Banner Image: Chicago Skyline by Sally Booth.

A blog by Sally Booth.

From 2nd – 9th March 2020, Shape took part in a cultural exchange programme hosted by the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). The week included a presentation by Shape CEO David Hevey, who gave an overview of Shape and the Disability Arts Movement, an artist talk by Sally Booth, and two sample sessions of Social Model training for staff at the faculty and the museum, students, academics, and artists.

Last week, I sent Shape some drawings from my Chicago sketchbook journal, made during brief moments and in the in-between times that bookended our delivery sessions. Seeing these, I was asked, “could you write us a short piece, from an artist's perspective, about your time there?”

But that was last week. They say that a week is a long time in politics, and now life as we know it has irrevocably changed. Now that time, incomprehensibly only at the beginning of this month, seems as if it was from another era. It would be impossible for me to see this illustrated blog other than through the lens of the Coronavirus, and the devastating impact its advance has already had on all our lives in a few short days.

So, to the before....

There were crisp blue skies that week in Chicago. Bang in the centre of the city the ox blood girders and cast iron rail tracks rattled above us as overhead trains cut horizontal lines across buildings of glass and steel. By lunchtime of the first day, David and I had already found what was to be our regular breakfast place, done our PowerPoint planning meeting, and were out on the bus, criss-crossing the districts of the city to get our bearings.Sketch of skyscrapers in Chicago

Sketch of view from a cafe in Chicago

Sketch of a railway bridge and buildings in the background.

Red girders of a railway bridge

Images from top to bottom: First glimpse of Wrigley and Trump Building, View from the Goddess and the Baker, Railway and Red Buildings, Ox blood red girders a walk over the river. All images courtesy of Sally Booth.

Generously hosted by Joe Behen, Dean of the Wellness Centre at SAIC, the next few days of delivery in and around the Institute was a full programme. I had never given a talk in a ballroom before and, despite the usual stomach churning nerves, the Social Model training was well received, resulting in some nuanced debate and sharing of ideas. 

Artist Alex Stark, only 25, showed us round the Voices Embodied Project: Convergence exhibition that he had selected and curated, consisting of work by around 20 disabled or marginalised artists. 

At the time, we were talking about bringing some of the works over here as part of our cultural exchange. Who knows when that might happen now?

On American TV, it was all about the Democrat candidates. Bernie was in town and we bumped into stragglers from a huge rally he was giving in the park. Trump was still saying that Corona was like the flu....

On our last day, David and I were invited to visit Alex's studio. He lives on the 58th floor of a very well known building in Chicago. Curved windows drenched the apartment with light and revealed vistas of the city, the Wrigley building looking tiny below, and the river leading out to the vast lake. Soon, we were both sitting casually on the floor as Alex pulled out his paintings from drawers and quietly, modestly, talked about his work. They are dreamlike, full of his own highly-developed language of personal symbolism, and reminiscent of magic realism.

Artist sits on the floor of his studio, surrounded by his paintings.View from a high rise in Chicago, facing out to the water

Alex in his studio and the view from his apartment. Courtesy of Sally Booth.

On the plane back, my mind was exhausted but buzzing; memories of the city landscape, people we had met and made connections with, our last night at the Green Mill Jazz Club with Joe, and hopefully, a job well done. It was obvious Corona was going to stop flights very soon and was coming our way. Landing at Heathrow, I was thinking we had just about got away with it and was looking forward to a bit of quiet time at home. Oh, the irony. In a matter of days, there was chaos at the airport in Chicago.

A year planner on the wall with "Cancelled" written across it in red.

Image courtesy of Sally Booth.

And now...Coronavirus.

At the time of writing things are changing almost on an hourly basis. Measures are coming in thick and fast but not as fast as the  virus. And with it, anything that resembled our previous life has gone. All freelance work is gone, we are not able to meet as we did. It is life over livelihood now. We are all hunkering down.

Like many others, I am grappling with the practicalities of my independent life perhaps not leaving me in the best position. What support I had previously is now remote, and I am not sure how that is going to work or keep going. I am sitting tight but trying to find creative ways through.

For me, the unexpected revelation has been the wonderful phone calls on the landline. I think I have had more amazing, gritty, truthful, and affectionate conversations during this time than ever in my life.

For others amongst us there is the real worry of how they will manage to continue to receive their personal care, especially in the light of rather chilling proposals by the government to reduce the duty of care for disabled people. 

We are only at the foothills of this, and not all of us are going to make it. But one thing I am sure of: it will be us, the artists, who will be making work about it. We have to hang on in there. At some point there will be jazz clubs, culture, travelling for the pleasure of it, sharing a meal out, joyful sex, and being able to hug a dear friend again. It will come back.

More of Sally's sketches.

Titles of sketches in GIF: A night walk up Michigan Avenue; Night Walk 2; Under the Railtracks dark; Under the Railtracks light 

Alt text for sketches in GIF: City buildings at night; City buildings lit up at night with purple sky; A road at night with black overhead railtracks going into the distance; A road under silhouetted railtracks going into the distance with pinkish background.

Sally's website can be found here. 

If you're interested in finding resources to deal with self-isolation, social distancing, working from home, and working in the arts sector in the current climate, we are compiling a list over on our Twitter account, which you can find here

We are also working with Unlimited to maintain up-to-date resources for artists and freelancers, as well as sustained transparency on what Unlimited is doing as an organisation at this time.