Whether it’s a warm embrace, formal handshake, friendly high-five or reaffirming pat on the back, physical touch plays a major role in how humans communicate and bond with each other. As the pandemic stretches on, however, human touch—long valued as an effective salve for the sympathetic nervous system during stressful times—is now understandably discouraged. Prolonged touch deprivation, an unfortunate consequence of social distancing, can lead to physiological ailments and must be mindfully counterbalanced with other safe activities and sensations.
Artist Lucy Calhoun’s new photographic series, “Touch in the Time of COVID,” investigates how over 40 Athenians have coped with social distancing and found physical comfort elsewhere. Each participant was given the opportunity to share their reflections through a prompt: “Since COVID-19 started, do you miss touch and social closeness? Do you find yourself compensating in some way?” These responses, along with the portraits themselves, reveal a myriad of creative substitutions for staying fulfilled and connected. Cats and dogs have clearly risen to the occasion as loyal companions, and many people have found comfort in playing instruments, creating art, smoking cigarettes or foraging for mushrooms.
“The friends, acquaintances and strangers who generously allowed me to photograph them, and who shared their own experiences of the pandemic, were by far the best part of this,” says Calhoun. “In my experience, a safe space was created between myself and the other person. There was a certain level of vulnerability in my taking photographs of them, and also of their opening up about their own difficulty with missing social closeness. It really felt like most people were glad to have an outlet to talk about their feelings or coping mechanisms, and to just have contact enough to get some photos taken. The feeling was mutual, as I enjoyed the interaction and connection more than anything.”
Many of Calhoun’s portraits are shot from angles that magnify the size of the subject’s hand, a technique that establishes the act of touching as the focal point within the frame while also amplifying the hand’s role as a tool for physically connecting the body to the outside world. This fixation with hands naturally materialized as an extension of the artist’s paintings, many of which similarly depict enlarged, sprawling fingers. The recurring figures who appear across her paintings take the form of women with dark, braided hair and solid-colored dresses. Though all of their sensory organs are blurred, their fingers stretch impossibly far to fully embrace each other.
“I was inspired to try and get that perspective in real life photos of subjects, with the camera close to their hands to give them an exaggerated larger perspective in size,” says Calhoun, who began the series after rekindling her interest in photography, a medium she had first explored in college during the early 1990s. “By the time I began taking my camera out for street portraits, the pandemic was front and center of most people’s lives. Suddenly my focus of hands and touch became even more relevant and intense in meaning! It’s hard to describe why or how much I love hands; they hold so much expression and beauty and feeling.”
Another distinctive trait of Calhoun’s paintings is their celebration of Southwestern landscapes full of canyons, cacti and spectacular sunsets. Stories and descriptions of New Mexico, in particular, had always fascinated Calhoun from a young age—her mother’s family lived there in the ‘60s, and college friends would bring back interesting photographs from their trips. Looking back, Calhoun’s body of work appears to be foreshadowing; after many years of the Southwest serving as her muse, Albuquerque is now her home.
“Well, when you turn 50, things start to become prioritized based on how you see your life unfolding,” says Calhoun. “Last-half-of-life kind of gives you impetus to focus on what you really want. I came here in the fall and love walking around the volcanoes, petroglyphs and having to get specialized bike tire tubes because of the plants with tiny thorns so strong they destroy regular bike tubes! There’s a fierceness here that defends something indescribable and beautiful.”
“Touch in the Time of COVID” received one of 50 Arts in Community awards distributed by the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission using funding from the Athens-Clarke County Resiliency Package. Tiny ATH gallery will host an opening reception to coincide with Third Thursday on Jan. 21 from 6–9 p.m. The gallery limits entrance to four people at a time, but encourages guests to utilize the back lawn for socially distant socializing. Private appointments to view the exhibition can be made through the end of January by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. To look through the entire “Touch in the Time of COVID” series virtually, visit touchinthetimeofcovid.com.
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.