Art and Artists Continue to Thrive Despite COVID

Merl Ross


Last year, before anyone had heard of COVID, I was fortunate enough to travel to Cantabria in Northern Spain where I visited Paleolithic caves, located in the mountains. These prehistoric caves are home to some of the earliest art ever created by humans. I was struck by the thought of generations of people coming into these caves, drawing horses, bison, reindeer and abstract linear patterns, and leaving their handprints as a signature of sorts for others to see for thousands of years. I was inspired by the experience, and it fueled new artwork upon my return.


The human necessity to create art remains a timeless instinctive desire. It represents that irrepressible urge to respond to events and emotions that are part of our daily lives and to place one’s own handprint on history. That need to untangle and express the unknowable aspects of our imaginations has long been central to the way I approach my abstract art.


COVID has changed everything for me. While before I traveled extensively, my experiences have now been limited to my house and neighborhood. But instead of allowing the current crisis to stifle my imagination, I have found that it has unleashed a bout of creativity I never would have predicted.


Painting during the pandemic has been a calming force in structuring my day-to-day life while working at home. When Shelter in Place was implemented in California back in mid-March, I paused from driving to my studio where my larger artworks are created. I began the practice of creating a mixed media series of small paintings both on paper and canvas.


This work I now refer to as my “Pandemic Kitchen Table Paintings.” It was rewarding to work small and sense the completion of a painting, usually after a few days of concentrated effort. My art has always been about that intersection of imagination and experience and allowing for the unexpected occurrence. These new watercolor and gouache paintings on paper are part of the “Daydream Series” and provide an opportunity for me to dive into my imagination reflecting on my memories and emotions. Although reality remains at a distance while painting, the work is not just escapism for me, but a way to reflect on this unprecedented period.


This desire to create new forms of expression during the pandemic has been widespread among artists. An opportunity to share this work presented itself this past summer when the de Young Museum in San Francisco held an open call to all San Francisco Bay Area artists for a juried exhibition to celebrate the de Young’s 125th anniversary. The de Young is one of the premier art museums in the country, and I am honored to have two of my paintings hanging among 762 impressive artists’ works that were selected from the 13,000 submissions. The show embodies the depth and range of art being created today by Bay Area artists.


My association with the de Young Museum began early in my life. As a native San Franciscan, I grew up visiting the museum often. In fact, my first painting class occurred at the museum when I was a preschooler.


It is not exactly a handprint on a cave, but this exhibition is a testament to the way art brings communities together and the essential role artists play in these times.


From the de Young Museum exhibition:



The American Dream Spiral captures the intermingling of optimism and gloom of the current moment. As 2020 approached, this painting began at a time of my personal belief in the possibility of change in our country. Through my mind’s eye, I created an inner landscape as a point of departure, expressed with a vivid palette and golden light. The warm palette reflects the Southwest Indian Country and some of the petroglyphs one finds on cave walls in that region, but there are also references to wildlife refuges in the Chesapeake, Jasper Johns’ flag paintings, and a range of other elements.




The Passage of Spring is an aerial perspective of an imagined Bay Area, illuminated by the subtle golden light of spring. It is a reflection on our pandemic circumstances as we witness entire seasons passing us by. I am capturing this experience, a suspended moment in time, where there is no morning or midnight, tomorrow or yesterday.


Other works by Merl Ross:





For more information about the paintings featured here, please visit the artist's website.


For Highbrow Magazine


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All images courtesy of Merl Ross
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