 2020/Image courtesy Bruce Conkle

More specifically, what do you think artists and the art world at large will lose or gain as a result of the challenges we are experiencing now? Do you think the role of art or the way arts communities and institutions function will change permanently?

With so much time at home, practically everyone is surrounding themselves with more arts these days, from the obvious movies and music, to dressing up in costumes for video meetings, and cooking elaborate meals to enjoy. Ideally this will nurture a more nuanced appreciation of quality that comes from within and results in a more meaningful approach to living life.

Martha Daghlian has previously interviewed artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith and curator Grace Kook-Anderson in this series.

This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.

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