One artist's pandemic journey
- By M. English For MediaNews Group
- Mar 11, 2021
But as Pokalo looks back, she realizes her real journey played out at home as she spent much of the past year “asking myself what I’m doing here, what significance it has and how I can best help and serve this planet with my skills.”
“We took off from Mexico with the grumblings of what was going on here in the U.S., but there, it seemed completely abstract until we were navigating empty airports,” she remembers. “We arrived home the day everything shut down. I process everything in my life through the lens of my work, so the photos I took in Mexico became the subject of a series. As the pandemic wore on, I wound up uncharacteristically destroying all of that work because there was suddenly nowhere to show my art, and I felt, at the time, no reason to make it. It was truly heartbreaking.”
During the summer months, Pokalo grew a dyer’s garden and cultivated medicinal herbs. She also took photos of rural Pennsylvania and – during a visit to her sister — Vermont. Those photos inspired her “to create a series where I attempted to find ways to make peace with the then-current state of our country by making work about rural America.”
“I used the plants from my garden in cyanotypes, which formed the skies in my pieces on wood panel, and then painted them using encaustic paints,” she says. “The processes I used took more time. Cyanotypes take several minutes to hours, depending on the quality of light, and working with encaustics involves meticulous layering of colors and scraping away layers. In working with the wax, I felt like I had some control over something.”
As the weeks progressed, Pokalo made a pair of espadrilles, crocheted 100 snowflakes into a tapestry, sewed masks, created a paper theater piece for a Vermont festival, did a lot of reading, sewed a new wardrobe, “got better” at painting portraits, learned how to carve wooden spoons and – come fall – happily reconnected with her students.
Months later, her participation in a mid-January exhibit called “Re-create” at Paragon Gallery and Framing in Phoenixville brought unexpected rewards. The show “consisted of five women artists, who all created an installation piece that was a reflection on current times and…set the tone for the new year.”
“My piece was inspired by my time in Iceland, which, throughout all of this, has been the place where I’ve longed to be and I’ve drawn strength from,” Pokalo continues. “It was an interpretation of the map of Iceland, landmarked by its abandoned farmhouses. Those abandoned places are what remains, in spite of everything they’ve endured, and they took on a deeper meaning in the creation of my piece — titled ‘Re: main.’
“In it, the viewer would walk through a silk tent that extended from floor to ceiling. Paper models of the farmhouses illuminated the way while shadows of the abandoned farmhouses were cast from my photographic imagery. Unassembled paper models were there for the taking so that people could cut them out and assemble them, write an intention for the year ahead and place an LED light inside to illuminate their paths ahead. Standing in the tent, the viewer was surrounded by prints of Icelandic wildflowers as though he or she was in a field of them. The piece required me to learn how to paint on silk and was almost too big for my studio. It was so therapeutic to work that large because I had to paint with my whole body, and I loved it.”
Pokalo believes the piece “instilled a rhythm for working that is currently carrying me through the winter months.”
“My newest painting has taken on a color palette from the view from my studio window,” she says. “I’m back to working on multiple pieces at the same time. In other pieces, I’ve started to work with layers of resin and acrylic poured paint. The resin takes days to cure, while the acrylic pour takes a long time to move across the panel. In both cases, they take time…or they mark time.”
Reflecting on the past 12 months, Pokalo finds her work “feels more significant in its scarcity.”
“It’s been a year of learning and trying new things because I have the time to do so,” she says. “I’ve learned more digital media platforms than I know the passwords for, how to teach online…and experienced a myriad of online art festivals, virtual tours, online music festivals, workshops and more. I’m amazed at how the creative community transitions into virtual reality. It’s gritty, low-fi and beautifully human despite being distanced.