Arts·Pandemic Diaries

This painter drove his mother back from Florida amidst COVID-19 — and saw life imitate his own art

In a minivan packed with Purell, Toronto's Peter Harris took a roadtrip he'll never forget.

In a minivan packed with Purell, Toronto's Peter Harris took a roadtrip he'll never forget

Lost Highway 46 by Peter Harris. 24x42, 2005. (Peter Harris/Mira Godard Gallery)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

We both hastily agreed: I would change my flight to Florida and fly two weeks earlier than planned, then my mom and I would drive back to Canada as fast as possible. The news around coronavirus changed daily, and moving up her return date seemed like the prudent choice. This would be our first mother and son drive from Florida to Canada since my dad died last year, and while I had been looking forward to it, the rapid spread of the virus was upending all plans. I quickly rebooked my flight and prepared to depart the next day.

I was determined to arrive at the airport early Monday morning in anticipation of coronavirus-induced pandemonium, health checks and long lines. Reports of six-hour queues to enter the United States filled the news cycle. I expected the worst. Instead, I entered a near-empty airport. Only a few other masked and gloved travelers waited to check in. I was through security in under a minute. Staff outnumbered travelers six to one. Next was to clear U.S. Customs. I thought surely that even though security was a breeze, the real bottleneck would be here — the front line protecting a nation against this evolving threat. Wrong again. I walked through the deserted hall to find the half-dozen border guards chatting by their booths. The border agent spent a brief moment flipping through my passport and sent me on my way. Total time through the airport? Six minutes.

At my gate, I realized that life was imitating art — in this case, my art.

Level 3 Waiting Zone (with Francis Bacon) by Peter Harris. 36x62, 2019. (Peter Harris/Mira Godard Gallery)

I've been painting empty urban landscapes, parking lots, interiors and buildings for 25 years. The one thing I don't paint in my urban landscapes is people. I take photos of spaces, then in my studio compose my paintings eliminating any humans that crossed my frame as I pressed the shutter button. A series of paintings based on the Pearson Airport was part of my exhibition last year at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto. Devoid of human activity, the paintings presented an atypical version of the airport — quiet, serene and vacant. I wanted to give viewers the opportunity to imagine themselves in this space alone. Now, as I waited to board my flight, I didn't have to imagine this scenario; it was in front of me.

With only eight passengers on the plane to Florida, I suspected that I was heading in the opposite direction as everyone else. The flight crew confirmed this: near-empty flights down, but packed planes on return trips.

In the past, I could only imagine these scenarios. Now, each time we exited the interstate for gas and food, we discovered the abandoned landscapes of strip malls and fast food places of my paintings.- Peter Harris

Landing in Orlando, I anticipated crowds, further delays and frustration. Again, I was mistaken. No extra health protections were in place. It looked like any airport on a typical day: bored and sunburnt travelers crowded in lounges, sipped coffee and waited for departure. The concept of "social distancing" hadn't reached sunny Florida yet. I breezed through to meet my mom in the parking garage, relieved to be far away from unconcerned and oblivious travelers.

The near-empty plane Peter Harris took to Florida. (Peter Harris)

At my mom's rental house with her snowbird friends, coronavirus was the only topic of conversation. Opinions varied on the severity of the outbreak and how it should alter travel plans. Inside, the TV news seemed catastrophic, while outside, people filled patios where the only time "Corona" was spoken was to order a beer. It was cognitive dissonance on a state-wide scale.

Even faster than the virus was spreading, news of health insurance cancellations made the rounds with the Canadians. "Did you hear from your insurance company?" friends asked. "We've only got ten days from when they declared a pandemic to get home!" others warned. This single fact cut through any indecision to leave or stay. With this new information, plans were solidified. Everyone was leaving, and as soon as possible.

Minivan packed and hand sanitizer within reach, we drove out of Florida, through Georgia and into Tennessee. We joined an exodus of Canadians on the interstate following the route northbound. Fuelled with accounts of tightening restrictions and border closures, I expected to see drastic changes during our return trip. Again, I was wrong. Stopping at McDonalds and watching an employee press the lid on my coffee with bare hands was a cringe-inducing sight. A generous dousing from our single shared bottle of hand sanitizer was our only protection from an underprepared country.

Along the way, my mom and I developed new methods to navigate the world without contacting bare skin. Elbows deployed to open door handles; fingers wrapped in a Kleenex pushed elevator buttons. Constant reminders from each other to sanitize our hands. We ate all meals in the van — anything to soothe our paranoia that every surface in the South was now teeming with coronavirus.

Waiting on Morning by Peter Harris. 24x52, 2010. (Peter Harris/Mira Godard Gallery)

Our second day of driving finally brought the changes I had been expecting earlier. Fast food outlets locked their doors and sent employees outside to hand over orders; stores closed and faced empty parking lots. I've painted vacant lots and desolate suburban architecture like these for years. In the past, I could only imagine these scenarios. Now, each time we exited the interstate for gas and food, we discovered the abandoned landscapes of strip malls and fast food places of my paintings.

Relieved as we reached the Canadian border at Detroit, we waited our turn in a long line of trailers and campervans backed up on the Ambassador Bridge. Coronavirus pamphlet in hand, our quick talk with the border guard over, we gratefully left the United States behind us and headed for home.

Driving into Toronto to finish our second long travel day, highways were devoid of the usual traffic. There was a time when I would have been happy to witness this — an opportune moment to rapidly click the shutter on my camera to take photos and expand my series of empty highway paintings. Instead, I felt the anxiety of the new situation developing, with scenes of emptying landscapes that were once a creation of my imagination coming to life. I was happy to be arriving home, hoping to soon step out of the world of my paintings and back into the hustle of the city I remembered.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Peter Harris is a Toronto-based artist who has explored themes involving the urban landscape in his oil paintings for over 25 years. His obsession with cities and urban life has led him to paint everything from the highways to the airport and most things in between. He has exhibited his work in cities across North America, including Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, and Vancouver. You can find more about his work on his website peterharris.ca or follow him on Instagram @peterdharris.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now