Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Jeff Kinney has been spending a lot of time sitting in a cemetery.
The creator of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book and film franchise is not there to mourn. Rather, he needs a place to think alone when much of his Plainville, Massachusetts, town is closed and his kids are home from school.
Some head-clearing time amid the headstones speaks to how artists must be flexible to remain sharp — and how some of us can take tips from such veteran isolators on how to stay creatively engaged at work and in our spare time during a quarantine.
We can binge shows, exercise and hold Zoom meetings for only so long before the mind needs something more. Plus, creative activity has been scientifically linked to improvements in mental health. (This as nearly half of Americans surveyed say their mental health has declined during the pandemic.)
The Washington Post asked some visual artists what they are doing to stay professionally inspired in the face of the pandemic. Perhaps these techniques will work for you:
1. Find an inspiring place to think
Many of Kinney’s familiar haunts are shuttered during the pandemic — including An Unlikely Story, the bookstore and cafe he owns in town. (Closed for nearly three weeks, the store had to cancel even Hillary Clinton’s scheduled tour stop.)
“Theoretically, the coronavirus quarantine shouldn’t affect a cartoonist’s productivity, because we’re experienced at working from home,” Kinney says. But “I’ve lost all my spaces in which I could generate ideas.”
So, he now spends his workdays parked at the local cemetery. Even his supplies and goodies support his creative routine.
“I bring an iPad, a blanket for cold days, noise-canceling headphones,” he says, as well as “a bag of Starburst jelly beans, a bag of Mega Stuf Oreos and a Kind bar.”
2. Keep a visual journal
Lynda Barry, the Wisconsin-based artist-educator and recent MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, likes to emphasize that the mental act of experimental drawing is more important than the formal standards your art does or does not meet. She has published educational visual diaries, which offer readers mental games and collect the engaging “naive” art of some of her university students.
And even the best cartoonists sometimes draw purely as a creative exercise.
“This is a stressful time, and it makes it a bit hard to focus,” says Paige Braddock, the Bay Area creator of the comic “Jane’s World,” “so I started keeping a stream-of-consciousness visual journal.”
“I have no idea where the story will lead and try to put no pressure on myself for it to make sense,” says Braddock, who is also the studio director at Schulz Creative Associates, home to all things “Peanuts.” “The exercise has been very relaxing.”
Artists such as Oregon-based cartoonist Kelly Sue DeConnick (“Captain Marvel” and “Pretty Deadly”) keep a list of “sweater threads.”
They are “ideas or images that tug at me for some reason,” DeConnick says. “Sometimes it’s a character, sometimes a scene. Sometimes it’s an idea — sometimes something as abstract to narrative as a color combination.”
3. Fire up the audiobooks
Sometimes you need more than music piping into your ear buds when you’re trying to be creative.
“My go-to for keeping my brain from puddling into bored art goo is listening to audiobooks while I draw comics,” says Faith Erin Hicks, the Eisner Award-winning Canadian cartoonist (“Pumpkinheads”). “It helps keep my butt in the chair and my brain focused on the task at hand.”
So what’s in her literary playlist right now? “I’m listening to ‘The Terror’ by Dan Simmons, a fictionalized account of the doomed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage,” says Hicks, noting that she gets her downloadable audiobooks from the library. “It also reminds me to be grateful while in quarantine: At least I’m warm and not being hunted by a demon bear.”
And Juana Medina, a children’s book author (“Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas”) based near Washington, D.C., says long hours at the drafting table “results in too much time to think and overthink,” so she listens to audiobooks, podcasts and music “to enrich my mind and lift my spirits, rather than falling in the pits of dark ‘what-ifs.’ “
4. Give yourself creative freedom
Even the professionals can struggle to create when a crisis dominates the headlines, let alone becomes personal. They give themselves permission to fail.
“A lot of bad art is going to come out of this nightmare — including my own — and that’s OK,” says Dean Haspiel, the Emmy-winning illustrator and creator of “Red Hook” comics. The Brooklyn resident has several acquaintances who have had COVID-19, including one who died.
Haspiel knows some colleagues who say creating art during a pandemic is frivolous. He strongly disagrees — for him, using one’s creativity can be healthfully addictive.
So he encourages such engagement: “Look around you. Listen to others. Listen to your heart. Take it in. Let it steep. Make the art. Express yourself.”
5. Forgive yourself and others
Even artists accustomed to being alone are naturally thrown off by the crisis. “While working from home and in relative isolation is not a new thing,” Medina says, “but the level of fear and uncertainty that we are facing is most unusual.”
Medina has to trade work hours with her partner, as they care for 3-year-old twins.
“We have had to keep in mind how this new situation limits our performance in both areas,” she says. “We are trying our best to be forgiving, patient and loving.”
And Dan Perkins, who creates the Herblock Prize-winning comic “This Modern World” under the nom-de-toon Tom Tomorrow, says self-forgiveness extends to deciding at times not to create.
“Rather than trying to ‘engage your brain,’ I just think people should cut themselves slack — watch all the comfort TV they need,” Perkins says.
“If it’s useful to learn a new instrument or study quantum physics, by all means do it,” he says. “But don’t berate yourself if you just don’t have that kind of mental energy. This is an overwhelming moment.”