When the world went into lockdown, Phyllis Ewen doubled down. She started a series of daily drawings on graph paper — a visual diary in response to the crisis. Taken collectively, these hundreds of drawings form a chain of visual notations of the stress and chaos that engulfed us.
Ewen is exhibiting 24 of these drawings as moderately altered digital prints in a show titled “Sonata,” opening Friday, June 25 at Art Market Provincetown. They will appear alongside work by Susan Bernstein, Philip Gerstein, Amy Solomon, and Judith Trepp.
Compared to Ewen’s other work — mostly sculptures, complex installations, and what she calls “sculptural drawings” — the drawings in “Sonata” are pared down: a direct dialogue of pen and pencil to paper. There’s an urgency to them — a breathy need to articulate the anxiety we’ve lived under for months. They are personal, but also universal.
“Last April, something just hit me — I couldn’t continue working,” Ewen says, speaking from her Somerville studio. She also lives in Wellfleet, where she’ll soon decamp for the summer. (Ewen and her husband, Jim Campen, are investors in the Independent.)
She was at an impasse until a friend steered her towards A Deluge, a dynamic drawing of a flood by Leonardo da Vinci.
“That influenced the beginning of the marks I started using,” she says. “I put the graph paper on light tables and just played off the drawings. The early pieces were based on my feelings about chaos. I drew them on quadratic graph paper, which was an order, a sense of ‘let’s control this chaos.’ ”
The titles contain references to songs and musicians, including Leonard Cohen, George Harrison, Bob Dylan. “I listen to music a lot while working or walking,” says Ewen, “and I sing classical music with a community chorus.” Though AMP director Debbie Nadolney originally conceived of the show as a symphony, “I thought that was too large a piece of music and decided on ‘Sonata,’ ” she says. She subsequently divided it into three movements: “Chaos,” “Resilience,” and “Loss & Renewal.”
Liberated from the heavy lifting of her construction pieces, Ewen worked at her dining room table, grounded by the routine of one drawing a day. “Sometimes I really had no idea what I was going to do,” she says, “and other times something happened in the world — like George Floyd.” She used two kinds of graph paper, including one made of concentric circles, on which she drew For Next Year’s Garden 10.21.2020, which spirals out from the center.
The drawings — each dated like a diary entry — unfolded organically, following a natural evolution that became more directed and deliberate “as I realized what I was doing and thought about it,” says Ewen.
From April to September, Ewen had a daily ritual. “I had to draw, and I had to take a long walk every day,” she says. With the constant unease of the pandemic, and the toxic election-year politics, Ewen found a kind of peace through these compulsive drawings — a path towards emotional stability. As the series progresses, one senses strength beneath the surface anxiety — the cyclical tenacity of nature to persevere.
Global warming notwithstanding, nature’s rhythms go on. That knowledge was a consolation that, for the time being at least, some things are predictable and will prevail. “That contradiction — in a way, it fuels my other work, too, because it’s about climate change,” says Ewen. “I started thinking about deep time. This slow, gradual evolution of natural things, which happen anyway, and what we’ve done to put a knife in it. That’s in all my work and I think it was definitely in these drawings.”
Shoulder surgery forced a pause, and when Ewen resumed in the fall, the drawings were no longer daily. She continued, however, to take long walks for inspiration. “I would look at what was happening to the garden — both decay and growth — and clouds, and just the weather,” she says. “And then politics came in. I drew through the election, the impeachment.”
The intensity of the news reports “forced me to come out of the deluge and look at the world and try to put that into my thinking,” says Ewen. “One of my last pieces in the show is about the vaccine.”
In Vacuna 03.06.2021, a hummingbird emerges from the chaos of scribbles, its long bill delivering balm to an ailing world. “I somehow used it as a metaphor for the vaccine,” says Ewen. Though an avid birder, Ewen didn’t learn until later that, in Native American culture, the hummingbird is a healer, sent to help humankind.
Ewen’s drawing, dated about a year to the day since the beginning of the pandemic, is right on time.
The event: “Sonata,” a show of drawings by Phyllis Ewen
The time: Friday, June 25 through July 21
The place: AMP: Art Market Provincetown, 432 Commercial St.
The cost: Free