Where Safety Lives
When we first began sheltering in place, I stocked up on essentials. I focused on helping family members manage (especially my then 15-year-old daughter and my elderly mom). And then I figured I’d settle into a routine in my studio. Many of my friends were switching into overdrive, devoting uninterrupted hours to making art, and I was sure I’d be doing the same. But instead, I struggled. In the reflective space of the studio, sadness and worry overwhelmed me, and I found myself avoiding my work.
While my daughter’s school was figuring out how to go online, she and I decided we could use a project to focus on. The year before, we had picked up a vintage dollhouse on Craigslist to renovate together, but we had been too busy with other things to get started, and it had sat neglected in a corner of the studio.
The house was a great distraction for us, and we worked on it every day, cleaning it, removing broken trim, and painting it inside and out. We painted the interior walls white and chose a rich gray for the exterior with a black roof. This gave us a blank canvas as our starting point.
Because we were sheltering in place, we decided to use only what we had on hand for renovating and furnishing the house. And while I did have a box full of vintage doll furniture, it wasn’t close to complete and a lot of pieces were broken, so we had to improvise. Packing material and wood and fabric scraps became a chair; layers of paint transformed thick paper into floor tiles; and a bottle cap and a broken earring found new life as a sparkly chandelier. I made all of the curtains and curtain rods, little tables out of chopsticks and scrap wood, and, of course, miniature paintings for on the walls.
Once my daughter started online school, she was busy with her own work, so with her as my design consultant, I kept working on the house. All the while, I felt a bit guilty that I wasn’t making paintings for my galleries. But there was something about working on the dollhouse project that just felt right. The work was meditative, and the kind of problem solving it required as I tried to make mini versions of real-world things was oddly satisfying.
In the end, I broke our rule a couple of times—I bought wood edge banding to make hardwood floors and a couple of things off of Etsy—but mostly I stuck with it. As I worked on this unexpected project, I began to make objects to represent everyday pandemic experiences: a mask-sewing station (and tiny masks), Clorox wipes (for wiping down groceries and surfaces), a bag of flour (for at-home baking), toilet paper rolls (for hoarding!), jigsaw puzzles (a surprising pandemic trend), and desk with a laptop (for working from home).
Even though working on the dollhouse in my studio had become my safe place, I couldn’t ignore what was happening in the world. Along with the growing devastation of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement had exploded after the death of George Floyd. I made reading materials to reference these events: in the living room, Trump’s COVID denial on the cover of The New Yorker, Time magazine’s Black Lives Matter issue, and the New York Times listing the COVID dead by name, and in the bedroom, a copy of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist on the nightstand (with tiny reading glasses, of course).
A friend encouraged me to post photos of the dollhouse on Instagram, and I was amazed at the enthusiastic response. The project really struck a chord with people, and they noticed and delighted in all of the details. As the dollhouse evolved, friends dropped off stuff they thought I could use, artists mailed me tiny artworks, and a friend’s poet dad gave me the project title. Reflecting on how for many of us our homes had become places of refuge in scary and turbulent times, he offered up the words “where safety lives.”
Copyright © 2020 Holly Harrison
Holly Harrison is a mixed-media artist living in Concord, MA. Her paintings have been shown in galleries and museums across the country and have appeared in numerous publications. She is on the Board of Trustees at the Concord Center for the Visual Arts, where she has curated two well-received shows—Bird: metaphor + muse and Inhabiting Words. She is represented by Abigail Ogilvy Gallery in Boston and Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury, VT.