While practicing social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis, John Martinek, a local painter, printmaker and drawer (as well as a political cartoonist for Little Village magazine), is turning his artistic gaze from the stresses of the present to his own past experiences.
Martinek took his first trip abroad in 1994 when he went to Africa to visit a friend in the Peace Corps. While spending time there, he “first made the connection between travel and the process of making art,” as he says on his blog. In 1995 he spent five months in Europe, making art in 12 different countries, the last of which was Turkey. In September of 1996, after finishing his MFA at the University of Iowa, he returned to Turkey where he lived for two and a half years.
“When I first got there it was quite stressful and challenging because I lived in a large city,” Martinek said of the time he spent in Bursa, Turkey. “I felt like a small child and didn’t know where anything was or how to get there or even how to ask for things. Little by little and over time I figured things out, and I became more able and confident. Eventually, it felt completely normal and familiar. I see some parallels to that experience as we adapt to life with COVID-19.”
In 1999, Martinek came back to Iowa City, where he still lives today. But he has continued his travels, visiting Belgium, Czech Republic, Vienna, Slovenia, Croatia and Turkey over the years.
Now, as people limit their trips out of the house as much as possible — not to mention trips out of the country — Martinek is content to stay put.
“I am OK with staying home,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to be able to do it, actually. It’s not much of a hardship compared to so many others who are working in dangerous jobs.”
In his home studio, Martinek is using the time he has spent on trips to inspire new art.
“I have been working on some images from the past … a sort of ‘housebound travel series’ or ‘traveling in my mind,'” he said. “Typically when I am traveling, I take a lot of photos, fully intending to return to them and to make drawings from them eventually. I guess this is a good time to revisit those journeys and memories.”
Martinek has also discovered that he doesn’t need to board a plane to go on an adventure. He says his traveler mindset has helped him through this new normal.
“I have found that there are many places around Iowa City that I sort of ignored for years,” he said. “Over the past year, I have been doing more local exploration. The trails along Clear Creek in Coralville are great. Parks around the reservoir. My son and I have even been exploring around Oakdale Campus. It’s pretty isolated and there are some cool trees to climb.”
Before businesses went on hiatus, Martinek was working during the day as a project manager for McDonough Structures. The firm has suspended operations, which has opened up Martinek’s weekdays.
“I think it has enabled a little more time for creativity and therefore I’m getting more art work done overall,” Martinek said.
“This is a good time to find unusual spaces in your own neighborhood.”
Martinek was already set up with a home studio, which he says he’s “especially glad for now.” (“All of my stuff is here and I can go down and work in my pajamas.”) Of course, being home during the day also brings on other responsibilities.
“It’s fine because in some ways that’s what I’m used to. My son is too young to be left unsupervised so one of us has to more or less be watching him most of the time … Since daycare and pre-school are closed, it’s basically the same as how we managed our weekends at home before, taking turns and managing our time. I can usually work about two to three hours per day and then the rest of the time is spent doing other things.”
Some of that productive time happens before the sun is up.
“I still get up at 5 a.m. so I have a few hours before everyone wakes up to work. Once the day starts I have to spend quite a bit of time ‘babysitting’ and teaching preschool and dealing with household chores because my partner is still working full time.”
Much of Martinek’s recent work — including his twice-monthly Stress Fractures cartoons in Little Village, which began in 2019 — address political issues; specifically, the failures of people in power to addresses crises like climate change, corruption and inequality. Months into the COVID-19 crisis, however, Martinek said he’d prefer to explore non-political avenues with his art.
“I spent so much time researching our culture and politics over the last several years for my cartoons. My general conclusion was that the United States would be ill prepared for any type of national emergency and that our politics would make the situation much worse. Obviously it’s happening now and it’s depressing to watch how badly we are responding and how hard it is for us to come together, even to fight a pandemic,” he explained. “I need something more zen to focus on.”
A new source of inspiration: his own household.
“I suppose at times like this we learn a lot about our own psychologies, good and bad,” Martinek said. “The first week was very hard for me, but over time I have relaxed and have focused on each day, and the moments within the day — I guess actually being ‘in the moment’ rather just talking about it. My son pretty much lives in the moment so maybe I’m learning that from him. It has been good to spend more time with him.”
“I think as a family we have learned that we are pretty much OK with being with each other all the time,” he added, “which is good to know, because it may be awhile.”