Friday, May 29, 2020

Lockdown Granny and Rooster: Susan Woolf

Susan Woolf
Lockdown Granny and Rooster
Susan Woolf
Lockdown Granny and Rooster
W 16cm x H 17cm
Shoe polish, glue, powdered  eye makeup, rouge, foundation, 
eyeliner and selected body oils

Overview  In front of a dark background, an elderly woman woman sits in a wooden chair, her head tilted to the side. To her left (our right) a red-combed rooster perches on the chair's top.

Artist's Statement:

“There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall”

(French author Sidonie Gabriella Colette, nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948).

The cause of the lockdown originates in the human destruction of the natural world.  Yet when we are forced to be locked down many people have suddenly found a connection and interest in the natural world. The problem of climate change that was for so many people, a distant conversation, for others to solve, has suddenly been brought right to our doorstep and into our homes. Indeed the whole world.

This artwork completed during the Corvid 19 lockdown situation, deals with the extreme isolation that older people in particular must endure. Living in London, the person who purchased this artwork told me,

“I think of my Mom who does not have social media or anything like that and who is and was, very reliant on face to face social interaction”.

Many elderly people are suddenly completely alone and being forced to spend more time with themselves and their immediate world, particularly that part of it that is closest to them, like birds, chickens or squirrels. The purchaser recounted his recent call to his elderly mother living in the USA, who had been telling him about the squirrels eating her plants on her small patio!

I have always made use of areas of empty spaces in an artwork. I love the work of Spanish artist Francesco Goya (late 18th and early 19th centuries), who spoke about the power of suggestion, saying that in art it is more important to know what to leave out than what to put in. Empty spaces emphasise what is present and what is absent.

In ‘Lockdown Granny and Rooster’ completed during a period of self-isolation, which ran into lockdown, the room that the granny is sitting in is empty. There are no other objects apart from the chair. There is no limit to our imagination as to what else could be there or what could be missing. There are no children or grandchildren. Only the rooster is present to keep the granny company. That is the irony of it all. No one knows, aside from pangolins, which other creatures may now carry the virus.

The materials used in this artwork were a substituted for gouache paint of which several tubes of this paint had dried out. I had no black paint at all and only a little left of the white paint. Art materials are not on the essential survival list during lockdown! For the black background I used shoe polish. The application of the glue, is a throwback to art school days from when I was 17 years old. I still use it when appropriate! Only the rooster is painted with a paint brush. For the seated granny figure and chair I used old powdered eye makeup, rouge and foundation mixed with some body oils, all dabbed on with a little sponge brush.

.Pamela Allara (known to her three grandchildren as ‘Grandma Pam’):  Susan Woolf’s Artist’s Statement about her charming mixed media painting, “Lockdown Granny and Rooster” argues that there is at least one silver lining to our tragic global pandemic: a growing awareness of the imperative to address climate change. “The cause of the lockdown originates in the human destruction of the natural world,” she writes; as a result, climate change “has suddenly been brought right to our doorstep…Indeed [to] the whole world.” It is quite true that the pandemic has been linked to climate change, it is not true that the whole world is responding. In the United States, the President is using the economic fallout from the catastrophe to loosen the restrictions on drilling and fracking, assuring the oil industry’s backing in the upcoming election. In the March 26 issue of the Boston Globe newspaper noted that the conversion of Massachusetts’ electric grid to clean energy from wind and solar has been stopped short by the pandemic, both halting progress and costing many jobs. I live in an urban area, in a highrise condo on the Boston line, so it is disconcerting to see the surprising changes in the natural world that seem to appear daily in my neighborhood. So drastic are the changes that greeting a coyote on my way to my car in the parking lot has become a ho-hum event. Artists are responding to the upset in the natural world, and we are depending on them to keep the issue at the forefront of our collective consciousness. Susan Woolf’s recent contributions to The Lockdown Extension Collection, “The Future We Choose,” and “Pathways of Taxi Hands” exemplify the sort of creative artwork that requires the viewer to stop and to think about the ramifications of climate change.

“Lockdown Granny and Rooster,” on the other hand, is initially about the isolation we must all endure during the lockdown, although climate change is certainly referenced. An elderly woman is seated with both arms and legs folded in a wooden armchair that, lacking pillows, looks uncomfortable. (Grannies require pillows…) Although she is clearly relaxed, her soft smile perhaps an indication that she is enjoying some happy memory, she is sitting completely in the dark. There is a slight indication of a wall and a floor but no other furniture is in evidence, not even a lamp to help dispel the dark. There is nothing to indicate that she is situated in a domestic space that could provide stability and comfort; even the chair she sits in is unmoored. The pandemic has taken an especially hard toll on the elderly who live alone; floating in the endless gloom, Granny is the very embodiment of the psychic toll of isolation.

But she is not entirely alone: a rooster has flown in from who knows where and is perched on the back of the chair, looking down at her and thrusting out his breast assertively. This is not a mere pet, nor the everyday resident of a barnyard. I see this impressive fowl as a guardian figure who has arrived to provide comfort and perhaps even protection. But he, too, is out of place, with nowhere to roost, a victim of climate change which has caused animals to migrate and to adapt to new spaces. Whatever his potential as a spiritual guide, in the end, the only thing bird and human share is their isolation.

Lockdown Granny is initially charming, drawing us in with our own happy memories of our grandmothers; however, the charm evaporates quickly. Everything, from the space to the ‘pet,’ is off, disrupted. Even the medium is disconcerting. Access to artists materials is difficult now, and artists are having to use materials at hand, but shoe polish? Powdered eye makeup? Body oils? Surely there were some sharpies around, but Woolf has chosen intimate items that could be used to make up her face with which to paint Granny. Perhaps Granny might be seen as the personification of the isolation and dislocation Woolf has experienced herself during the lockdown. The world is off-base, out of joint, and Granny/mother nature is vulnerable.

Mark Auslander:  The artist in her statement alludes to Goya. Gazing at this captivating image, I find myself thinking of Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," in which the sleeping subject, also in a chair, conjures up all manner of nefarious creatures.  The rooster here is much less ominous than Goya's phantasms, but it is possible that the animal is similarly a visage dreamed by the nodding grandmother, and might even, as Pam suggests, serve as an animal spirit guide.  Locked down together, in isolation from the rest of the world, the two may be have a nice little chat with one another.

As all of us have become uncannily aware in recent weeks, the experience of shelter-in-place does very strange things to our perception of time, now that we lack the external social interactions that form what Maurice Halbwachs a century ago termed 'the social frameworks of memory." One day bleeds into another,  we are often much less conscious of dates or times of day, and time itself seems often oddly elongated,  compressed, and convoluted as we are subjected to internal dialogues with figures of our near and distant past. We are not always quite sure where or when we are, especially as we awaken or hover between sleep and full consciousness.  How appropriate, then, that Granny's companion (whether physically present or not ) is a rooster, a natural arbiter of time, who can be relied on when technology fails and when other people are absent, unfailingly to alert us to the dawn of a new day.  I love that he is perched near the top corner of the chair, guarding Granny from the surrounding obscurity, standing at the ready to divide the darkness from the light, and herald a sunrise that will share his own bold coloration.

Our present crisis, as Susan Woolf notes, is born in part from our alienation from nature; so what better companion at this strange moment than the domesticated rooster,  a little fierce and intensely proud, who occupies the threshold between culture and nature, between the domestic and something beyond?  The rooster may, like its mistress, need to shelter in place for the duration,  but its red comb, the only vibrant color in the composition, is irrepressible and holds the promise that we will, in time, awaken from this long, confined state of suspended animation, when expansiveness and the full spectrum of color will finally return to our world.


  1. I absolutely love Woolf's work and delight in the materials she used to create this heart-rending, yet moment-in-time, piece.

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