I am now three weeks into Washington State’s Stay Home, Be Healthy order, an unprecedented mandate to self-quarantine. I’ve been drinking copious cups of black tea, going on long walks, painting, writing and reading every day to stay sane. Quarantine: what a beautiful word for this austere and difficult experience. Quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta giorni which means 40 days. The practice of quarantine originated in the 14th century to prevent the spread of epidemics by trade ships. Ships from infected ports would anchor in Venice for 40 days before landing. Strange coincidence, because in my Christian tradition, we have just completed a 40 day Lenten journey that ended on Easter Sunday. This 40 day practice of Lent is meant to imitate the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying and being tempted by the devil.

40 Days In The Wilderness

I have never pondered the concrete details of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness until now nor considered his wilderness experience as an act of self-quarantine and social distancing. I wonder what Jesus was doing during his self-quarantine? I suppose he wasn’t running around trying to get things done. Did he sleep under the stars exposed to the wild beasts and the elements or did he take refuge in a cave? Did he take walks during the day or did his fast make him too weak to exercise? Did he miss human contact as much as I do? (I have now gone eleven days without a hug or any kind of physical touch.) Did Jesus get bored? Did he draw or write in the dirt with a stick?

Upon searching the internet, I discovered that according to ancient tradition, the exact location where Jesus spent his 40 days is Mount Quarantania, named after a mispronunciation of the Latin word quarentena, meaning 40, named after Christ’s 40 day fast. I can hardly believe this connection. I feel comforted knowing that Christ has shared this experience of quarantine. Whatever I am going through, Jesus has already experienced it, even this strange time of social distancing.

The Gift of Quarantine

As hard as this season is, I feel like I’ve been given a gift in this time of fewer distractions and less social obligations. In many ways, I feel like I am on an art residency. The day after the governor’s order, I moved a small table home from my studio and set up a work table in my bedroom. Every day for two hours, I try to paint or write or take photos as my daily creative practice. Instead of making oil paintings on large canvases, I’ve switched to small, fast watercolor sketches that allow me to rapidly work through ideas and images. I’m excited about the possibility of focusing more on the process than on the product, and how this season of experimentation is going to be a fertile soil out of which more refined work grows. I’m able to research the work of other artists and to read more deeply than usual. I’m keeping a notebook of quotes and regularly adding to my sketchbook as I get new ideas.

During this extended pause, I have also been sleeping far more deeply than usual and dreaming vivid dreams. For a time, I wrestled with guilt for enjoying this season of quiet while other people suffered, even died of Covid 19. But I realized that stewing in guilt wasn’t helping to save anybody’s life, so I decided to let that one go and accept this season as a gift. I am sitting with deeper questions about my art—what motivates me and where I am headed and who I am making it for. No, this is not a comfortable time, but I keep returning to this quote from Gaston Bachelard, “Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.”

In my experience, I have seen how God uses trials to make me more fruitful and generative as an artist and person. My best work has emerged from seemingly absurd periods of suffering, confusion and loneliness. Nothing is wasted in the divine economy, and on my better days, I am able to trust that I am not alone–Jesus Christ is with me and will redeem this difficult time. I hope we allow this challenging time to push us deeper in our art practice and journey with Jesus.

Author Bio

Christen Mattix makes art, writing, and community in her multifaceted arts practice. She wrote a memoir about community-engaged art entitled, Skein: The Heartbreaks and Triumphs of a Long Distance Knitter (available on Amazon) and has a story coming out in the newest issue of SEEN journal. Mattix has exhibited throughout the United States: My Mother/The Sea curated by Tim Lowly, shows at The Whatcom Museum, Seattle Art Museum Gallery, G Gallery in Houston, TX, and has work in many private collections. Christen teaches Arts Integration at Western Washington University. christenmattix.com

Bibliography

seetheholyland.net

https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=quarantine

Image Credits: all photos by Christen Mattix, 2020

Self Portrait with Green Flower

Grafted

Makeshift Studio