COVID-19 Artworks: Toni Lane’s Pandemic Drawings

The following is a guest post by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints & Photographs Division.

Riveting drawings by artist Toni Lane are among the first COVID-19 acquisitions by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (P&P). Seniors First is part of a series of drawings that Lane began in mid-March and is her personal favorite.

Seniors First. Chalk pastel by Toni Lane, 2020. © Toni Lane, used by permission //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020631289/

Seniors First. Chalk pastel by Toni Lane, 2020. © Toni Lane, used by permission. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020631289/

To get ready for the lockdown, Lane went to a grocery store where she found (and photographed) the emptying shelves. She remembers encountering an elderly woman: “She stood stiff as a statue as she stared at what was in her hands. She spoke. ‘I am scared.’ There was no one in the aisle but she and I. As I fiddled with what was in my hands I said, ‘I am too.’ There was no need to photograph her because our image and the image of the empty shelves was stamped in my mind, body, and soul. That day was my rude awakening that the Coronavirus was real.”

Social justice is a recurring theme across Lane’s career including, in her own words: “fear of homelessness…the heartbreak of senseless violence and the reality of social injustice” and also, “love, truths, childhood memories.” She explains: “My work has been called Social Realism. I agree with that description. With that I see the Covid 19 2020 series relating to my other works. They include murders and harassment of predominantly Black people, Homelessness, focusing on Homeless Women (Bag Ladies), Domestic Abuse and Civil and Political Injustice. I feel the times of our lives need to be documented.”

I was introduced to Lane’s work a little over a year ago, and we later connected online through our shared interest in letterpress posters designed by Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., several of which are in the Library’s Rosa Parks exhibition. By following Lane’s work on social media, I had a front row seat when she began to post her COVID-19 drawings. The powerful impact of her new drawings struck me immediately.

The Prints & Photographs Division was fortunate to be able to arrange for a combination purchase and gift to acquire Cover Your Mouth; Stay Home; Will ‘Crowd’ Be a Word of the Past?; and Don’t Touch Your Face, Wash Your Hands as well as Seniors First, created in a variety of media—chalk pastel, color pencil, and sumi ink. Her Real Warriors drawing pays tribute to health care workers, who are shown wearing crowns and halos.

Cover Your Mouth. Chalk pastel by Toni Lane, 2020. © Toni Lane, used by permission //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020631286/

Cover Your Mouth. Chalk pastel by Toni Lane, 2020. © Toni Lane, used by permission. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020631286/

Real Warriors. Chalk pastel by Toni Lane, 2020. © Toni Lane, used by permission //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020631291/

Real Warriors. Chalk pastel by Toni Lane, 2020. © Toni Lane, used by permission.  //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020631291/

Lane’s self-portrait What I Do All Day (a.k.a. Me at Work at Home) pictures the artist from behind, seated in front of a tabletop easel. Surrounded by her art, she holds a pastel stick in one hand and a paint brush in the other. We see her in the process of creating a drawing much like Seniors First while working on a second drawing that is secured to a table on her right with blue drafting tape. A number of pandemic-related and other drawings hang on the wall before her. There are shelves of books titled “Photo” and “Art.” Lane’s inclusion of a camera nearby and a face mask draped over a sewing machine offer further clues to reading the image. Other biographical details include Lane’s BFA diploma and her Vietnam veteran brother’s hat, hanging on the wall.

What I Do All Day. Color pencil and graphite by Toni Lane, 2020. © Toni Lane, used by permission //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020631292/

What I Do All Day. Color pencil and graphite by Toni Lane, 2020. © Toni Lane, used by permission.  //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020631292/

Lane describes herself as an “Artist, Activist and Humanitarian.” She was raised in southeast Washington, DC, and studied photography at the University of the District of Columbia before traveling in France with her daughter for about half a year. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography in 1983 at the San Francisco Art Institute where her thesis project focused on mothers in prison. While there, she studied under the renowned painter Robert Colescott. Lane owned her own art gallery called Ethnic Cultural Trip from 1991 until 1999. Toward the end of that time, she also taught photography in Oakland, California, to high school students, one of whom, LoEshe Lacy, was tragically shot and killed. While grieving, Lane closed her gallery and returned to France. She lived in Marseille for six years, writing her book Ghetto Girls Rule in Marseille (Victoria, BC, Canada: FriesenPress, 2018), before returning to Washington, DC, in 2005 to be with her daughter and grandchildren. The following year, she suffered a brain aneurysm. During Lane’s long recovery, she recalls: “In documenting this period of my life in my art, I drew myself with my head in my lap or at my feet or falling off my shoulders. I went back to teaching as a resident artist for youngsters living in shelters. I also taught the art of sewing to young dancers at the Washington Ballet.”  In 2013, Lane joined Art Enables, a studio and gallery that showcases the work of artists with disabilities, where she is now Studio Assistant and resident artist.

While Toni’s art is drawn from personal experience and observation, she also opens our eyes to the diverse effects of the pandemic situation and gives voice to what many people may be feeling and experiencing. On seeing Seniors First, I was immediately moved by her depiction of a gray-haired woman standing in a grocery aisle among nearly empty shelves, her hands clasped and face turned up to the viewer. I thought she might be my neighbor, a family member, or a stranger. Lane’s artwork coaxed me to wonder, connect, and look deeper. The drawing’s title alludes to the early shopping hours offered for senior citizens who are among the most vulnerable during the current crisis. Lane uses color, perspective, composition, and style to heighten emotion and suggest urgency. The viewer’s high perspective conveys a dreamlike quality and draws my gaze close to the woman’s face. Steeply-angled shelves may call to mind the receding space in Edvard Munch’s The Scream—an iconic depiction of anxiety. The woman’s expression and body language enhance the sense of unease, along with a fracturing of colors and dimensional planes that seems to present her face to us both head on and in profile. To my eyes, Toni Lane’s COVID-19 drawings exemplify the superpower artists have to witness, envision, and tell vital stories that can invite us to care and reflect.

Will “Crowd” Be a Word of the Past?. Sumi ink by Toni Lane, 2020. © Toni Lane, used by permission //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020631287/

Will “Crowd” Be a Word of the Past? Sumi ink by Toni Lane, 2020. © Toni Lane, used by permission.  //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020631287/

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