Madison Public Library staff member Carlee Latimer discusses her work with the library's creativity platform The Bubbler in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, how the library's closure and the wider Safer at Home order is affecting artists in Madison, and what she's doing to stay connected to others while practicing physical distancing.
COVID-19 story by Carlee Latimer, 2020
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INTERVIEWER: Good morning, everyone. My name is Laura Damon-Moore. I am here with the Living History Project. It is Monday March 30th, 2020. We are doing an interview in our series, interviewing library staff about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Safer-at-Home directive. And I will have our narrator today introduce themselves now.
NARRATOR: Hi, Laura! My name is Carlee Latimer.
INTERVIEWER: Thanks, Carlee! Could you please tell us about the work that you do with Madison Public Library?
NARRATOR: Sure. I work with the Bubbler program at Madison Public Library as a Bubbler Assistant. I do all sorts of different things, including, uh, kind of organizing and implementing our artist-in-residence program--a lot of work that we do out in the community through artist-led outreach workshops and hands-on making, and some focus around our exhibitions or public art within the libraries.
INTERVIEWER: Awesome! Thank you so much. Can you tell us a little bit about what the past two weeks or so--what those have looked like for you in terms of your work with the library, and also just generally your experiences as the COVID-19 pandemic has really started to impact our day to day here in Wisconsin?
NARRATOR: Sure. [pause] So--oddly enough, I was actually traveling kind of right before a lot of the-- information was--accelerated or coming out more rapidly around COVID-19. I was in Colorado for a family wedding. So it was a really interesting place to be, just because they--Colorado as a state had just gone into a State of Emergency, and a lot of my friends and family were flying and traveling in that direction. Varying degrees of concern and some anxiety around all of that. Some decided not to make the trip. Some still came. And the wedding did happen. Flew back the next day and then was--bombarded with all sorts of--closings and--this idea of this self-quarantine, and everything came really quickly after that, so--yeah, it was just kind of bizarre in the sense that, I was--on this vacation, feeling away from it all, or like that it wasn’t--as directly--influencing or affecting me, and then getting home and kind of being slapped across the face with everything that was going on and being like, oh, this is, this is real, you know, and being a little bit more tuned in to everyday life and into news. All of that happened within a matter of minutes of landing in Madison. It was a really interesting experience. Luckily my family is out of that two week--fourteen day--more at-risk period, or at least that’s what it was when we first got back. Things have changed so much, but--everyone is still relatively healthy, and I feel really lucky about that. Since then, I’ve been working from home every day, doing a lot of Zoom calls and video conferences with staff at the library. I have definitely gone from working really closely with a tight-knit team (someone walking on wooden steps in background) to busting that open and working with all sorts of different people at the library that I normally don’t interface with. So that’s been really interesting, being assigned to different working groups, focused on different issues that have arisen because of the pandemic. So yeah, every day is a little different, and just trying to figure out where to best focus my energy and skills to help the bigger picture, the bigger broader library right now, and the City, since we are a city agency as well. So—(sigh) yeah, it’s been wild. It’s been wild. But it felt really good to work for an agency that--has been really supportive and understanding within this chaos, and so I feel really lucky in that sense.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. What is your daily routine like right now, such as it is?
NARRATOR: Yeah. So actually, right away, some friends and I started doing a daily drawing club. We get on a Zoom call every day, around 8 am. There are four of us, and all folks I have met through the Bubbler, which is kind of neat. Different artists that, actually, all three of them are more focused on freelance work, so at first they were like: “This isn’t that different for us.” Typically, we work alone, and we’re on different project timelines, and things like that. It was really interesting to hear from them. We’ve fallen into this really great routine with each other where we turn the Zoom call on, and we’re all drawing or working on different projects, drinking our coffee, kind of checking in on anything that maybe happened over the course of the day. I think we have all really gotten a lot out of that, just because it’s--for me, it helps me have a reason to get going and get motivated every morning. And it allows me to create a little bit of a boundary between jumping right into work and being overwhelmed with that part of my day. It’s a good way to have a good positive start to my day, getting to see some friends.
Then I usually jump into work. My circumstances are pretty ideal in the sense that I am just responsible for myself right now. I don’t have any kids or pets, so I am able to be pretty available or flexible around schedules, because a lot of the staff that I work with that have different challenges that they are facing right now, so I have been trying to be available more generally during the day just at meetings and calls. So I have been working during the day, and then at some point decide to turn off the work part, usually around 5 or 6 pm. Getting outside when I can, taking walks or bike rides and then settling in for the night, either watching TV or reading, checking in with family and friends. It’s--interesting. I don’t know. It seems like a very simple routine, and it shouldn’t feel so foreign, but I’m very used to running around and seeing people all day every day, so it has been a big transition for me.
INTERVIEWER: For sure. Thank you so much. I wonder if I could just ask a follow-up question, sort of related to that running-around, interfacing with people all of the time work that you do. So much of what the Bubbler does, really seems to thrive in an in-person environment and community. You want people coming to the gallery. You want people to be there for hands-on opportunities in the Bubbler. Or at the neighborhood libraries, directly communicating with those artists. Can you talk a little bit about that, and maybe how what your impression of what community means has shifted or not shifted? What is still there, what do you see as being the future of Bubbler programming and events?
NARRATOR: God, that’s a great question! Right now, looking forward, I haven’t been able to paint the picture of what it is going to look like. That’s been really hard for me, because what I want is for things just to go back to “normal”, and I just know that that is not going to be a possibility. Even when the library reopens, things are going to be different. It has been really interesting but at the same time, I think, although we’ve created these opportunities for the community to interface with artists, one of the things that we’ve continued to hear is that the artists really get a lot from just feeling connected to the library in general. So that’s something that I’m really trying to maintain. Worrying a little bit less about how do we serve all of these people and how do we keep providing these opportunities, but more on how do I make sure that these individuals or artists’ collectives that we work with feel supported right now and feel seen. Because I feel like that’s something that I can actually do. So I’ve been doing a lot of one-on-one calls with artists. Just getting the opportunity to actually talk with them, maybe not necessarily about work, or about the normal Bubbler projects we might connect on but getting to say: “How’s your family? What’s going on? Are you working on any projects right now? Are you feeling stressed or strapped financially?” Getting a sense of where people are at on a more individual level, and then being able to take that back and see if there are projects or opportunities right now that are being molded through the programming team at the library where we could slot them in. For example, someone that is in my mid-morning drawing club, I know that they are doing all right and actually have a lot of projects on their docket, and have a big--a larger commissioned project that hasn’t gone away in all of this. So I might be less likely to pull them into a project when I know that there are other artists that could really use the connection, the money, the opportunity to create and share out. The last week, I’ve been spending a lot of time feeling that out and trying not to make assumptions about these artists that we’ve worked with. And then also, using this as an opportunity to pull new artists into the mix: maybe people that have come to a workshop or two, but haven’t necessarily been a resident or haven’t done a big project with us. Being able to start to build that relationship with them. I don’t know if I answered your question. I’m continuing to build up this network of artists so that when programming, in whatever form it takes kind of--picks up again, we have even more folks to involve, and just, yeah, be ready for the unexpected and be open to what that might look like.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. No. That is a really nice snapshot. Thanks.
INTERVIEWER: Are there moments or images just in the last of couple of weeks that have been particularly striking or memorable for you? I’ve been wondering about like your travel experience, what that was like? Were there any particular moments or images? Travel related, or just around your neighborhood, anything like that that really stands out?
NARRATOR: Travel wise, I was really--I don’t know if this is answering that question, but I was actually surprised, because there was a lot of talk of all of these new regulations and stipulations around travel, and I don’t know if my family and I kind of snuck in, not snuck in, but hit it at the right time, but, traveling felt oddly normal. Amongst all of the conversation and chaos happening, I was expecting lines, and more security or health scans, things like that, along the way, and very quickly we made it home, and it seemed a little bit too good to be true, and I was fine with that. [chuckle] I think this kind of eeriness of everything feeling a little too normal--kind of like the calm before the storm, I guess, in a way. That, to me, was oddly memorable because we were getting ready to enter into something that we had never done before, and then it was just like every other time we travelled. A little odd, but since then a lot has changed in the airports and travelling in general. I think we got pretty lucky in terms of a time frame.
Other images that have been striking to me: I don’t have any in particular, but just this influx of artists’ response to all of this: people either trying to create content that is helpful to the greater good, to the larger community around this kind of understanding of all being in this together, as well as just people who have taken this time and have used art as a way to cope with what’s been going on in their own experience as well as this more global pandemic. To me, it is just--just the amount of images and artistic expression that has come out has been very striking, especially within communities that I exist within.
INTERVIEWER: Nice. Thank you very much. As much as you can reflect upon your work with the library and your work or your life in Madison, and this unprecedented moment, what are your concerns, or ideas that you have as we find our way through this.
NARRATOR: Well, lots of concerns, and questions and ideas. I have been joining in this weekly conversation that’s being led by (unintelligible) Scott from Tone Madison, Jenny from Communication, and Olivia from Underbelly, have gotten together to organize a Zoom call for anyone who is interested in listening in and talking about the arts and culture in Madison during all of this, and even after. Being a listener in those conversations, I’ve started to think more and more about this idea and concept of the arts and artists always having to exist within a scarcity model, being in a gig economy and doing what they can to get by and do their thing. A lot of that has gone away, unfortunately, because of the circumstances. Despite that, there has still been this really strong sense of community within the arts, and even more largely an umbrella over musicians, and dancers, and visual artists, this broader community that you don’t often see come together. That’s been really reassuring and really beautiful, but I worry that, since artists are doing this community building and this organizing, honestly, out of the goodness of their hearts and as a way to--process and feel less alone and less isolated, I’m concerned that there might be this stigma around, “Oh, but look, they can do it without funding. They can do it without the resources and the structures in place.” In the same way that this pandemic is pointing to a lot of holes or issues within our structural society, just because certain groups or individuals can be resourceful and fill those holes, doesn’t mean that they should have to, if that makes sense. So I’m really concerned about, you know, when this all shifts back, I have concerns around conversations about funding and where money will be re-allocated, or where different funding that maybe existed for the arts would get shifted. I do understand that there are so many basic needs not being met around the city, and I’m not trying to say that artists need all the money, but I am very concerned about arts and artists in general having to move backwards in a way to then to propel themselves forward again.
I don’t know if that makes sense, but those are some ideas that I’ve been thinking about and questions I’ve had around that and what that will look like as a City trying to rebuild, I guess, as all of this continues.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you very much. I am wondering about what you are seeing outside. You said you get outside for a bike ride for a walk maybe daily, or nearly daily. What is it like being in your Madison neighborhood right now?
NARRATOR: (laugh) My neighbors and I have been joking that there are a lot of people who walk their dogs, and we’re just very confused as to where these people came from. Have they always had a dog? Have they never walked them before? It’s just very interesting to see--It’s just really funny and interesting to have a ton of different folks that you don’t recognize, or dogs that you don’t recognize. I live in the neighborhood behind Olbrich Gardens, so, for me, I have really enjoyed just getting to be out and explore a little bit. The Garver Feed Mill has recently opened up, so getting to walk back there. It’s not fully open right now, but just getting to even explore it in its emptiness, around that area. Going towards the lake and getting to walk and take that all in, just slowing down in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise, has been really nice, just getting reacquainted with my neighborhood. I think one very odd and big takeaway is that all the snow has melted, so near the shoreline, there is a lot of debris and garbage that has been washed up on the shoreline and has been covered with snow and all of a sudden it’s not anymore, and so walking that is fascinating. The amount is overwhelming, sadly, but the color that speckled from different pieces of trash and plastic. It’s odd, because, spring hasn’t exactly sprung here, so everything is still kind of brown and drab, and then to walk along the water, it’s just like this bright specked, rainbow colored--garbage. (laugh) I don’t know. I don’t know what to think about it other than: “What are we doing? This isn’t ok.” But, yeah, there is so much, that it’s just like I don’t even know where someone would start in…in tackling that, and again, that’s like just what’s washed up. (someone walks up the wooden stairs) So what is in our lakes. Ugh! Very odd, and something that I never would have thought about or quantified had none of this taken place. Lots of dogs, lots of trash.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. (laughs) Thanks for that snapshot. It’s good. Is there anything we didn’t mention that you wanna talk about today?
NARRATOR: No, I don’t think so.
INTERVIEWER: Sounds good. Well, thank you so much, Carlee! We really appreciate you taking the time.
NARRATOR: Thanks, Laura!
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