Episode 4: Art of a COVID Year

In the early days of the pandemic, communities began singing together over balconies, banging pans, and engaging in other forms of collective support, release, and creativity. Artists have also been creatively responding to this global event. In this episode, we explore how artists help us deal with a crisis such as COVID-19 by documenting, preserving, and helping us process our experiences. Over the course of 2020, San Francisco artist James Gouldthorpe created a visual journal starting at the very onset of the pandemic to record its personal, societal, and historical impacts. We spoke with Gouldthorpe and Dominic Montagu, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.

  • See a selection of James Gouldthorpe’s artwork from the COVID Artifacts series.


Host: Hello and welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology, a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and Arizona State University. You can find us at issues.org.

In this addition of the podcast, join J. D. Talasek, the director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences, as he talks with artists James Gouldthorpe and epidemiologist Dominic Montagu about a series of paintings called COVID Artifacts.

J. D. Talasek: Hi everyone. I’m J. D. Talasek, and I’m the director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences. Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation podcast. For over 10 years, my colleague Alana Quinn and I have had the privilege of working with the journal, Issues in Science and Technology. We get to suggest artists to feature in the magazine, and it has been a real joy to do so. We believe that not only do artists have a unique perspective, they also have a unique way of communicating that perspective.

For this episode, I’m joined by one of these artists, James Gouldthorpe, who is based in the San Francisco area. We’re also joined in discussion by Dominic Montagu, who is a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.

James, Dominic, welcome. We’re glad you’re here.

Gouldthorpe: Hello.

Montagu: Pleasure to be here.

Talasek: So I’d like to just start by asking you how you met. It sounds like the start of a bad joke: an artist and a scientist walk into a bar. So why don’t you tell us what the real story is? How did you guys meet?

Gouldthorpe: You want me to go, Dominic? It’s actually all-around parenting. Our sons, who are both now in their mid-twenties, met in middle school, and they and some other boys formed this really tight group of delinquents that have remained friends for many years now. And through them, we got to know each other as parents. Dominic’s home became the sanctuary for all these boys as they roam the streets. So, we always knew where they were when it came time to track them down.

Talasek: Well, it just reminds me—we talk about cross-disciplinary discussions and the way that different disciplines interact. What you just said reminds us that it’s because we’re all human and that we have other ways of connecting through just our systems of knowledge.

James, we reached out to you because of a body of work that you’ve done called COVID Artifacts. And I wonder if you could tell us about that project—how it started, maybe just describe it for us, as well as how you view it now, after a year or so?

Gouldthorpe: Like a lot of people at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a certain level of panic. We had been sent home. I actually work at SF MoMA, and we had been sent home with the idea that we were going to check in in two weeks and all come back to work at that point. And as we all know, it didn’t happen that way. So at home I was panicking, kind of spinning out, and I just retreated to my studio to start working. I don’t know if you remember back at the initial start of the pandemic, there was this video that went around of this nurse showing you how to disinfect your groceries. He took each one out, wiped it down. It was a bit excessive, but back then we didn’t know.

And I remember my wife and I did our first trip to the grocery store, a little local grocery store. And we came back and spent over an hour wiping down every item. It had started to occur to me the things that we had taken for granted, our regular daily items, had suddenly become this vector for death. We had no idea how dangerous these things were now. Suddenly, a bag of potato chips could kill you.

I got the urge to represent that somehow, so I sat down and I painted a bag of groceries, which now was weaponized. It was this terrifying thing that was part of our daily lives, but it had this feeling of danger around it. And I discovered that doing that, just staying in my studio, kept me from spinning out. It started to really help my mental health. So I began reviewing the daily news feeds, which got brutal. I mean, there are people who chose to look away from the news feeds. I did a deep dive and then every day I would try to find something new to represent in a painting.

Talasek: Dominic, I’m wondering if you can remember the first time that you saw this work that James was doing and what your response was initially to it?

Montagu: I didn’t see any of the painted until I went to see the show at SF MoMA. And then it was just extraordinary because at UCSF, we realized, I think, in January that something rather dramatic was going on in Asia, and the university started at having weekly updates tracking COVID-19. And the first cases—do you remember the boat that came into Oakland and they were identifying positive cases and sending them on airplanes to North Dakota? And Trump was saying, “It’s okay, there’s only 13 cases. So we think we’re fine. Look at Asia. China has 50 cases.” And I spent a year looking at the  and the infection numbers and from when it was single digits in the US and forecasting how bad it was going to get and worrying about that.

It was a really stressful year for all of the reasons that James said, as well. And I forgot all of the daily events. And I forgot the individuals. I forgot what it was like when that boat got towed through San Francisco Bay and those first few weeks, when we worried about groceries. The friends that I had who went to New York to support the doctors and nurses when New York seemed like it was overwhelmed and that was going to be the end of the world. And each of those episodes got replaced by a new trauma or by avoiding those traumas by focusing on the infection numbers and the statistics, or the mechanisms of infection, what we were learning. Is it aerated? Is it aerosol? Is it just droplets on objects that don’t absorb liquids? Do we only have to worry about droplets on metal? How well do we have to do all of this? Each new worry meant you had something to focus on that was pragmatic and you could control it a bit by understanding it and everything else got forgotten.

And so this was an amazing thing, to look at all of James’s paintings and have it all come just rushing back—both the human impacts that were so vivid in the moment and just returned, or even the impacts on all of us, remembering what it was like to get the first bag of groceries and “how worried should we be?” I remember hearing about people in Italy using bleach to wipe down every apple that they got and thinking, “We’re not doing that. Should we?” And yeah, it was incredibly impactful.

Talasek: Your account of that is almost exactly like mine. It was that I had forgotten that this happened. I had forgotten that we had experienced that. And I’m wondering also, Dominic, how does that feed back into your work and into your research? How does that inform a scientist, to have that sort of moment of reflection?

Montagu: A lot of epidemiology, a lot of biostatistics, is not thinking about individuals. We look at aggregate, we look at infection rates, at mortality rates per hundred thousand. And 600,000 people—we’re close to that [number of] deaths from COVID-19 in the US—I immediately want to think, “Well, but it’d be hundreds of thousands of people who would’ve died from other diseases if we didn’t have COVID.” I contextualize everything in abstracts. And so it’s quite powerful to have a collection of images that breaks you out of that and forces you to constantly think about the human context, the human importance that is behind all of the numbers. That, I think, matters—it’s why the numbers matter rather than the inverse. It’s not because there’s lots of people that we get excited by statistics. It’s the other way around. The statistics only have value because they represent people. And if you forget that, you lose an enormous amount. You’re doing things for the wrong reasons. So, it’s been very important to me.

Gouldthorpe: When I look back, particularly at the early works, they become these icons of human behavior in the face of near-apocalyptic events. And you see what becomes the focus. Suddenly we have a shortage of toilet paper, which never fully made sense to me. It was this sort of irrational response. And then as events went on, there was a period where I was like, “How am I going to keep painting these objects?”

But suddenly, society, social norms started to unravel. When the George Floyd murder happened, there was this explosion of protests and the exposing of just how deep [systemic] racism is. And then events just began to accelerate. Some people say to me that this project was a great idea, but it wasn’t really an idea. It was a reaction. I was just like, I want to stay ahead of this. I want to note how we behave, how we’re responding to this, and what layers are being exposed as we move along.

It’s interesting in retrospect, because even I forgot what some of the images were about. Things went by so fast. I was clicking and I was like, “I don’t know what that is, but it’s tragic.” I don’t want to forget, but then at the same time, it was so accelerated that, as a painter, I had a hard time maintaining the momentum, because it was so much happening.

And it keeps shifting. Out here in California, we ended up with the wildfires, and we had this apocalyptic sky that was very Blade Runner-esque that went on for a day. And then it seemed like the events grew larger and larger in their consequences as it went along, and it all seemed to stem from the pandemic. The pandemic seemed to be the foundation for this unraveling of society, I guess, is a very dramatic way to say it.

Talasek: I’ve heard you talk about your work, James, in terms of storytelling and in terms of narrative. And certainly what you’re describing here exactly fits into that larger impetus of your work. And I think that it also ties in with what Dominic was talking about. The work that he does in the lab is statistics and you’re dealing with numbers, but then the power of the narrative, such as is represented in your work, to humanize that and to connect that very necessary study of the numbers with what the numbers mean in our real lives.

I’m wondering, Dominic, in your work as a scientist, how does storytelling manifest itself for you? Once you crunch the numbers, so to speak, at what point is a narrative, like what James is creating, helpful?

Montagu: It becomes very important for communicating the visceral information that’s behind statistical reality, but it always works in the opposite direction of what James’s paintings have done. At least, as a scientist, you do the analysis, you look at the data, and then you identify stories that illustrate the data rather than being outliers to the data. You might have a great story, but it turns out it’s the one in a thousand where the person, they survived against all odds. Or they died, but not from the disease that you’re looking at; they got hit by a truck. And so it might be a great story, but you wouldn’t choose that because you’re choosing stories that illustrate data.

I think what James has done and why this resonated so strongly for me was it’s completely the opposite. It’s a collection of 365 and counting items of information, each of which is incredibly powerful. And the story is built from the collection of all of them. You don’t look at averages. You can see a shared narrative. In many ways, COVID turned us all sitting at home into observers of the world, much more so than we had been before. We would participate in real life more than somehow we did for a year.

And so, what you get is a story that is more like a reflection of real life, where it’s many different things which all built up to a collective influence. And I think you see that, and that doesn’t come out in data. Nobody analyzes data to produce that story. So, it’s been really interesting for me to try and think about the relative position, the relative utility of those different ways of approaching the creation of a narrative to reflect back something that’s happened.

I think that the paintings are really useful because they show a really complicated narrative and experience. I assume, James, that for any one person, 60% or 70% of the paintings will resonate with them. And the other ones—one of the paintings that I love the most is this enormous crowd of people on the Golden Gate Bridge. I don’t remember that. I never saw that. I really like it, but it doesn’t viscerally hit me. And yet there’s so much overlap between what you experienced and what I or anyone else experienced, that we build a bond there.

And the bond is much more interesting because it’s an imperfect overlap. If it was just the average experience, if it was just the statistically calculated median, it’d be much duller. It would reflect what all of us share, which is probably Trump and doctors in New York and three or four other things, but it wouldn’t be as nuanced and it wouldn’t be as powerful. What we didn’t both see is as interesting in this story as the things that we both saw on TV or in the newspaper.

Talasek: That’s an amazing description of what this is. And James, I’d like to get your response to what Dominic just said.

Montagu: Come on James, I want to hear you say, “I disagree completely.”

Gouldthorpe: I’m leaving right now [laughs]. One of the benefits of working at SF MoMA and having this exhibition at SF MoMA is I can go into the galleries and sit in the corner and basically loiter. I’m the doughy middle-aged guy in the corner that’s a little creepy. But I get to watch people as they review the year. The work up is not the entire year. It goes basically from the start of the pandemic until just post-election. There’s a lot of other work that’s not on the wall. And I can watch the recognition go across people’s faces. And something that I’ve been trying to do with my work over the past years is to create a communal event, in a way, when you come and visit my work, that you linger and you read it like a book or a painting.

And I’m pretty excited to see that people come to it and they’re all pointing at different paintings and sharing a story about it, sharing that moment. Or, “I don’t remember this, what was the…” Trying to get other people and they’ll gather and all discuss it and review it. And it’s humbling, for one thing, because I wasn’t thinking about that when I was painting them. I wasn’t thinking exhibition, I was just literally in my own head trying to get through the day. But I am witnessing this shared narrative, this global narrative.

It’s now this archive of the pandemic. Now, whether it’s going to be able to exist with as much intention after the pandemic’s over, I don’t know, because our memory’s going to fade even more. But at the moment it’s fresh enough that people are definitely finding a collective memory out of it. It’s interesting to watch, and it was unexpected. I’m really enjoying lurking in there and seeing how people respond.

Talasek: Well, it is interesting. James, do you see this as, or was it part of your original intent, for it to be such a healing process? I mean, you talk about it as originally just your needing to do something creative in response and then you see people coming together and you know that’s a healing conversation to have. Was that your original intention?

Gouldthorpe: It was not. I can’t claim there was any intention. The intention was really to keep my hand moving and my mind occupied. But then, I chose to use social media, which is something that I generally avoid. I don’t like the endorphin rush that you get addicted to with social media, but I decided to start posting daily. And as it went along, I started getting responses from people who were very appreciative of the work. A lot of frontline workers, when I would paint hospital scenarios and nurses and doctors, would write in their appreciation for my depiction. And over time, even the certain specific subject matter got in touch with me. I painted a young man getting arrested in St. Louis, and his girlfriend wrote and talked to me about that day.

And Rahul Dubey, who was the gentleman who gave sanctuary to the people in Washington [DC] during Trump’s little stroll over to the church—they were all about to be arrested for curfew. And he threw open his doors and he brought them all in and he had 70 people and they spent the night. And I did a portrait of him and he wrote me and now we’re in regular communication. His portrait’s on the wall and he was so excited that his portrait was in the museum.

Here’s the thing. I’m basically an introvert, so it was a little strange to have these strangers reaching out to me. But then that became my way to stay connected outside the studio. I was watching the news feeds, but to actually start to hear from people that were having the genuine experience that I was painting, exposed a reality that I was only experiencing through my laptop screen. When I was invited to do the exhibition, I was shocked, for one thing. But then, to be able to do this, to see people—and people still write me now and say, “I saw your show and it moved me in this way.”

It is unexpected. And I’m still processing what that means. I hope that it has a life beyond the exhibition and that I can continue to do work that has this meaning for people, because that’s really what I’m trying to find in my work. A lot of art deals with deeper conceptual things that have a limited audience that can begin to understand and to dissect that work. I like, if I can, that my work can actually have a human element that can reach people in unexpected ways.

Montagu: I have a question for you, James. Because of this forum, because you made the clear mistake to invite me on to also talk with you about this, when you’re painting in general, or with this series of paintings specifically, do you think about the differences between recording a lived experience and a scientific analysis of the world—whether that’s about something specific to diseases or physics or chemistry or other aspects of science—what do you think about what it means to have an artistic, or an artist’s perspective, on the world, versus the scientists and how those either are completely unrelated or how they complement each other?

Gouldthorpe: I think they’re very related. I think that if you go through contemporary art, you’ll find a lot of artists who are working very specifically within the sciences as well. And it’s interesting. On my behalf, I’ve long had an interest in science, and I’ve tried to work it into my art, but it’s not always been successful. I’m perhaps realizing that just because you have an interest doesn’t mean you have to make more about it.

I have seen artists who have been successful at it, but in the case of the pandemic, the science was so integrated to what was happening, that it was a crucial part of the narrative of the year. So in this case, I was able to review the science and represent it in the painting.

Now my other work, which is large narratives that I do, are fictionalized stories set in the past and the element of science is not there. I haven’t figured out a way to do that, that makes any kind of sense. Whenever I do it, it feels forced and inauthentic.

But if you start looking around and you look at artists, there are artists who work with scientists and do an amazing job bringing the two elements together. Not two elements, there’s multiple elements in this. I don’t think they’re very different, science and art. They’re both explorations of ideas. And I think that they both manifest crucial elements of our human existence. Wow, that was—I’m sorry. You can use that or not. That sounded ridiculous coming out of my mouth when I said it.

Montagu: One thing that this raised for me is, Why was there so little shared memory? Why was there so little, certainly none that I’ve seen, art that came out of the Spanish Flu of 1918? OK, in part because the news was shut down because of World War I, but this was immensely traumatic. And, there was very little scientific understanding of what was happening, little analysis of the disease that was helpful. And it also didn’t get shared or discussed.

And I wonder if those two things are related. That this was simply a shared trauma that had no explanation and no answer and that somehow that’s quite different from World War II. World War I, that produced… The answers and the resolutions came in the end of the war. And so, it became cathartic or useful to explore what happened in the war through art. And that somehow those two things relate: having a resolution through better understanding or through the conclusion of an event helps.

Talasek: It seems interesting to me, Dominic, going back to not having these communal experiences during the earlier catastrophes that you described. And a lot of creative outlets were probably lost. And I think that’s why it works such as what James is doing. It’s so very important. Around the same time that the pandemic hit, Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences started collecting creative responses from artists, engineers, and scientists. Everyone was responding to it in different ways.

We started collecting those and that’s how we actually found out about James’s work. So thank you so much, James, because now it is part of the archive of our collective experience that will hopefully live on.

Talasek: Thank you for joining us for this episode of The Ongoing Transformation. I’d like to take a moment to thank our guests, James and Dominic. Thank you for taking your time to be with us, for sharing your insights on art, science, COVID-19, and our collective memory.

Visit us at issues.org for more conversations and articles. I’m J. D. Talasek, director of Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences, signing off.