Creating through the COVID-19 crisis by Sarah Sudhoff

Sarah Sudhoff, 60 Pounds of Pressure, Diptych, 2020, Archival pigment print from a live durational performance, 24 x 30 inches

In January 2020, I made the decision to become a full-time artist. This was the career path I had yearned for and prepared for over the last decade of working in education, curation and arts administration. What I did not anticipate, was that as I was opening my largest solo exhibition to date in Austin, Texas on March 6 the city, state and country were already in various levels of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the visiting artist opportunities were suspended and other revenue streams vanished. I am also a single mother of two young children, which made this situation even more challenging.

I do not make work everyday that has never been my process. I spend a lot of time researching, gathering information and inspiration before I ever make the leap to share internal ideas with the external world. However, there are occasions that a situation is so impactful and immediate that my only means of comprehension is a visual response.

During the initial weeks of the lockdown in Texas, I read the news of a young mother in Georgie who was found dead in her home, with her four-year-old daughter sitting by her side. I was struck with so much grief and anxiety I could hardly breathe. I did not know this woman or her child, but as a single mother of two kids, I immediately wondered if I became ill who would care for the children and if worse, I died, how long would my children have to sit with my body before someone found me. It was at this time I tapped up emergency instructions for my children-who to call, our address and how to unlock the front gate to get help. The precariousness of the situation began to settle in.

Sarah Sudhoff, 60 Pounds of Pressure, Diptych, 2020, Archival pigment print from a live durational performance, 24 x 30 inches

I asked my kids if they would help me with a picture by both lying on me. And because I suggested we all be nude they immediately said no. We did a practice run in any event with their clothes on and I struggled to balance them both on my chest and remain calm and breathing. I remembered the bricks that I’d had removed from my small side yard to make a more kid-friendly outdoor area. I grabbed several bricks, making numerous trips to where they were stored and with the help of a friend we set up the camera, lights, background and placed the bricks on my chest. I did not yet know what the outcome would be but only that I needed to release the internal pressure that was building with an equal external force. The resulting performance and image stills “60 Pounds of Pressure” were created in less than a day from initial emotion to execution.

The second performance I created during the initial months of the lockdown, “Will You Hug Me Forever” developed within hours after learning that two members of my extended family had died from COVID-19 in New York City and a friend and her son, also in New York were ill with the virus. I felt instantly both helpless in my isolation and fortunate that I was in isolation to keep myself and my children safe. I empathised with all the families who were losing loved ones and unable to hug them or say goodbye for for fear of also contracting the virus. I empathised with nurses and doctors all over the country and world who were losing their own battles to the illness and pushing themselves beyond human limits. In an effort to in some small way honour the sacrifices being made and the devastating and immeasurable losses we are all witnessing, I decided to wear a Personal Protective Equipment mask for eight hours while I homeschooled the kids, cooked, did laundry, and went for a walk. I photographed myself at hour intervals and only removed the mask for the photographs, exposing the physical pressure being exerted n my skin and traces of the performance. This process and the durational performance taught me more than I expected. At times, I was exhausted and my breath felt completely restricted, pressure built in my sinues and temples, my nose dripped, and I became overwhelmed with the emotions over our reality and the lack of physical connection to my children. My 6-year old daughter asked. “ Will You Hug Me Forever” ? Yes, I answered, as long as I am able.

Sarah Sudhoff, Will You Hug Me Forever, Hour 7, 2020, Archival pigment print from a live durational performance, 24 x 20 inches

I’ve been very fortunate to receive local and national emergency grant funding for artists, who have been deeply impacted financially from the pandemic fallout. Without these resources we simply would have not made it. Friends in academics and other colleagues have also been a huge source of strength and have provided opportunities for connection and paid artist lectures, critiques and mentorship over the last few months. These were well needed and ever so appreciated life lines for me as a working artist now locked out and a homeschooling mother now locked in.

Sarah Sudhoff, Will You Hug Me Forever, grid, 2020, Archival pigment print from a live durational performance, 30x 40 inches

Over the summer, I was selected as the 2020 artist-in-residence for The DoSeum, a children’s museum in San Antonio, Texas. This announcement could not have come at a better time for me professionally and personally for my family. I not only needed a source of income but I also needed to make work again. I needed purpose outside of my home and outside of my children. Ironically though it was my son’s challenges with dyslexia which provided the inspiration for the piece. I was able to witness first hand how he navigated in a classroom and just how his dyslexia impacted his studies from my time homeschooling him during the spring. The residency, provided me the resources to be an artist again. My data-driven interactive installation, “The Reading Brain”, a colourful, organic brain-like sculpture, which flickers real-time mapping of brain activity produced by dyslexic children reading, recorded in MRI scans facilitated by Dr. Guinevere Eden, Director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University, opened on October 10th amidst a pandemic and on a two month timeline. Educational floor decals indicate the three regions of the brain used to process language and help decode for the visitor how that particular region helps support reading. Through creative movement and play, the visitors activate the installation. When all six regions are occupied the entire installation shifts from pastel colours to only warm tones of red and orange serving to reinforce that the more we read the more our neural networks activate. “The Reading Brain” is a celebration of all children and all of which makes us different and unique from one another, while igniting curiosity about the mechanics of our brains through the reading process.

Sarah Sudhoff, The Reading Brain, 2020, Data driven interactive light installation, 18 feet x 10 feet x 18 feet

I have often felt guilty for stepping back from my duties as a mother, as a teacher, as the source of normalcy in my children’s lives and I have questioned my actions and loyalties to friends and family over the course of the last eight months but during this time, I have also come to understand and appreciate how essential making, in any form is for me. It is my life line to myself and the outside world.

To find out more about Sarah’s creative practice see her website and IG account.