Art & Hope in 2020

by Tiffany Besonen,

It has seemed ironic, yet appropriate, that I selected hope as my word of the year for 2020. As an artist, I explore a chosen word/idea each year in my work, and it usually yields unexpected and serendipitous results. In January, I said, “Allowing yourself to feel joy (my word for 2019) grows hope. I think both joy and hope die with excess anger, anxiety, and fear. What else grows hope?” My January-2020-sugar-coated ideal of hope has given way to new understandings of what truly grows it in us. 2020 has been a series of hope lessons.

At the end of March and the beginning of the pandemic, I planted vegetable seeds indoors. It was a little early to be planting seedlings in Northern Minnesota, but I needed to see something grow. Around the same time, Minnesota was in a pandemic lockdown and I was teaching from home. I watched in horror as people in New York City were dying in record numbers from Covid-19. New York City is a special place to me, and my heart ached for it. Then, I had watery, disconnected dreams. Everyone around me was having restless dreams. As the seeds and my anxiety grew, I took photos of the sprouts and posted them on Instagram saying, “We instinctively reach for hope and light.” It seemed like a hopeful, optimistic thing to say. As my watery paintings of seedlings, boats, and moons were forming, I was making connections. Both art-making and dreams give hope by trying to make sense of chaos, uncertainty, and grief.

Next, it was the end of May in Minnesota. More photos and paintings were forming, and then George Floyd died while begging to live. Another important city to me, Minneapolis, was in total chaos. Where was the hope? I stepped outside to all the new green growth and sobbed. Everything was so beautiful in the spring sun, but so many people were suffering. My eyes cleared and focused; I snapped a photo of our dog and daughter sitting peacefully beneath a tree and posted it on Instagram. Saying, “Empathy is born from love, never from pride, hate, or fear.” You cannot make sense of the senseless, but you cannot “hopefully” ignore injustices, either. I was discovering how authentic hope does not ignore or sugar-coat the truth. Truth with hope moves us forward.

In June and July I turned to sculpture, probably my art calling, but the thing I did not have much space or courage for since my 2007 show in Chelsea/New York City. Summer in rural Minnesota is abundant and spacious, and it was time for sculpture. As the garden was growing, so were my sculptural experiments with paper, branches, wire, coffee grounds and other wild animal repellents. Some sculptures were placed in the garden to weather and to scare away the deer and rabbits. The critters stayed away and playing with sculpture again was freeing. Being open to courage and natural abundance was growing my hope.

At the end of July, our family finally was able to leave our tri-county area and go camping on the edge of Lake Superior. Lake Superior energizes and serves as a surefire muse for me. One morning our younger daughter insisted that we wake up before 5am and watch the sunrise over Lake Superior. We sleepily stepped onto the dark, rocky beach and huddled under a blanket on the edge of that massive lake. As the sun came up, the sky flashed breathtaking color. It did not last long, but a grateful, hopeful feeling washed over us. By July and into August, it was a sculptural renaissance taking over our home, and I finally set up my home studio in the old farmhouse. Mixed-media flying boat-forms and sculptural assemblages were forming. I learned to felt our dog’s fur into boat forms, which was just the right level of weird to stay sane while stuck at home with our dog’s fur shedding everywhere in 2020. Gratitude and humor were growing hope and art.

In September, while our garden was overflowing, my husband and I headed back to our classrooms. My opinions were mixed. Requiring middle and high school students to wear masks and stay six feet apart was a challenge, but seeing their sparkling, mischievous eyes was a relief. Whatever the ‘learning model,’ ultimately teaching art, like making art, gives me hope for the present and future.

In October, as hopes and prayers intensified, one of my teacher friends ended up in the hospital with Covid-19 and our older daughter came home for respite from a Covid-infested college town. My dad’s cousin and our neighbor both died of Covid-19 in October, and I wondered how much more of this can we take? Then came the election. As most, I am relieved the election is over and want our nation to find a peaceful way forward. Hope is used and promised a lot in politics but hope without truth is fantasy. Democracy is the promise that there is more that unites us than divides us, right? I am still hopeful in that promise.

Now in late 2020, in rural Minnesota where the pandemic was not supposed to reach according to some, our Covid-19 numbers are high, and our medical staff and facilities have been stretched thin. I want to look the other way and pretend this isn’t happening, but people close to us are sick and more will die. This is no longer affecting my far-off muses; it is at home and it is way too real. It was always real. Right now, I am grateful my husband and daughters are here with me. I am grateful to hear my mom’s voice on the phone saying that she and dad are being careful. Patience and caution can grow hope, too.

The only art I have made recently is an up-side-down root my husband gave me that I placed in an old wooden drawer. What I thought was the beginning of an assemblage, sits propped up on my studio table in its textural and monochromatic simplicity. I posted a photo of it on Instagram. “Trusting my instincts, instead of trying to do more, have more, and be more all the time. It is enough.”

We all need and deserve real hope, a gift found in facing truth, finding beauty, and then sharing it with others. What grows hope? Humor, honesty, compassion, natural abundance, patience, courage, and gratitude, one of these will most likely be my word for 2021.

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