The theme of Oshkosh artist Leif Larson’s painting, “Family Life During a Pandemic,” is one many Wisconsin families will relate to during these pandemic times. The family kitchen has been transformed into an epicenter of frenetic activity as parents and children see their once separate worlds of school and work smashed together. The space once reserved for cooking and eating has been transformed into a makeshift classroom, professional office and in the case of Larson, a painter’s studio.
There’s the father, who has suddenly sprouted extra limbs. The mother’s body has also defied the laws of physics. She works at a virtual office while also helping her son with schoolwork. Stockpiles of toilet paper wait out the madness beneath the table. The theme is typical of Larson’s work, whose paintings embrace the interplay of the mundane and the absurd with humanity and humor.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, Larson kept a regular schedule, putting in daily shifts at the easel in his first floor studio located above the popular New Moon Cafe on Oshkosh’s historic Main Street. But when the pandemic hit and the “Safer At Home” measures were announced, he was forced to rethink both his work and his workspace, turning his family kitchen into his full-time studio and re-focusing his paintbrush on the ways the pandemic is changing life. He said he may have had a head start on the task.
“Before all this happened, I was working on a series of paintings for a gallery show called ‘We Need Our Space,’” said Larson, “The paintings were all about the relationships people have with the spaces they inhabit, how we value our personal space and how we need our distance. Then all of a sudden this happened. Our lives changed overnight and we were all forced to confront what it means to be confined to our homes. Everything I had been working on suddenly took on a new meaning and I had this weird thing to wrestle with — how I could use this time to make a statement about the crisis we’re living through, while also remaining an optimist who adds some hope to the world as an artist.”
Working on canvases in his kitchen while his two young children chase their online learning at the kitchen table and his wife adjusts to working from home, Larson is creating a series of paintings that dive head-first into a world turned upside down. Larson’s paintings — scenes as simple as an unused driveway or sunlit first floor bathroom — become a reflection of new day-to-day, stay-at-home realities. The sink where we wash our hands is now cast in the heroic role of protecting us from contagious disease. The act of grocery shopping, a harrowing adventure. Our brains have been transformed into iPads and computers as our social life now takes place entirely online. Larson has taken all this in and works to reflect it back as color on canvas.
“I try to respond to my life by extracting all these little bits and pieces, and putting them back together in my paintings,” says Larson. “For a long time, I had been wanting to paint scenes of the interior of our house, but I put it off because it seemed boring. Then when this all started I thought, ‘well maybe there IS something there.’ Now that we’re spending all this time in our house — I’m seeing it in a different way. And I realize that probably everybody is seeing their own homes in a different way now too.”
Larson sees crisis as a condition that can bring out the best in people, including artists.
“Art can be a really great tool for humanity when it is under a lot of stress,” he muses. “I think of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals. There is something about the idea of artists creating that work — giving the people these beautiful pieces of art during such a difficult time in our country’s history. Art can be a really great tool for humanity when it is under a lot of stress.”