The COVID-19 pandemic erased just about all casual socializing, hunkered down as we were in our homes and within our pods.
Most mornings I walk my Blue Heeler to our neighborhood park, and on most of my walks I see artist Sydney Yeager who walks, and occasionally bikes, every morning. I have lived in the same central East Austin neighborhood for almost a couple of decades, Sydney almost a couple of decades longer than me.
We always pass each other, our regular paths seemingly on overlapping ellipses, in opposite trajectories. All these years, and we are never headed in the same direction. Our pleasant exchanges are at the most chats, frequently humorous or quirky in tone, and quick, my dog pulling anxiously on the leash or, in the park, wanting to play ball.
Sidney and I almost never talk about art.
In the past year, since the pandemic, we’ve exchanged the usual quips about the weather (always the weather), and made the typical observations about the ever-changing flora and fauna. Yet as we all continued to stay at home, our chats got a bit more expressive.
Sydney and I shared our anxieties and frustrations as the pandemic unfolded, the isolation, her frustrations of teaching art online. We also commented on the crazily beautiful spring of 2020 heightened by a much quieter city, a sky more clear. Last spring’s wildflowers were astounding, we said. And we smiled over the bright green monk parrots on the park’s great lawn or marveled at the hawks that float above the post oak trees.
As the months passed into summer and fall, as the natural world changed around us, we shared more anxieties and frustrations about the presidential campaign, then relief and joy over its outcome. Then, the frustrations of the vaccine rollout.
I’ve always known that Sydney, in her decades as a regular presence in Texas’ art landscape, has a dedicated studio practice and an impressive work ethic. She paints for the sheer love of the paint itself — its materiality and its alchemy, the motion and energy it holds in brushstrokes, the way paints peaks up on grainy stretched linen, capturing layers of hues as coat after coat is applied.
Hers is a thoughtful yet exuberant abstraction, sweeping gestural lines and shapes enmeshed and entwined, compositions always on the edge of chaos yet also harmonic. Sydney paints big too, literally on large canvases, an admirable practice for a female artist who began her career in the 1980s when painting was big but very male.
Right now, Sydney has a solo exhibition, “Through the Prism of A Day,” at Ivester Contemporary through April 3. When I went to see it I learned — not from Sydney but from gallerist Keven Ivester — that the dozen paintings on display are inspired by her daily neighborhood walks.
I emailed Sydney, curious about what she had actually been up to the whole time we were passing each other on our morning walks.
She replied: “Yes, I even started to keep a little notebook with colors I saw while riding or walking. Adding to the influence of landscape and minutiae I saw on my walks and bike rides, I was inspired by re-reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’ I found so many parallels between that wonderful book about a single day in post-war London, and our lives during COVID.”
Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness novel of a day in the life of London society lady Clarissa Dalloway is set in 1923. Yet it is foregrounded by the 1918 influenza pandemic though it is never specifically mentioned. Clarissa is a flu survivor, her hair “grown very white since her illness.” Along with Katherine Anne Porter’s novel “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” — which is specifically about the 1918 flu pandemic — Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” became something of COVID-era touchstone, references to both novels percolating around cultural media and the chatter-verse.
“It was great to re-discover the wonder of Virginia Woolf during this period,” Sydney said in her email. “I felt like she was inside my head.”
On a cloudy, quiet morning in early January, my dog and I were on our way home from the park when a coyote emerged from the creek bed that traverses our neighborhood. We froze, my leashed-up dog didn’t move.
Strong, healthy looking, defiant in its posture, the coyote ambled across the street before dipping back into the creek bed. No sooner had it disappeared then I caught sight of Sydney coming from the opposite direction.
“Did you see that coyote?” I asked excitedly as we passed. “Have you seen it before?”
“Never — I’ve never seen a coyote around here,” Sydney replied. “But wasn’t it beautiful?”