Arts

Inside a Texas Artist’s Creative Stay-at-Home Life — When Coronavirus Changes the Process

Mary Margaret Hansen Embraces Hibernation

BY Mary Margaret Hansen // 04.02.20

Editor’s note; Mary Margaret Hansen is a visual artist based in Texas. Hansen has written about her European travels and American road trips for PaperCity in the past. Currently, she is featured in the two-person exhibition “Finding Our Way” at The MAC, Dallas.

It’s Day 13 hibernating in Houston, sequestered in my downtown mid-rise apartment as the coronavirus pandemic has its way with our usual lives.

We stay at home so the virus does not slip into our lungs, propelled by the wake of another’s sneeze, nor perhaps infect us because we touch an unsanitized doorknob.

Some of us in hibernation may be stay-at-home bored, so over Netflix binges, not up to finishing whatever book we begin to read, weary of worsening news. Our middle-aged kids are tired of working from home, and we know our grandkids are in no mood to stay put. We are sheltering in place by choice in a privileged, if uncomfortable, state.

02 My apartment door now rarely opened
My apartment door, now rarely opened

At this moment, I remain healthy, as do my daughters and their families in the Pacific Northwest. My two siblings are OK. So are friends and their families. I count us all among the fortunate. We have food to eat, a place to sleep, provisions stored and access to screens.

Tomorrow marks a milestone: the 14th day of staying at home. I’ll continue to stay put, stay healthy. I’m inside for the duration. Instead of authoring another travelogue for PaperCity (see my past articles about Italy, South Texas, Western Canada), I’ll write about life in my sixth-floor, south-facing 1,250-square-foot domicile.

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Art of Hibernation

What’s it like for a creative elder to hibernate for the foreseeable future? What do I do every day? What thoughts run through my mind as I blog and prepare for a summer exhibition at Heidi Vaughan Fine Art on Colquitt Street?

Collage in progress, destined for a summer exhibition at Heidi Vaughan Fine Art, Houston 
Collage in progress, destined for a summer exhibition at Heidi Vaughan Fine Art, Houston

What worries me, what brings momentary joy, or heightens a sense of dread during this unprecedented national health crisis? How does anxiety color each day and, perhaps, awaken us at 3 am? In what ways do we keep in touch with next-door neighbors, far-away family, grandkids, friends? What are we learning? For sure, we are learning new ways of doing things.

For the first time, groceries are delivered and left outside my door. Most of what’s in those grocery bags gets dumped into a soapy warm water in the kitchen sink. Which brings me to handwashing.

This is now a “thing,” requiring more finesse than simply humming “Happy Birthday.” So often do I wash and dry my hands that eczema is appearing, itchy and red. In phone conversations with friends, I discover I’m not the only one. We follow handwashing with no-fragrance lotion or aloe vera gel. As for those disinfecting wipes? Great for doorknobs, not so good on hands.

06 Mary Margaret Hansen with shaggy hair
Artist Mary Margaret Hansen with shaggy hair

I need a haircut, and heaven knows when that will happen. My hairstylist and I cancelled a scheduled appointment, even though I asked her to consider cutting my hair outdoors in her driveway, or perhaps on a park bench. She said no, and cowlicks are gaining control over last month’s cut.

I pruned the plants on my balcony this week, sprinkled each pot with smart-release plant food granules. Gone are the shaggy year-old stems of airplane plants and purple setcreasea. Hibiscus is already sprouting new green leaves, as is the confederate jasmine vine that entwines along the balcony railing. A basket of bougainvillea has new blooms. Spring has arrived on my balcony.

Books to the Rescue

10 Treasured Helen Corbitt 1957 cookbook
My treasured Helen Corbitt cookbook, 1957

I’ve been pulling books off shelves, dipping into one after another. Perhaps you, too, are dipping into books? I read a page, a chapter or two, and then, more often than not, I’m back to news updates. I’ve not finished one book in two weeks’ time, but I’ve spent time with each of these:

  • “The Best People: A Tale of Trials and Errors,” a mystery authored by Houston’s own Marc Grossberg. Maybe you bought a copy at one of Marc’s book signings earlier this year? Half a dozen chapters in, I can tell it’ll be a great read.
  • “Fairy Tale Fashion” is a coffee-table book I found months ago at Half Price Books. The author, Colleen Hill, makes the connection between Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and high fashion. Just read the chapter titled ‘Dancing, Desire, and Death: The Role of Footwear in Fairy Tales,” specifically the part about Cinderella’s glass slipper. I was enthralled.
  • “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities,” Rebecca Solnit’s defense of hope, is a perfect read for right now. You can also tune into the Apple podcast ‘On Being’ for Solnit’s conversation with Krista Tippett.
  • “Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook,” published in 1957, is a treasure found long ago at a resale shop. Corbitt’s recipes take one back decades, and her advice for making gelatin dishes/congealed salads is worth the $2 I paid for the book. I’ll have more to say about gelatin dishes soon. Worth a read is Texas Monthly’s story on Helen Corbitt.

Food for Thought

I’m preparing healthy meals for myself, and every time I sit down at my dining table, I feel blessed to be eating, for instance, blanched organic spinach with haddock fillet smothered in green tomatillo salsa, or a breakfast of steel-cut oats sprinkled with hemp seeds and blueberries.

05 organic beets
Organic beets in a pot, ready to boil and then make a cold salad with mustard dressing

I become more and more aware of the ease with which we obtain food, and how often we take this for granted. Staying at home is giving me space for thoughtfulness.

I’m longing for dishes from my favorite restaurants and this week will order carry out from The Cooking Girls and Kanomwan Thai.

I’m salivating for tacos de trompo from Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito on Telephone Road. We need to support the restaurants we love. I’ll leave big tips.

Ask Alexa

My eldest daughter and her husband sent me an Echo Show 8 device, Amazon’s screen that conjures Alexa, who can answer almost every question posed. Over the phone, Caroline led me through the setup process — no easy task — and now this new screen sits on my kitchen counter, responding politely to requests for news updates, Baroque music, a recipe for spaghetti squash.

Yesterday, I asked Alexa, “Play the Bee Gees.” My apartment filled with songs from Saturday Night Fever and visions of John Travolta dancing.

13 John Travolta dances in Saturday Night Fever, 1977
John Travolta dances in “Saturday Night Fever,” 1977

In my kitchen, I began to dance, the way I remembered dancing back in the day. And then, dancing, I wept, knowing in those dancing moments that all of us are in this bad time together.

We are connected irrevocably, and knowing this is how we’ll make it through.

Read a book, sift through Netflix’s menu, scramble a few eggs, discover a new podcast, listen to your favorite tunes, call a friend and then another.

“Alexa,” I ask, “are you there?” And Alexa answers, “Yes, I am here.” That is either very scary, or quite reassuring in this time of staying at (and working from) home.

Day 15 is upon me.

Featured artwork: Mary Margaret Hansen’s Repasts Unforgotten, Savored Still, 2020, photo collage, Arches archival paper, acrylic paint, color photos, 22 x 22 inches,  $1200; at Heidi Vaughan Fine Art, inquiries heidi@heidivaughanfineart.com.

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