a virtual art retreat

May 2020

Susan Snipes, study of rolling Lake Erie waves from my virtual art retreat

It wasn’t the art retreat I had looked forward to attending in a mountain town in British Columbia, but I loved my homemade virtual art workshop with my sister.

In late December, I sat at my parents’ dining table with a platter of frosted sugar cookies next to my laptop. I tapped out my goals for 2020. One sounded both thrilling and achievable: attend an art workshop.

I paused to munch on a green tree loaded with white sprinkles and told my sister about my goal. Then, I asked, "do you want to do an art workshop with me?"

We live in different places. I live in Ohio. She lives in Colorado. But, we both paint and we connect about our art regularly.

"Maybe," she replied. "We could meet somewhere, but what workshop?" I create expressive works primarily in mixed media. And she paints beautiful landscapes in oil. Could we find something that suited both of us?

She opened her laptop and we browsed the newsletters of our favorite artists and galleries. Then we found it! "The Painterly Landscape" was a three day pastel workshop in British Columbia scheduled for late April put on by an artist I follow. My sister could experiment with pastels while doing color exploration of her favorite subject matter. I’m comfortable with pastels and could indulge in some landscapes. It was perfect! We bought the workshop tickets immediately and booked the flights and fancy hotel soon after.

In early March, despite threats of the insidious coronavirus, we remained steadfast in our desire to attend the workshop. I was eager for sister time and an art getaway. Then, in mind-March, international borders tightened and my anxiety grew. I was nervous about taking a multi-leg plane trip from Cleveland to Kelowna, British Columbia. Ultimately, the decision was made for us. The organizer said the workshop was postponed indefinitely. My sister and I were crushed – even though we knew it was safer.

During a virtual happy hour a few days later, she asked “do you want to still get together and paint over Zoom that weekend? I don’t really want to let that creative time go.”

“Yes!” I said, “Absolutely.” It was unconventional to do virtual studio time, but life was lived on Zoom now.

“And would it be crazy if we were each the teacher for one of the days?” I added. “We could each have a day where we put together the agenda.” And so it was decided, we’d have a virtual art retreat of our own making.

Soon enough, our homemade retreat was upon us. We rigged up a multi-screen experience with a combination of two phones, a tablet, and a laptop so we could look at our reference photos and each other, and talk without internet lags. 

On day one, we sketched from our own landscape photos. We laughed about noisy pencil scratching on paper over the screenshare while we sketched. We each selected a sketch to paint on a small canvas. With regular check-ins to share our work.

I felt a little awkward with having a phone camera pointed at me. Not exactly self-conscious.

The second day was mine to organize and I selected doing two small paintings with watercolor pencil. We pulled from our batch of reference photos again. No sketch today! We went straight to putting marks on the watercolor paper.

It was fun.  I enjoyed working on different subject matter -- I don’t typically paint landscapes and it was fun. I definitely was glad we did it. I was hoping for a big impact moment with the topics we wrote on. It was a small moment.

My big takeaway was that I needed to schedule my own art time. Pre-pandemic, I had a regular weekday morning (Wednesday) to myself. After months of a schedule upheaval, I knew I needed it back. I have booked Sunday mornings on my calendar for dedicated studio time. I signed up for an experimental mixed media class, and soon my Wednesday evenings will be devoted to that.

My sister and I scheduled virtual art time again a month later—one day this time. I hope it will be a regular thing.


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