Making Quarantine Lemons into Lemonart

Interview by Rachel Axler ‘99

In the spring of 2020, the Instagram account @tussenkunstenquarantaine (“Between Art and Quarantine”) issued a challenge, quickly picked up by museums around the globe, to recreate works of art at home. One who responded to the challenge was Christine Leahy '99, whose initial interest turned into nearly 52 (and counting!) recreations, using only her household of five, an iphone, and a seemingly boundless wealth of creativity and wit.

Christine I got such a kick out of seeing what people were doing in response to this call, including our classmate Jonathan Harwell, who did some lovely recreations with his family. Initially I thought, "it would be so much fun to do this, too bad we don't have the time or the patience." I think the challenge was invented to entertain people who were bored (and anxious) at home but we were anything but bored - weekdays were insane juggles, and evenings and weekends, we still couldn't get caught up even though socializing and activities had ground to a halt! That's family life with two jobs and three kids including a middle schooler and a toddler. But somehow, we found a way to try the challenge, and it turned out you really don't need much time and can work with very limited attention spans. And as you can see from the output, we (especially me) have loved having such a low-stakes but highly engaging creative outlet.
Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Monkeys, 1943. Recreated May 3, 2020

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Monkeys, 1943. Recreated May 3, 2020.

Sock monkeys are not very athletic or independent. With zero muscle tone, they all had to be propped up by Aoife. This scene was a house of cards.

Rachel Does anyone in the Leahy-Chan clan have a background in art or art history?
Christine Yes, me. I was an Art (Studio) and English major at Williams, and was also involved in the education department at the Williams College Museum of Art. I've had various jobs in the arts and am now at the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency giving grants to nonprofit arts organizations. In terms of the rest of the clan, my daughter Aoife, 6, is a pretty dedicated artist right now. She's been working hard on her drawing and painting and whenever our recreations have involved some background art, it's usually been her hand. My son Cian is 3 and also loves to draw and paint, and like most of his peers gravitates towards abstract expressionism. My daughter Siobhan, 12, has an interest in interior design and a flair for storytelling, and my husband Johnny does not have an artistic background, but he does have a great eye for detail.
Rachel Which came first, the chickens (your family) or the egg (the art, obviously)? Did you scan books of art for images of people who looked similar to your family, or did you have specific favorite pieces of art that you knew you'd want to recreate?
Christine The selections have mostly been stumbled-upon, either in train of thought in flipping through stuff. I think the point of the exercise is not to find artwork where you might fit, but rather to insert yourself into whatever scene strikes your fancy. Sometimes a piece or an artist pops into my head, and sometimes we look at books, online museum collections, or search for an artist online to see what catches our eyes. The first artist I thought to imitate was Mary Cassatt, since she painted a lot of mothers, children and families. The overarching organizing principle is generally, History of Western Art greatest hits types (think Janson's); a broad category that seems ripe for re-interpretation and containing lots of pieces that may be recognizable to a general audience.
Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Recreated April 29, 2020
Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Recreated April 29, 2020

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Recreated April 29, 2020

I lucked out, because this house is about a three minute walk from [our Brooklyn apartment]. Not only is it an eerie echo of the original, but there is a red building to the right (albeit an apartment not a barn), and trees in similar background spots. Costumes were thrown together with items onhand, and instead of a brooch, I had one of the old metal admission "buttons" you used to get at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (When the buttons were retired years ago, I hung onto the ones I still had!)

Rachel Who in your family has been most excited by this project? Who was the most resistant? Did this change over time?
Christine I've geeked out about it the most. Aoife has also gotten very enthusiastic - both about choosing pieces, helping to set the scene, taking her character very seriously, and having strong opinions about creative choices. Johnny gets more exacting than me, often urging us to make adjustments so that we're more faithful to the original. Cian is the most resistant. When he's not feeling collaborative but we want him in a shot, we have used various tricks. If you've noticed a smear of chocolate on his face in any of the pictures, it's because he's been bribed. We also have some funny outtakes of him giggling or howling at just the wrong moment. Last year, as an 11-year-old, Siobhan was usually pretty game, but this year as an increasingly, um, independent 12-year-old, her participation is also not taken for granted. (I mean, I can't imagine why your mom asking you to dress up with the rest of the family and act out scenes from art history isn't something incredibly cool that you'd want to share with the rest of the seventh grade!) I have been known to barter with Siobhan to secure her participation, although another method is to get her buy-in about the image selection. Right now the Halloween-themed scenes (like Judith and Holofernes) appeal to her sensibilities.
Dieric Bouts, The Annunciation, about 1450-1455. Recreated April 24, 2021.
Dieric Bouts, The Annunciation, about 1450-1455. Recreated April 24, 2021.

Dieric Bouts, The Annunciation, about 1450-1455. Recreated April 24, 2021.

One thing I appreciate about this shot is the cat photobomb, at the foot of Angel Gabriel.

Rachel Do you generally direct these shoots? How about if you're one of the subjects?
Christine Yes, often with help from Johnny - especially if I'm a subject and he's therefore taking the picture. Siobhan is the cameraperson if both Johnny and I are both posing, and if all of us are in the shot we usually use a timer. They're all taken on my iphone. When I posed as George Washington it was a selfie, and when we were all in the shot for Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Want, 1943, Johnny took it as a selfie.
Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943. Recreated May 17, 2020.
Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943. Recreated May 17, 2020.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943. Recreated May 17, 2020.

When I met Johnny, I was a vegetarian, but now we roast an organic chicken most Sunday nights - it's one of our compromises. So we just had to wait for the appropriate day of the week to stage this one.

Rachel After you started posting images from this project, did people begin to give you suggestions?
Christine We've gotten a couple of suggestions, which I always love. Early on my friend Kara proposed Willem DeKoonig's Woman and Bicycle, 1952-1953, which was a great challenge since it's so messy and chaotic and just barely figurative. (We did it with a Barbie and a bunch of Legos jumbled up like the colors in the image. Legos and Barbies have been used in multiple imitations, so you could say that they are part of our vocabulary - in other words, we recycle ideas.) Another suggestion - thank you, Williams classmate Amy Patterson! - was Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters.” Nixon has taken a picture of the Brown sisters every year since 1975; his wife is one of the four. In 2020 we had chosen their 1979 portrait, and Amy pointed out that we should probably keep going, so in 2021 we did 1980.
Nicholas Nixon, The Brown Sisters, 1980. Recreated April 13, 2021.
Nicholas Nixon, The Brown Sisters, 1980. Recreated April 13, 2021.

Nicholas Nixon, The Brown Sisters, 1980. Recreated April 13, 2021.

We stood in the lobby of our building because there are nice white walls that match the tone of the sky. Aoife and I took scraps of large construction paper and scribbled some background stuff that would match the tone and texture of the dunes, and cut out some blue construction paper to approximate the shape and tone of the tree by my head. The wild card again was Cian - could we get him to stand still for a few seconds? Barely!

Rachel As you went on, did the recreations become easier or more difficult?
Christine We've become more adept with practice, but I'd say that each and every time, it's still more difficult than I anticipate! When I was at Williams taking sculpture with Amy Podmore, she warned us, "everything you want to do will take you three times longer than you think it will." Something similar applies to this exercise, though not measured in time because we are often working under a deadline because dinner's almost ready or a child has limited attention span, etc. (And the time crunch is actually a blessing, it gets the creativity going, but prevents you from being precious about anything.) That's part of what keeps it interesting - I see a piece, think I know how to do it, and inevitably it's not quite how I imagined and there is a collaborative adjusting of expectations, which results in some compromise and some unexpected delight.
Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830-1832. Recreated June 5, 2020.

Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830-1832. Recreated June 5, 2020.

The white patterns on the radicchio are just like the foamy streaks on angry waves. The tendrils at the peaks are just like frisee. As I started tearing up the leaves and putting them together in my kitchen, it felt like I was in a drawing class. But I learned that these veggies wilt very quickly so I had to work quickly. I had Siobhan help me paint watercolor on the paper towel for the background. The first shots didn't look too great in the light of our kitchen and I ended up carrying the whole paper towel composition into another room for a different lamp. Luckily nothing dropped! Minutes later, it was in the garbage can.

Rachel Do you have a favorite story of one image that truly just came together in a perfect way?
Christine I think my favorite process involved Renoir's Onions, 1881. I wanted the five of us to pose as the onions, but had no idea if it would come across. I found blankets to make an appropriate background, but didn't know if Cian would be able to handle keeping his position while we waited for the timer to go off. Of course, he didn't want to pose with his hands pointing towards the ceiling as I instructed him to do; instead he stuck his feet up, so we went with that, taking exactly one shot. It was one of those times that embracing the element of chance results in something better than you could have designed, because I ended up loving the composition. Without realizing it, we had two family members facing right, two facing left, Siobhan more or less forward, creating a satisfying balance, and then Cian's feet up instead of the rest of us with our hands up, that was like a little punchline. And he got to be totally himself! Sometimes I think about how this exercise is similar to gesture drawing - fast sketches you do for a limited time. You don't have time to overthink it, you have to go with your gut, and you often get something cool and bold and different than you would have if you'd painstakingly plotted out your approach.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Onions, 1891. Recreated April 22, 2021.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Onions, 1891. Recreated April 22, 2021.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Onions, 1891. Recreated April 22, 2021.

Laura Moberg Lavoie ‘99, suggested a piece from the Clark’s collection, which became the source of many imitations, including this one. I remember always admiring this painting when I saw it there, and the online information tells me that it was also a favorite of the Clarks themselves! I love how it conveys so much joy in something very simple.

Rachel I love how you copy some details so precisely, and recognize that some just need to capture color or feeling.
Christine What makes this challenge entertaining, for my family and everyone that's taken it on, is the mix of replicating some aspects and then not replicating others, but instead finding equivalents, making a creative leap that's good enough or even kind of wrong. Somehow, a chord has been struck.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, An Old Man and his Grandson, c. 1480. Recreated April 23, 2021.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, An Old Man and his Grandson, c. 1480. Recreated April 23, 2021.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, An Old Man and his Grandson, c. 1480. Recreated April 23, 2021.

The nose was made of some loose pearls (a necklace that was broken, my fault for letting the youngest family member play with it), affixed to Johnny's schnoz with one of Siobhan's putties - she has a large collection of putties and "slime" which is big with her age group right now.

Rachel Do you think you'll continue these recreations after we're all safely thronging museums again? Maybe anniversary editions? Can I subscribe?
Christine I have no idea! We have never had a grand plan and don't have much sense of how long we'll continue. Must look into subscription options!

Visit the full Leahy-Chan quarantine art collection on Instagram, @leahy_chan_art_history_clan
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