Residence life: Samuel Pepys in the age of Covid

An illustration created with hand embroidery of three women wearing masks carrying shopping bags.
Image Credit: Jen Liu, Residence Life– keeping social distancing while meeting friends, hand embroidery, 2020

In this post, Jen Liu a recent MFA graduate in illustration from the Edinburgh College of Art presents a selection of daily artwork that she created as a record of her life during quarantine. As a document of her digital learning and assessment during a pandemic and grounded in the embodied experience of a student at the University, Jen’s work combines narrative and poetic elements and is in dialogue with the great diarists of collective trauma…

The image above, “Residence Life” is one of the works from my 2020 degree show. My final project “Not Only 100 Days” includes 100 pieces of fabric artwork which speaks to the floating world, emotions and memory. These works are a collection of my life experience, like an honest diary, featuring evocative narrative sense and poetic oriental elements. In the creative process, I hoped that I would not rush to achieve success. To accept imperfections and to hone the techniques repeatedly, and to feel the importance of accumulation of time through the practice.

Sketch of residence life hand embroidery artwork created by the author
Image Credit: Jen Liu Sketch of Residence Life 2020

I would keep working on printing and embroidering day by day. However, near the end of this project, the school announced the suspension of classes due to COVID-19. I started my residence life, living almost without going out except shopping for food. I could no longer use my work to record the ordinary student life in Edinburgh, nor could I depict the scenic journey in Europe. Thereupon, I started to record my life during quarantine with my daily artworks.

The city was dead, people were talking about eschatology. Day after day, my friend and I were in panic. Both the physical degree show and graduation ceremony were cancelled. We didn’t know whether our studies could be completed as scheduled, let alone whether we can return home safely. The only comforting moment was when friends gathered in the residence hall. We exchanged food, had a chat about current situation and mood. Even for a brief meeting, we wore medical masks and gloves, and carried a bottle of ethanol with us. That was the scene depicted in “Residence Life”. Although life was very inconvenient, we still took preventive measures carefully for health.

Embroidery of food consumed during quarantine made by the author
Image Credit: Jen Liu, Food During Quarantine 2020

Frustration, anxiety and irritability are all in the creative process. However, the tranquil embroidery would gradually bring me out of depression. I remembered The Diary of Samuel Pepys. People have been making artist works out of diaries for a long time, keeping a record of experiences showing times at great stress. Working in this tradition, I felt puny, like a grain of sand in long history.

In the great destiny, many attachments are no longer serious. Without thinking about colour and composition, I allowed my embroidery to be more casual, silhouetted with no draft. I used real sanitary masks, disposable gloves and plastic shopping bags in my work. I collaged friends’ clothes to be fabric patchwork. If you spray alcohol on the work, the words “COVID” will disappear. All the details of this work are so truthful. It will be a portrayal of life during lockdown in the memory of me and those around me.

photograph of the authorJen Liu

Jen Liu is from Taiwan and a recent MFA graduate from the Edinburgh College of Art in illustration.

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