Painter Michael Bush and photographer Kate Sweeney are two of 18 artists on display in a new exhibit opening today at the Franklinton arts space

Kate Sweeney initially felt lost when the pandemic shut down Ohio in March.

The photographer generally focuses her work on people, and the closeness required of these shoots wasn’t possible, particularly in those uncertain early days when little was known about how the virus could be spread. So instead, Sweeney found herself venturing to Alum Creek State Park throughout the early spring, concentrating her camera on nature.

“[Alum Creek] felt like this other world, which helped,” Sweeney said, joined by painter Michael Bush for an interview at Secret Studio. (Sweeney and Bush are two of 18 artists who will have pieces on display in new exhibit “Thank You, Friends,” which opens at the Franklinton arts space today, Friday, Nov. 13.) “I was going there a lot just wanting to be near the water.”

As Sweeney again started photographing people, her outdoor shoots aided by warmer summer temperatures, the natural elements that helped her navigate the onset of the pandemic started to bleed into the work. For the photograph on display at Secret Studio, shot in September in an outdoor bathtub in a friend’s backyard, a woman’s form is framed with flowers clipped from Sweeney’s garden, and a butterfly rests on her lower back. Even the water that fills the tub mirrors the creek at which Sweeney temporarily sought solace.

“What’s really important to me in all of my work is women celebrating autonomy over their own bodies,” Sweeney said. “I loved this image, and it was super special to my friend, who had just changed careers and started working in hospice, so she was taking care of a lot of COVID patients and dealing with death. … I think I’m finding that therapy in nature and then bringing it into the photography as a way to help empower my subjects.”

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Bush’s work is currently undergoing a similar metamorphosis linked to the pandemic. The painter described himself as “a pack animal” and said much of his inspiration typically comes from being around people and visiting public places like museums — all of which have been off-limits for much of this year. As a result, a currently in-progress study, which might develop into a more focused series, is centered on empty rooms. 

“When all of [the social aspects] got taken away, it was hard … to be motivated to get on some stuff, to make some stuff. I was going through a lot of things not only with corona, but I had an 11-year relationship end and things were in flux at work, and I just started shutting down,” said Bush, who began to paint again after booking a July exhibit at Secret Studio, a momentum that has carried over into his most recent pieces. “I’m working on studies … themed around this idea of isolation, where it’s just these corners of rooms that are empty, where you never know what is around the corner from there.”

The piece Bush selected for this current exhibit, however, is from his personal collection and dates to 2018, chosen in part because it has themes that feel particularly prescient at this moment in time. Titled “Sitting on Top of the World,” the painting, a colorful burst of impressionistic exploding orbs, is from a series centered on communication and combativeness. “It’s almost where you’re seeing this collision that springs out with a lot of energy,” said Bush, who took up painting via art therapy in 2006. “I kind of thought of the compounding weight from the top orb to the bottom orb as what society is going through right now.”

This included the new round of Black lives matter protests that sprang up nationwide in late May following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, with Bush describing the tensions as an emotional weight and Sweeney offering that the movement made her temporarily pull back in order to keep a focus on the Black voices that needed to be heard.

“It felt selfish to focus on my art because there was so much important stuff going on,” said Sweeney, who traced her interest in photography to childhood, recalling an early obsession with vintage family photographs and the feelings of nostalgia and memory the images stirred in her. “But eventually you come back around because the world needs art.”