Photo Essay: Artists Keep Creativity Flowing during Pandemic

Article and photos by Noel Stevens | Mar. 25, 2021

Ernest Chan is a 24-year-old visual artist based in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Chan was born and raised in Austin, Texas, and after graduating from the University of Texas with a double major in advertising and psychology, he ventured to New York to look for work. In November 2019, Chan landed a job in advertising.

Only four months after Chan’s professional career began, the pandemic’s first wave hit New York City. As many fled, he stayed put and still works full time as a graphic designer and art director for the advertising firm DDB Worldwide. Chan is grateful for his job, but considering how the pandemic is hitting creative fields the hardest, he knows he is lucky.

In March of last year, Chan’s office kept him on but moved to a virtual setup indefinitely. His story mimics many others’. “Being home, there is no easy off switch; even before the pandemic there was no easy off switch because I’d always have my laptop with me,” Chan continued, “now it’s even more so like there is no end of the day.”
Digital design work is unlike painting, which is Chan’s preferred artistic medium, but he has come to appreciate and excel in both, especially as the pandemic takes its toll on the economy. “What drew me to creative advertising was basically being able to flex my creative muscles and do what I enjoy as an art, but in a way that feels a little more sustainable versus pursuing art as a career,” he said.
Above Chan can be seen shopping at Blick Art Materials in Chelsea, although he usually now orders his supplies online. His personal art has been affected by the pandemic just as much as, or maybe even more than, his advertising work. He said, “there’s definitely that struggle of using my creative brain juices for work and then coming out of work and just feeling like I don’t want to make anything right now. I’m not in the mood. I’ve run out of creative energy.”
The artistic sectors have been disproportionally affected since the pandemic began, from visual arts to performative arts. In a study of America’s creative economy published in August of last year, the Brookings Institute estimated, “losses of more than 2.3 million jobs and $74 billion in average monthly earnings for the creative occupations.” The report also stated, “the creative economy is one of the sectors most at risk from the COVID-19 crisis.”
The arts, however, are adapting. Museums around the country are now open with masking and social distancing guidelines. Art events, like the yearly photography festival hosted by the Brooklyn-based non-profit Photoville, have adapted to either outdoor or virtual models. Musicians have even taken to hosting live virtual concerts and recording entire albums remotely, like Sofi Tukker and Taylor Swift respectively. Many visual artists, like Chan, persevere.
Some artists have even felt more inspired during their time in quarantine, but circumstance plays a large role. Lavada June Roberts is a Nashville-based painter who said she was 50-years-old, with a wink, and no longer works. She has used her considerable free time to experiment and incorporate themes of metaphysics, longing, and isolation into her art. On the subject of how prolific she has been, Roberts said, “since the pandemic, I’m constantly painting; I get into the zone and don’t want to get out!”
When not focused on his digital work, Chan prefers working with paint and mixed media. On the left is his piece Eau, inspired by pictures of wildlife caught in oil spills. It is the artist’s personal favorite. On the right is his piece Bleed, subtitled, “nature is crying tears of red.” Both pieces feature texture to provoke emotion and explore themes of environmentalism.
Chan stands with a work in progress. His current paintings aim to create an image out of various temperatures and shades of black. Hoping to utilize color over texture, he cited Mark Rothko as an inspiration. He asks himself when working, “how do I create art that creates feeling?”
“My art doesn’t necessarily delve deep into my own identity,” said Chan. He is a first generation Chinese American, a Texan, and a gay man. However, he feels that these are just small facets of his overall identity. “I think it comes in and out of my work,” he said, preferring to focus on larger themes.
Although close with his family and appreciative of his roots, Chan’s apartment paints a picture of a Texas native who outgrew his hometown. “There’s so much creativity happening in New York that’s not really present elsewhere,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy to it,” he continued, “Austin is a much more relaxed, laid back city.”

Chan has settled into this life in New York comfortably, despite the pandemic. He credits his work and his fondness of the city in helping him adapt. “Yes, there’s art scenes everywhere, but I think there’s something very special about the way New York does it,” he said.