Boutique Travel - January 22, 2021

Pandemic Paintings by Esther Pearl Watson

By Roshan McArthur

We’re big fans of Los Angeles-based artist Esther Pearl Watson and have been following her work for years. In fact, one of her paintings takes pride of place on a wall at BoutiqueHomes headquarters in Topanga. Often described as “faux naive”, much of her art recalls a childhood in rural Texas where her space-race-obsessed father built flying saucers out of scrap metal in their yard. In the paintings, cows graze in fields and children walk to school, while glittering UFOs float like clouds overhead.

This juxtaposition of the mundane with the surreal lends itself perfectly to the events of 2020. Her latest series, Safer at Home: Pandemic Paintings, captures in diary form the isolation of the lockdown against the backdrop of a global pandemic, California wildfires, race riots, and a divisive presidential election. On show until February 2021 at Vielmetter Projects in Los Angeles, the collection has also been published as a book, which is available for purchase in our Marketplace.

Esther Pearl Watson, “January 24, There is a New Virus,” 2020.

Esther Pearl Watson, “February 25, Spreading Far Away,” 2020.

The 150 paintings, painted between January and November, depict unremarkable activities like grocery shopping and neighborhood walks, but with a pandemic spin — businesses struggling to stay open, neighbors hanging free masks on their trees, and Watson delivering care packages to her mother’s senior living facility.

Each scene is what Watson describes as a small, obsessive memory, and above it hangs a message explaining the context, which is sometimes mundane, sometimes seismic, sometimes both. For February 25, this speech bubble reads: “Covid-19 is spreading far away in Wuhan, China and Lombardy region of Italy, and South Korea. But cases are popping up in the US. I cleaned our house and we wash our hands often and for 20 seconds.”

On April 24, it says: “The President of the United States suggests using disinfectants inside the body, and I worry about my mom trying this.”

These words are at once reassuringly but disconcertingly familiar, reminding us of the uncertainty, upheaval and chaos of a turbulent year, universally experienced.

Esther Pearl Watson, “April 24, Disinfectants Inside the Body,” 2020.

Esther Pearl Watson, “September 14, Pandemic Brain Fog,” 2020.

For Watson, it was a profound journey. “Every day,” she says, “there was something that seemed so unusual it was hard not to document it. People couldn’t seek comfort in churches or watch sporting events or visit their doctors without the risk of infection.
“By mid August,” she remembers, “I’d completed 70 paintings, and by early November it had grown to 141 paintings. The more I painted, the more I noticed new ways my life was affected by coronavirus. Usually a painting takes me a couple of weeks, but I was sometimes painting two a day just to keep up.”

The collection ends with an election and a vaccine on the horizon. Watson compares the pieces to ex voto paintings from chapels she has visited in Italy — offerings made to the divine in thanks for guidance through traumatic times. “They’re testimonials in sharing one’s weakest moments,” she explains, “and the belief that after a trauma there can be healing.”

Watson’s work is an impressive, emotional and intimate record of an unprecedented time, with a quirky, upbeat message that we love. To purchase a copy of the book Safer at Home: Pandemic Paintings 2020, visit our Marketplace here.