As we begin a virtual semester at Princeton, one of the campus spaces I’m missing the most is our art museum. Being away from campus and adapting to a lifestyle of social distancing has changed my way of thinking about how to conscientiously inhabit space with or without others. One of my favorite Princeton University Art Museum exhibits, Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment (2018), is resonating with me in new ways right now.
Cliff Dwellers, a 1913 painting by George Wesley Bellows, depicts a crowded city street. According to the Nature’s Nation catalogue by Alan C. Braddock and Karl Kusserow, the painting is an ode to the lively working-class communities that thrived despite often unsanitary and cramped living environments. This painting strikes me because it’s been so many months since I’ve seen such a packed city street. The spread of the coronavirus has been devastating for densely populated urban communities such as New York and has disproportionately affected working-class people who can’t afford to self-isolate or relocate to rural areas. While the threat of disease did not loom as large in 1913 as it does today, Bellows was conscious of the inequalities and dangers associated with city living. Yet the scene is also one of joyful proximity and community, reminding me of brighter days.
I’ve always loved living in the city, but during the pandemic I’ve been lucky to be able to spend most of my time in rural New Hampshire. Usually, I learn to love a place because of the people who make it feel like home, so it feels very different to develop an appreciation for a place precisely because it offers isolation. Pool in a Brook, Pond Brook, New Hampshire, a 1953 picture by Eliot Porter, makes me think of the lake in New Hampshire where I’ve spent the past few months. The leaves scattered on the water and the brilliant autumnal colors remind me that the season will soon be changing.
Below are a few pictures from my own walks around the lake in New Hampshire.
As we tune into our virtual communities this semester, we are still occupying physical spaces – whether in the city or the countryside, with friends or with family. It is important to be mindful of these spaces, even as we wait for a time when we can all gather together on campus again.