Creativity in quarantine

COVID-19 pandemic opened the floodgates of productivity for painter Marie Lannoo

Photography: David Stobbe

When Saskatoon artist Marie Lannoo (BA’77) looks back on the past two and a half years of the COVID-19 pandemic, she thinks about the impact the global health crisis has had on the arts community.

During the early stages of the pandemic, theatres, music venues and art galleries were closed to the public. Opportunities to take in live performances and exhibitions were extremely limited. Artists’ livelihoods were impacted, and arts organizations looked for ways to connect with stakeholders virtually rather than in person.

“The arts sector has just been hit so brutally hard,” she said.

Yet, despite the restrictions and limitations brought on by the pandemic, Lannoo has tapped into a “tremendous level” of artistic freedom since early 2020. She has been intensely focused on her work, with the lockdown opening the floodgates of creativity and productivity in her studio.

“From that point in time, until now, I’ve never produced more work in my entire career,” said Lannoo, a University of Saskatchewan (USask) graduate who studied in the College of Arts and Science and received her Bachelor of Arts degree (honours) in French in 1977.

“When you look over the course of a two-year period, you kind of sit and back and say, ‘Well, how did this happen?’ I think COVID really brought things into perspective, in the sense that there wasn’t any time to waste. There was no time to indulge in anything but working,” she said.

“I’m used to working on my own in the studio; that’s my way of life, and I’m very happy doing that. But this was more acute than just that. Not only was I alone in the studio, but our world just got a lot smaller in terms of contact. As an artist, I was forced to focus even more intensely on what it was that I was doing, because there were no other distractions at all. I mean, I went to the grocery store and came home—that was it.”

Throughout the lockdown, Lannoo worked diligently in her studio while her husband, USask graduate Daniel Shapiro (JD’78), worked in an office in the backyard of their Saskatoon home. With their children living in other parts of Canada, Lannoo and Shapiro “bubbled” together and kept their focus on each other and on their work. Their daily routines became more entrenched as the pandemic continued.

“I never would have thought that I would be more productive in COVID than less,” Lannoo said. “I’ve simply gone with the flow, and I will go with that until it’s no longer the situation. I’m just counting my lucky stars and trying to make the most of it.”

In addition to her work as a painter, Lannoo runs a small independent project space, 330gPROJECTS, located at 330 Ave. G South in Saskatoon’s historic Riversdale neighbourhood. When the pandemic first began, she became interested in how the health crisis, and the changes associated with it, would affect artists’ practices. In 2020, with fellow artist and USask graduate Kyle Zurevinski (BFA’18, BA’19), Lannoo decided to organize a digital exhibition through 330gPROJECTS called Colour in Quarantine and invited other professional artists to submit pieces for the online show. At the time, she noted that “self-isolation is a new experience for many people,” and she wanted to see how that experience would influence artists’ work.

Colour in Quarantine—which sought to connect people through the concept of colour—turned out to be a great success. Artists working in a variety of media submitted their artwork to Lannoo, who is well known in Saskatchewan, across Canada and internationally for the innovative, visually stimulating artworks she creates by employing conceptual research and scientific methods of experimentation. Influenced by abstraction and modernism, Lannoo challenges the ways viewers see colour in their day-to-day lives, while also highlighting the complexity and illusion, as well as the magic and beauty, that can be found in colour experiences.

As an established artist, Lannoo is known as a mentor to emerging artists in Saskatoon. She sees exhibitions like Colour in Quarantine and her artist-run space as playing roles in supporting artists in the community.

“The project space has provided an exhibition venue to them, some for the first time, promoting their ability to apply for grants and putting them in context with artists from away and artists from different generations,” she said. “It is crucial, particularly at this time, to support artists and, in particular, emerging ones.”

Originally from Ontario, Lannoo has proudly called Saskatchewan home for decades. The province’s expansive prairie skies are a source of ongoing inspiration for her—an appreciation that was heightened during the early stages of the pandemic, when it was safer to be outdoors than inside.

“The way that I paint colour is the way that I see colour here on the Prairies, so I’m painting in layers and layers of transparent coloured glazes,” Lannoo said.

“When you stand out on the bald prairie, you can see for 35 kilometres in the distance uninterrupted. You are standing in, and are immersed in, a sort of clear, transparent bubble of colour in space. If you think about an urban landscape, with density and pollution, you just don’t see colour with the clarity and the space like you do here on the Prairies. So, I think the way I paint is how I experience colour here, where I live.”

Colour, in its lightness and darkness, is inextricably linked to Lannoo’s esthetic. An insatiable reader, she continually seeks to learn more about the science behind colour and light. As a result, she has worked closely with scientists at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, a national research facility on the USask campus and she was the keynote speaker at the Colour Research Society of Canada’s AGM in 2021.

Lannoo has also maintained other ties to her alma mater. Prior to the pandemic, her artwork was showcased at USask in a 2019 survey exhibition called The Architecture of Colour. Curated by USask graduate Leah Taylor (BFA’04), the exhibition featured large-scale paintings that were displayed in the College Art Galleries and aimed to provide viewers with what Lannoo described as an “up-close-and-personal look at colour and light.”

After The Architecture of Colour concluded, Lannoo sought to “scale down” her work from large paintings on wood and aluminum to smaller pieces on pre-stretched and pre-primed canvas. She saw the move as “a simple attempt to get back to work at a much more reasonable scale and just quietly starting again to see what would happen.” It marked her first return to canvas in 25 years—and she was quickly hooked.

“I just fell in love with it. Never could I have predicted what started so innocently could turn into a continuation of work in the studio now,” said Lannoo, adding that working on canvas has offered her a more intimate way of connecting with her materials and with her viewer.

“When I started working on canvas and on the smaller scale, that was a really direct way of connecting with something that I could hold in my hand, turn around, move around, experience on my own and in private if I wanted to—nothing overwhelming.”

The smaller works, created during the pandemic, have since been publicly displayed; a recent exhibition at the Slate Fine Art Gallery in Regina, called LIGHT FIELDS, ran from April 7 – May 7, 2022. Lannoo’s recent work was also showcased during a solo exhibition, titled ALL-IN, at Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art in Calgary in 2021. In 2019, she had an online exhibition at Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery, called Blue Sky, and helped launch the gallery’s new platform, The 13TH Floor. More recently, three of Lannoo’s larger works, titled Blue Over Saskatoon (Summer, Fall, Winter), featured in the USask survey show, were selected for inclusion in a Remai Modern exhibition. That show, In the Middle of Everywhere: Artists on the Great Plains, opened at Remai Modern on June 4, 2022.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, restrictions have been lifted and people are connecting in person more frequently. Still, Lannoo continues to remain intensely focused on her artistic practice, building on the momentum that began in those earlier pandemic days. She has been involved in numerous projects in recent months; for example, her painting Winter Blue was selected to be featured on the label of a limited-edition sparkling Chardonnay produced by Stratus Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., as part of their Canadian artist label series. Meanwhile, the painting Blue Over Saskatoon (Winter)—also featured in the 2019 USask exhibition—was chosen as the cover image of a book by Tapash Chakraborty, titled Nanoscale Quantum Materials: Musings on the Ultra-Small World. Curator and writer Wayne Baerwaldt is now working on a book of Lannoo’s work featuring reproductions of paintings produced during the pandemic as well as essays from contributors across Canada.

Lannoo is also excited about her recent five-year partnership with SK Arts, a provincial organization that provides funding and support to Saskatchewan artists. Her mixed-media sculpture—North, South, West, East – Nothing, Something, Wavelengths, Everything—is the current Saskatchewan Arts Award sculpture, provided to some of the province’s top artists when they are honoured by the organization. The design of the sculpture was inspired by the wavelengths of the visible light spectrum that enable people to perceive colour.

That spectrum of light and colour on the Prairies, in all its glory, is something that Lannoo will never stop observing and appreciating. For her, there is no place like home.

“Ten minutes outside the city, I can be looking into the distance and seeing a blue sky that has thousands of iterations of blue,” she said, adding that Saskatoon is known as one of the sunniest places in Canada.

“What an amazing place to live and be an artist.”

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