Back in April, when sourdough starters and watercolors ate up our Instagram feeds, and the most fortunate of us still felt like we were killing a few weeks at home, hobbies were a way to fill time. Seemingly everyone bought dried beans and guitars. Anyone with a needle and thread was jumping in to fill the holes left by a national mask shortage.
The backlash, of course, was swift and fierce: plenty of people were so paralyzed by fear and stress that putting brush to canvas felt like an unthinkably Sisyphean task. Not to mention, hobbies were for the privileged. “Stop Trying to Be Productive,” instructed the New York Times. Somewhere between Tiger King and The Vow, quarantine stretched into a semi-permanent state of reality, and the hobby talk died down. Picking up a new creative pastime already feels like a sort of relic from the halcyon days of 2020.
But some people did start new projects, and kept at them. It’s no secret that pursuing a challenging activity that’s not what you do for work promises all kinds of psychological benefits. And the conditions of our current reality still might make hobbies a promising source of well-being—the pandemic is still with us; scanning the news of the day is still a recipe for a firmly clenched jaw. So GQ talked to five creative people who stuck with their pandemic hobbies to find out what they’re still getting out of it.
Demi Adejuyigbe, comedian & writer: Painting
I watch a lot of movies, and starting in March I wanted to be doing something while watching a movie that wasn’t so active that I couldn’t still focus on the movie. Painting was a good way for me to just sit here making small movements while having the movie in my vision. I had a tiny little easel and acrylic paint set I got for Christmas a few years ago. There’s this wizard on a wall in my neighborhood that I’m very obsessed with, and someone had vandalized it, so I joked that I would make a new one. I did a little tracing and just went for it. Then I realized how easy it is to paint over mistakes, so I decided to get a little more abstract. I had all these other canvas panels, so I asked friends what I should paint and got a lot of suggestions. Eventually I had made enough that I decided this was something that was fun and I felt confident about, so I made it my go-to present for friends’ birthdays. I didn’t want it to become another thing that I’m doing for the internet, so now it’s this really lovely thing to make something that I can deliver to someone else and have this moment of connection with them.
Eventually I needed more paint, so I bought a very cheap set that I didn’t really like, and someone slid into my DMs and was, like, “This paint sucks!” They gave me advice about which ones are the best but expensive ones, which are the intermediates, which are the worst ones that are still acceptable. I got some Liquitex-heavy and Blick artist’s acrylics and used them for that ACAB painting and was very much, like, These are the real deal for sure. I’m always very excited to learn by doing, so getting to see the difference in the paints and recognizing what makes good paint and bad paint was very fun for me. I could’ve very easily just read up on it, but getting to see it for myself was very helpful.
Whenever I start a painting I try to make it as quick as possible. Lately I’ve been able to get it down to 24 hours for each painting, which is very cathartic. I don’t want to spend any more time than that. It’s a small thing I can do that will also feel like it’s accomplished very quickly, which is even better for me to do in quarantine because it’s both a distraction and a release. I’m able to focus so much on one specific thing that I’m not being driven insane with anxiety about other things. You can paint over anything, and that rules because I make a lot of mistakes. I’d like to use painting as a thing for when I have a day off from work and can just focus on it. It’ll be a nice little reprieve for me. And I’ll have a little present for myself when I’m done.
Douglas Friedman, photographer: Raising chickens
I live in Marfa, Texas, outside of town. Marfa’s my home, but because I travel so much for work I only spend two weeks there at a time. My nearest neighbors are goat farmers and artists, and when the shutdown happened and Marfa’s town closed I needed something to do there for three months. They had mentioned they had this busted-up old hen house that hadn’t seen a chicken in ten years. So I said to them, “Can I restore this chicken coop and turn it into a little egg business?” And they were, like, “Sure thing.” I needed something to do that wasn’t completely focused on me. I needed to put myself in a situation where there was a reason to get out of my bed, out of my house, and over to someplace else where I had responsibilities. And once 30 chickens arrived in the mail, I was responsible for those chickens.
One of the first things I did was start an Instagram account. I was so grateful for the amount of help people were willing to offer. I relied on the advice of complete strangers, the crazy chicken people of Instagram. So many people wanted to participate. There were strangers on the account saying, like, “Hey, this is what you should watch out for,” or, “Have you tried this breed?” or “These two breeds don’t really mix.”
The west Texas desert is hard living. Rattlesnakes, raccoons, skunks, bobcats, coyotes, there are so many things that want to kill your chickens every day all day long. So I had to dig trenches a foot into the ground in hard-packed dry desert dirt. I learned how to use a blowtorch, I learned how to operate heavy machinery. A lot of it was intuition. Life there is slower than in New York and it was almost like a meditation. You had so much time to strategize, come up with a plan, ask people questions, get it done properly.
We had our first egg in August. The girls are laying, so I’ll go back in October and check in on things. The intention of it was always to be a gift for my neighbors. Chickens lay eggs when there’s light, so as we start going into the fall and winter, they’ll start laying less, we’ll get through the winter, and then I’m hoping for a really successful spring. It’s definitely something we want to keep growing. This has given me something to sink my teeth into and really be proud of.
Juvenile, rapper: furniture making
My wife asked me to build racks for her store long before the pandemic. She created a monster. But when the pandemic started, I focused on making robots and lamps. Now I make anything from chandeliers to sofas, chairs, tables, liquor dispensers…the list is long. Anything that comes to mind that I can do with pipes. I’m thinking of things every day. I like using old stuff and making it look like something brand new.
I was raised by a carpenter, so I learned from him. I took a few electrician classes from my father-in-law, and now I’m taking stuff that electricians use and incorporating it into what I do. I also learned how to do tile work. I get materials everywhere. You might see me walking through Home Depot, you might see me in a local plumbing spot.
I get a kick out of how it looks when it’s done. If you see me putting it together, you’ll be, like, “What the hell are you doing?” And then when you see it finished, you’re, like, “Damn.” It’s more than putting pipes together. I’ve made it into an art form. I had a trombone that I made for Trombone Shorty that’s hanging up in his studio now. The joy it brings to others means a lot to me. I get the same feeling when I’m finished that music gives me, when I put an album or a song together. Now I see why a lot of people do multiple things. I don’t know what it is, but making something with your hands is like a high that you can’t explain.
Susan Rosenfeld, ceramicist: Quilting
I started sewing in eighth grade, and I inherited my aunt’s 1946 Singer. When my husband and I opened Back Forty West, I decided to make a quilt to hang there. I went to Purl Soho and they showed me how to join the corners, how to do a binding, and where to send it in California to have the overstitching done. Eventually I had kids, which led me to clay, and I thought, This is what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life.
In early March, my pottery studio was shutting down. My last day in the studio, I was talking to this younger potter whose mother makes quilts in Arizona. She injected me with a little piece of inspiration. I went into those bins of unfinished quilts and really took inventory. It was great to have something to do every day. My goal was just to use up what I had, but once I went online and saw what was available, I got so inspired. There’s a woman in the Midwest who has a site called Reproduction Fabrics. There are other companies, like Missouri Quilt Company. You learn, you start to see names over and over again. You become more efficient, too. My hands used to get tired from hand-stitching at the end of the day. And I noticed over time I was gaining strength, and I got faster, so then I could go bigger. It’s not as laborious as it used to seem. I was doing small 40″ by 40″ quilts, but the ones I’m doing now are bigger throws, like 60″ by 65″.
I’m not feeling inspired by clay right now, but sometimes you just have to do the work and start. So when I said, “I’m not feeling really inspired by sewing right now,” I thought, That’s the reason to do it.
Lloyd Wise, Executive Editor, Artforum: Birdwatching
I began birdwatching seriously in January, when I received my first pair of binoculars. My parents are avid birdwatchers, so for most of my life I saw birdwatching as irredeemably uncool. But eventually we all turn into our parents, so it was time to face my destiny. I discovered I already knew a lot via osmosis. The field guide, Sibley Birds East, has proven a terrific resource. The Merlin bird identification app, put out for free by Cornell University’s Ornithological Laboratory, is a must-have. Social media accounts will also tell you what people are seeing, where they’re seeing it, and what to look out for. I follow some Twitter accounts, and I’m in a group chat with some friends who are also into birdwatching.
A huge part of birdwatching is about training your eye to notice subtle differences between beak shape or plumage, learning bird calls, knowing where to look and when. I’ve found this new knowledge has completely altered and enriched how I experience nature: suddenly there is so much more to notice. I enjoy the perceptual challenge—spotting a bird from a distance and trying to hold the shape and color of its wing in my mind, then measuring that imperfectly remembered image against the scientifically rendered illustration in a field guide. It can be frustrating, but so rewarding.
Birdwatching puts to use the same innate, apex-predator human abilities that the video-game industry has successfully exploited to become a multi-billion dollar industry: pattern recognition, the capacity to identify and respond to small movements, sensitivity to sound and vision. Aiming. The thrill of discovery. It is nice to do something different with them. I also love the demands it makes on your attention—the intense concentration and attunement to visual and auditory phenomena. There is something wonderfully meditative about standing before a bush and waiting patiently for a flash of yellow or the irregular movement of a branch. Or keeping your ears perked for unfamiliar birdsong. Some sightings have a miraculous, even divine quality. You’re quietly walking around a park you’ve been to a thousand times and then, like a bolt from the blue, you find yourself bearing witness to a thing you’ve only read about in books or seen in pictures: A tiny beplumed creature hopping on a log, eating an ant.
These days I go a few times a week, most often to Brooklyn Bridge Park. As with the best hobbies, time melts away psychedelically; I can easily find myself wandering around for two hours or more. I also like Prospect Park, Greenwood Cemetery, and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is a little harder to get to but totally amazing. Greenwood cemetery is host to a refugee colony of monk parakeets whose ancestors escaped from a shipping container at JFK forty years ago. Also: I’ve seen nearly forty species from my back window. Whenever COVID-19 clears up, I want to take a pelagic birding tour. You board a boat at 9 PM and it brings you on a 22-hour trip to the continental shelf, where you can see all kinds of crazy stuff: Shearwaters, storm-petrals, guillemots, rare arctic gulls.
Originally Appeared on GQ