“The Thing with Feathers”: Art and hope in challenging times

CancelSave & Close  “The Thing with Feathers”


In the first of a series of articles, we examine some of the transformative ways visual artists have responded to crises through the ages.

In 1861, Emily Dickinson opened one of her beloved poems by celebrating the human capacity for hope, imagining it as a little bird - "the thing with feathers". Written at the onset of the American Civil War, one of the most traumatic episodes in US history, the poem posits that hope resides inside the spirit of every person. Its song is steadfast and resilient, even, as Dickinson wrote, in the Gale and on the strangest Sea.

It felt as if we surfed the strangest Sea. The COVID-19 pandemic has locked down the world and separated us from each other. Our routines and rituals were dramatically interrupted. We faced personal and global uncertainty regarding the economy, politics, and healthcare. Is it possible that Dickinson's thing with feathers could endure?

Artists show us that the answer is a resounding yes. When faced with great social and personal challenges artists throughout history have looked inside themselves, heard hopes song, and asked how they can put their creativity to work. They have turned experiences of privation, isolation, fear, pain, and exile into powerful demonstrations of vision and critique, optimism and anguish, beauty and joy.

Some draw upon long held artistic traditions while others develop new visual languages to find the appropriate means of expression. In whatever form, artists voice our range of experiences and help guide us through choppy waters. They show us that hope and human creativity survive and even flourish in difficult times.

But in times of social distancing how can we directly access arts potential for uplift and reflection? Some artists find ways to connect with us right inside of our homes. Damien Hirst, for example, offered a particularly hopeful example. Inspired by pictures of rainbows people placed in their windows throughout the United Kingdom in support of the National Health Service, he created his own version titled Butterfly Rainbow, filling the color bands with his signature butterfly wings.

Bringing art into the public space is another way artists share and connect when museums and galleries are closed. The skyline of Vancouver, BC was the canvas for a large word sculpture by Martin Creed.

The phrase 'Everything is going to be alright' was emblazed in neon across the facade of the Wing Sang Building at the Rennie Collection; at seventy-five feet wide it was viewable from all over the city. While a reassuring expression, it also reminds us that we only hear it when there is something worrisome. But as Creed himself explains: "I work to feel better. I produce things to help me to live ... Living and working is a matter of coming to terms with, to face up to, what comes out of you."1

Read the next installment in this art series, Artists in Isolation.