Jessica Helfand | The Self-Reliance Project


A man logs twenty-one kilometers in a single three-hour loop, never leaving his garden. Later, on Instagram, he documents his half-marathon through a series of overlapping lines: they’re mechanical and scratchy, like Cy Twombly on an Etch-a-Sketch.

That earnest loop is a perfect visual metaphor for this moment. We’re locked in, held hostage, involuntarily cocooned by the circumstances of crisis. The gentle spectrum of color from the natural world is absent. And then there is the route itself, mechanically rendered in orange—that bright, no-nonsense safety orange—which also happens to be “high” alert orange (the one right before red) representing danger at its most severe.

Danger, indeed. We are, all of us, on high alert now, each day its own loopy marathon. Unmoored from the routine of the familiar, we've seceded from the reliable support systems that governed life before quarantine. Unmoored from each other, we’re cast adrift in new and deeply unsettling ways.

But here’s the thing: we can re-moor. This is, at its core, what studio practice is all about: bearing witness, trusting your voice, watching closely. A painter I know once told me that for every hour he spends painting, he spends two to three hours just looking.

So, for now: let's look.

Beginning today, I will write a daily post about what it means to be a maker during this pandemic—what it means to think through making, to know yourself better through the process of producing something—and how this kind of self-knowledge might just be the entire point.

For now, I am taking my cues from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote with astonishing clarity—nearly two centuries ago—about the perils of conformity and consistency, about what it means to follow your mind, trust your instincts, and listen to your heart. (Do your work, and I shall know you, wrote Emerson. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.) From Emerson we may gravitate to others—philosophers and poets, artists and humanists—voices of guidance, insight, and reassurance.

This is not about being selfish, but about being self-reliant, a way of resetting the coordinates, and remembering who we are. It’s about getting grounded, and getting on our way. Let’s run this marathon together.

Jobs | July 19