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COVID-19 draws Tucson artist known for magical works into an alternate world

COVID-19 draws Tucson artist known for magical works into an alternate world

Tucson artist takes to canvas as COVID-19 coping mechanism

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Gail Marcus-Orlen can think of nothing but the coronavirus.

So she paints it.

The Tucson artist, known for her colorful oils bursting with magical realism, is in the midst of what she calls her “Coronavirus Series.”

“My mind goes nowhere else except to this,” she says of the virus. “My imagination doesn’t go beyond COVID.”

So she has taken that spiky ball we all know to be the virus, and given it all sorts of purposes, some ominous, some playful. It shows up in a ping pong game, as a mouse toy and as rabbit food. But most of all the spheres, colored green, or yellow or blue or pink, float above the scene, always ready to crash down on the subjects below.

The paintings include floating shadows, cats, rabbits, mice, butterflies, angels, devils, globes, and, central to many, a clown and a magician.

“Who would put out a cruel joke like COVID but clowns and magicians?” she asks. “It’s amazing where the imagination goes because it makes no sense. It’s all absurd; you can’t get out of this disease.”

Her intention hasn’t been to treat the virus lightly; it’s to put it on canvas so that it has less of a hold on her psyche.

“It’s my way of dealing with it,” Marcus-Orlen says. “It gets it out of you and you see what you’re thinking. I’m seeing what I’m thinking.”

A project that she took on when the statewide shutdown went into effect this spring, she is currently working on the 11th canvas, all 30-by-30 inches.

It’s difficult to think of Marcus-Orlen doing dark work — she is known for creating worlds where magical things happen and joyful colors dance across her canvas.

And despite the darkness of the inspiration, these feel life affirming.

With a few exceptions.

The second painting in the series features a person in an easy chair, wine glass in hand, and an over-sized coronavirus plopped in the lap, covering the torso and face.

“I decided the coronavirus was bigger than us,” she says, adding that a glass of wine just seemed in order.

The fourth one is the first to introduce a devil, but across from it and several floating COVID-19 balls she has a kneeling angel. With a mask on. At this point, she says, she was thinking “There must be something meaningful, something more, to COVID.”

The fifth one is heavy with grief, an angel dressed in a business suit, gloves on, head hanging. Death has come. The devils are a vivid red and in the center of the painting.

“I think the series was getting to me, so it was darker,” Marcus-Orlen says. Still, she managed to weave hope into the painting: Two angels are holding up the Earth and fresh produce is scattered around the globe. “It’s like something dying and something growing.”

The sixth in the series is an uplifting one, says Marcus-Orlen. It has a couple, wearing blue gloves and holding hands, looking out a window where they see angels and devils both vying for dominance over an Earth surrounded by coronavirus balls.

“It is hopeful with them holding hands and being together in the midst of it all,” says Marcus-Orlen. “They are looking toward the future.”

The painting is one of two that have already sold, though Marcus-Orlen declined to say what the paintings are priced at.

She expects to continue to make the paintings until the virus is conquered.

She has no choice.

“My head doesn’t go anywhere else,” she says. “It makes no sense to go anywhere else.”

Kathleen Allen has written about the arts in Tucson for close to three decades.

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