Artists are the voice: Urgent Importance

During this time of isolation and uncertainty, the role of art has become more important in our lives, whether we realize it or not. Now more than ever, we look to artists and designers as a source of inspiration during quarantine to bring peace of mind in a time when so much is up in the air. We chatted with Julie Puma, Visual Artist, and Professor in the Fine Arts and Foundations department at RMCAD. Julie shared with us how she’s finding her inspiration and a special project she’s been working on to help bring a voice to those battling the virus.

Tell us about your background in art and design, and what you do? 

I obtained a Master’s in Art and Art Therapy in 1995 and went on to complete an MFA in Visual Art in 2008. I am a full-time Professor in the Fine Arts and Foundations department at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. Beginning as an adjunct instructor in 2006, I have been with the college for fourteen years. 

How are you finding inspiration during a time when everyone has been told to stay home? 

Honestly, my life has not changed too drastically. I am teaching online, doing agility with my dog Rex, and practicing yoga. I’m kind of a homebody and with a studio in my basement, it was easy to wander down for times when I’m feeling creative. With the transition of campus classes to online, I can say that being a part of RMCAD has saved me by helping keep me busy and inspired. It’s a difficult time for everyone, but we’re all doing our best to remain motivated and keep ourselves occupied.

What motivated your newest painting series? 

I have come to realize that we are grieving as a nation. Having lost my mother and sister to breast cancer, I am very familiar with the stages of grief. My process was not unlike others who were sharing their stories via social media. I was seeing a lot of images of health care workers on Facebook and asked a friend of mine to send me some images of her co-workers. Art-making has always been an important avenue to express and sublimate feelings that are difficult to speak about. I believe in the healing power of the arts for myself and for others. Health care workers are putting their lives on the line every hour of every day. I felt a need to connect more deeply to these heroes.

What is the meaning behind the series you’ve been working on? Is there a story you’d like to tell with these paintings?

I have turned my attention to painting photographs sent to me by health care workers, friends of health care workers, and images found on the internet. The process of painting healthcare workers is a way to take the invisible enemy (the virus) and make visible the heroes (health care workers). In some ways painting nurses, doctors, and respiratory therapists allows me to grieve the loss we’ve suffered as a country, whether that’s lives, the economy, or a sense of normalcy. I intend to create ten to fifteen of these paintings and hope they will come to symbolize the incredible strength and resilience of our country after this has all ended.

What does urgency mean to you in art and design? 

The series Urgent Importance as an exhibit reminds the viewer that reactions to the current tsunami of images, and messages can be slowed, questioned, and while kept in the moment, offer reflection. Urgency in art and design is a way to test the limits of public tolerance. Because most people own a smartphone, society can define what it views as important. Currently, selfies and images of healthcare workers are flooding our social media outlets with the hashtag, this is urgent. 

In this time of urgency to return to “normal”, I am struck by the shift in how we view the spectacle of social media and the disdain for the “selfie”.  We have come to rely on technology, particularly social media to connect with our friends, family, and community.  Richard Saunders in his chapter titled “Making Sense of our selfie Nation” (Reeves, Beyond The Face, New Perspectives On Portraiture, 2018) states that the selfie is really no different from pre-selfie America and that the popularity of selfies is a way to craft our identity (pg 274). 

Along with fighting a virus, we are witnessing the struggle as a nation to find our identity before, during, and after the pandemic. Ironically the use of the internet and social media has now become not only a way for us to work, celebrate, and go to school, but highlights how we define ourselves in society. Once again we are divided by class, education, economic status and race. What has changed is our isolation depends on our relationship and access to technology. It has become urgent that we have “access”, no longer seen as a past or waste of time, but an urgent necessity to survive. 

What advice do you have for students and the RMCAD community during this time of uncertainty?

Stay hopeful and strong. Artists and designers have and always will be an important and integral part of society. We are the eyes, ears, and voices of disaster. 

To follow along with Julie in her art and series Urgent Importance, check out her social media handles below:

Website: juliepuma.com
Instagram: @jgpuma1966
Facebook: Julie Puma art