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A virus-shaped vase, anyone? Why Covid is a muse for today’s artists

Sarah Johnson
·3-min read

Lee Cartledge, a potter in North Yorkshire, has spent a large chunk of lockdown making vases in the shape of the Covid-19 virus.

He had the idea in February last year, after seeing the shape on the news. “They kept coming up with this glorious image of this bloody virus which was begging to be made in clay, in my opinion,” he says.

The limited edition Covid-19 vase is priced at £90, and £10 from each sale goes to charities helping people affected by the pandemic. So far Cartledge has sold 107 vases. Doctors and nurses have bought it as a memento, he says, and one person who lost a close friend to the virus bought three – one for himself, one to donate to the hospital where his friend died and one to take with him on a fundraising motorbike tour.

It is part of a wave of art inspired by the pandemic, some of which is selling for thousands of pounds. One online art gallery, Singulart, is featuring collections of Covid-inspired art, with 300 pieces by artists from all over the world priced at up to £21,190. Co-founder Véra Kempf says they originally received 1,500 Covid-inspired artworks from professional artists.

Robert Süess, a Swiss artist who is featured on the site, has produced a series of 24 pieces, of which he has sold around 14 to friends and customers, mostly in Germany and Switzerland. One piece went for £418 to a buyer in Saudi Arabia, he says.

While Cartledge and Süess have received mostly positive feedback for their work, some people have reacted negatively to them using the virus, which has caused so much misery and death, for personal gain.

Süess says: “At the beginning some artist colleagues asked why I was making art in this situation. What’s the problem? I’m an artist. I can’t do exhibitions, I can’t give lessons, everything is closed. I have to do something.”

Cartledge admits that, with hindsight, he perhaps wouldn’t have made the Covid-19 vase. “I got a bit concerned about making a large-scale version of the virus that was possibly going to kill a lot of us. It seemed a foolhardy thing to do when the NHS was overrun, and I was sat in a pottery in North Yorkshire knocking out versions of the very thing everyone was fighting against.” But he adds: “It’s just art. You’re bound to make objects that reflect the time you’re in, and that’s all I was doing.”

Banksy, an artist known for his street art, produced a tribute to the NHS featuring a boy dressed in dungarees playing with a nurse superhero toy. He also created a piece on a London Underground train showing a number of rats in pandemic-inspired poses, wearing masks and spraying anti-bacterial gel.

Photographers have also been inspired by the crisis. Joanna Vestey has created a series of portraits of well-known actors, artists and writers wearing masks to raise money for AT The bus, a charity supporting children and young people.

Naz Syed, an artist based in Newport, received funding from the Arts Council of Wales, and has collated more than 100 pieces of work from people of all ages and abilities in her local community. At the end of March, A digital film of the Lost Connections series will be launched, the Riverfront theatre will showcase the artwork in their windows and online, and in July there will be an exhibition at the Llantarnam Grange Arts centre.

The Royal Academy of Arts will shortly be opening submissions for the 2021 Summer Exhibition. The exhibition, the largest open submission contemporary art show in the world, will be made up of works created over the course of the past year which, according to a spokesperson, are likely to closely reflect professional and amateur artists’ experiences of Covid and lockdown.