COVID-19 inspires creative instruction

DEVASTATED: The current pandemic, says local artist Cleaster Cotton, “has been one of the most sobering experiences I've had since being in New York when the towers came down on Sept. 11, 2001.” To cope, the artist has created “public service art,” including the visual on the left. The photo of Cotton was taken last year, prior to the pandemic. Photo by Joe Pellegrino

Local artist and teacher Cleaster Cotton can’t stop thinking about her home state of New York, which has suffered over 17,500 coronavirus-related deaths. Many of Cotton’s relatives still live in the city and work in the health care industry. And several members of her extended family are recovering from the virus.

Meanwhile, pandemic-related deaths in Buncombe County currently total four. The low number, Cotton says, does not minimize the lives lost here or the virus’s ongoing potential threat. But compared to New York, she notes, “I feel like we have been very fortunate.”

Still, Cotton remains in isolation, spending much of her time creating what she calls “public service art.” Her paintings, collages, haikus and photographs — which she posts on various online platforms — encourage social distancing and other precautions. Some works, she says, include pictures of her relatives “who are going out there and risking their lives on the frontline.”

The vulnerability of her family keeps Cotton on edge and serves as a constant reminder of the disproportionate number of African Americans infected by the virus. “America’s dirty laundry is hanging out for everyone to see,” she says, noting that racial disparities in economic well-being directly impact the spread of the virus in many African American communities, where low-income families have neither the financial means nor the space to isolate.

But in other ways the current situation has created moments of hope and clarity. Along with her public service art, she is now hosting her weekly Youth Arts Empowerment class remotely. The free program, launched in 2018, empowers students from Asheville’s marginalized communities through self-expression.

Her latest sessions, says Cotton, reinforce the value of the arts and her life’s mission to teach it. “The new normal needs more creative instruction,” she continues. “Self-expression could be the very tool you need not to lose your mind during this.”

To view Cotton’s designs, visit

This article is part of COVID Conversations, a series of short features based on interviews with members of our community during the coronavirus pandemic in Western North Carolina. If you or someone you know has a unique story you think should be featured in a future issue of Xpress, please let us know at


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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