Artist’s Statement: Pandemic/Protest


I am a painter of the built environment and the contemporary American landscape. My interest in this theme stems from my youth as a graffiti artist. I developed a love of photography as a graffiti artist, and that sentiment carried over into my landscape paintings, which always begin as a photograph. But I like to work with materials, and I like artifacts and objects, so painting is the goal for me.


I paint the world close to home. At the end of 2019 I was completing a series of paintings of the street I live on, which is quite possibly the oldest road in America. In the layers and adjacencies created by centuries of unplanned development, I found a rich visual subject that allowed me to create art that was hyper-local and, as a resident, almost personal.


2020 arrived, and going into lockdown isolation during the Coronavirus pandemic narrowed my scope even further. I had to take my walks in sparsely populated places, so I retreated to the local parks. Turning my eye that is trained on the built environment to the organic world was an invigorating challenge. I used my camera to capture crepuscular lighting scenarios that can be reproduced in the studio with an indirect painting method, utilizing layers and glazes.


The lone figure or lone tree became symbolic of the isolation I felt, and the evening light imbued the paintings with a romantic sense of a simpler time in the past, when recreation meant a walk in the woods. The parallels of our time to the Victorian era are unmistakable, and it is unnerving to realize that perhaps our society has not advanced much at all.


When George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by police, the world exploded. Thousands came out of isolation to gather in mass demonstrations, many of which were centered around a public monument. Public life in 2020 became a dichotomy of isolation versus mass gathering. When I saw the graffitied Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, I remembered how powerful graffiti art can be at reclaiming spaces.


What I also noticed was noticing this space for the first time. These monuments had always been on my radar, but as a painter of non-spaces, I had mistakenly considered them to be highly visible, or what I consider to be the “heroic” landscape, due to their public location and historic cache. But in a way, they are not highly visible in a contemporary sense. For one, they are outdated. Statues, monuments, and memorials belong in the same category as graves and tombs- they are there to hold space and provide a physical marker to the past, but we are a technologically driven society and we don’t dwell on the past, at least not in a non-interactive way. For two, as sculpture, they are visually uninteresting, I’d go so far as to say unappealing. How many statues had I overlooked living in Philadelphia? What relevance does a statue of a Viking in Fairmount Park have to my life, exactly?


Well, quite a bit, because we are still living in the shadow of these figures, as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have reminded us in 2020. And once you see it, you can’t un-see it. For years, communities have been going through the proper channels to remove the Colonialist and Confederate monuments from public spaces, always meeting legal challenges, delays, and excuses. Push came to shove, and the monuments toppled down, graffitied, defaced, dragged, and sunk. They may only be symbols, but their existence is a reminder of the systems of oppression that are a daily reality for so many.


Now I am part of the discussion of what to do with these monuments. In some of my paintings I am reimagining the Confederate and Colonialist monuments in the park, as figures existing in a fictionalized space. Perhaps this space is a flattening of time, the past and the present as one, or the past having an effect on the present reality. In one scenario, the monuments are left in the woods to rust, to be graffitied on, to become homes for wildlife. Man’s attempt to establish dominion over nature meets its fate, as they decay under water or in a grove of trees.


Daina Higgins

April 2021