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ARTIST INTERVIEW SERIES: Paul Ygartua finds opportunity for artistic expression during pandemic

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Under the physical restrictions imposed by COVID-19, Paul Ygartua has been spending each day getting up early, enjoying a coffee with his wife, Joanne, and then working in his studio from nine in the morning until about seven at night.

He views this unique environment as an opportunity, one where he can explore how the virus has influenced society.

“Because it’s such a negative thing, the virus, I had to look at it in a different way,” says Ygartua. “So, first of all, I started approaching it from the point of the heroes, the doctors and the nurses and everyone else. So I started painting it from their point of view. But then I started to think, ‘Wait a minute. What about the virus? I mean, I should paint something to do with the virus.’”

Ygartua and everyone in British Columbia have been under physical distancing restrictions since mid-March as a means of combating the spread of COVID-19. As of May 6, there have been 2,255 confirmed cases in the province and 121 deaths. However, recovery rates are strong with 1,494 people getting better. Many have been using this time to express themselves creatively in order to articulate their feelings on self-isolation and other imposed restrictions.

Never one to be confined to a single painting style, Ygartua has used his exploration of the virus and the extra time given to him. He has painted the faces of the multitude of heroes that have risen to help bring the world back on course, even going back into history to show how these everyday people have always been there fighting.

“We’ve been to Venice many, many times,” he says. “And I’ve looked at these masks. And I didn’t understand first of all what they were. But then when I learned they were actually the doctors that were taking care of the Black Death and all the plagues that were going on a few centuries ago.”

Putting a face on COVID-19

Putting faces to those people still working led to him examining the virus in a similar way. This began first by likening it to another common fear: sharks.

These paintings of the virus have grotesque heads, reminiscent of sharks, but with almost childish-like bodies.

“When I did the first one, I painted it very large with little creatures all around, little bugs flying, jumping, and everything. It kind of put a smile on my face. And I thought, ‘Hang on. This is a little different slant here.’ You know? People, instead of being afraid, you could kind of approach it from a different angle and almost put your arms around it.”

These paintings have taken the form of the virus as pieces on a chessboard, as fighting a war with healthcare workers, and even a more whimsical approach as children playing in different famous cities.

“I did Trafalgar Square and now I’m working on New York,” Ygartua says. “Actually, I’ve got the yellow cabs with the virus inside the cabs. These little guys are jumping all over the tall buildings and it sort of looks like they’re really having fun taking over the city.”

Other cities in his COVID-19 series include London’s Piccadilly Circus, Red Square in Moscow, and Trevi Foundation in Rome.

Changing lifestyles

While the virus hasn’t changed the day-to-day life of Ygartua and his wife all that much, it has affected their larger plans.

“We usually go away every year to Europe for six months. So, that’s changed. We probably won’t be going this year,” he says.

An art exhibition in Dubai in March that Ygartua was to attend had to be cancelled. He says they lost money as a result. But even when art shows and travel begin again, he is hesitant to go right away.

“Till we get the vaccine,” Ygartua says. “Yeah, once we get the vaccine, there will be no problem and even probably before that, if they have some treatments for it.”

“I mean, I’m 75,” he adds. “We’re in that area that is the most vulnerable. You don’t want to take any chances.”

Looking forward

Even though international art exhibitions are not an option for now, local shows as still very much moving forward.

Ygartua’s COVID-19 series will be shown at Ukama Gallery, but in a unique manner.

“It’s going to be interesting because it’s kind of a window show,” he says. “They’ve moved all the boards inside so the paintings will face the windows and people can walk around the outside and see the paintings. And if they wish to come in, they have to make an appointment.”

The exhibition is dedicated to who Ygartua calls the ‘Earth Angels’—the doctors, nurses, and everyday warriors facing the virus on a daily basis.

The exhibition runs May 16–28. Visit Paul's website here.

By Nathan Durec


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