HISTORICALLY, our homes have served as places of refuge. Early man sought shelter in caves for protection from the elements and other dangers, and our modern-day homes serve the same purpose. They are our sanctuaries and places of comfort. We inhabit them and fill them with things that make us happy—material possessions and memories alike. We decorate them to show our personalities or to provide a welcoming atmosphere. Mostly, we aim to make them our own, because a house alone does not make a home.
In 2004, Fayetteville-based artist Kat Wilson first started exploring our collective relationship with the spaces where we feel most at home with her portrait series Habitats. The conceit was fairly straightforward: The subjects in Kat’s portraits were photographed in their everyday spaces and surrounded by grand, sometimes over-the-top arrangements of the possessions they believed were most representative of who they were.
“I kind of went back to the basic elements of art-making and looked to content, lighting, iconography of the subject,” she says. “You know, they say an average person looks at art for seven seconds on a wall, so I wanted to engage people. I wanted to make them look in there and hang out in front of my work for more than seven seconds.”
Through the use of classical elements such as the Renaissance’s triangular composition and dramatic Caravaggio lighting, the resulting images in Kat’s series presented her subjects as larger-than-life characters while simultaneously exposing an intimate, unguarded glimpse of the humanity within them. In one selection from the series, titled The Baptism of Shannon McGill, a woman stands tall in her corner bathtub wearing only a soaked-through T-shirt that reads, “NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF A WOMAN,” the words partially obscured by her long dreadlocks. On the edge of the tub are a teacup and saucer containing a bundle of burnt sage, and on the bathmat in the foreground, a pair of well-worn sneakers, a baseball glove, a vinyl copy of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and a typewriter.
But a lot has changed since Kat began photographing people in their quote-unquote “natural habitats.” Let’s be honest—a lot has changed this year alone.
Now, in the wake of COVID-19 and over 15 years since Habitats began, Kat’s original series has found new relevance and inspired a follow-up series, Quarantine Habitats, at a time when we’re spending more time than ever in our personal spaces.
People all over the world are self-isolating and social-distancing. Our homes have been transformed as a result, maybe not on a physical level, but certainly the way we perceive our habitats and the roles they play in our lives has changed.
The ways we communicate and maintain our relationships have changed drastically in the years since Kat first started her Habitats series as well. In 2004, Instagram wasn’t even a glimmer in Facebook’s algorithm. Today, millions of people capture their lives with photos and video and post them on the platform for the world to see on a daily basis. And more recently, users are turning to their feeds to see how others are weathering the pandemic.
So Kat had an idea: What if she revived the Habitats series to capture what mattered most to people, and how they live, during this historic moment? Essentially, this new series would pose the same questions as its predecessor but likely receive very different answers.
“I always said, What’s it going to be like in 100 years when somebody looks at a Habitat pic?” Kat says. “But with the Quarantine Habitats, it’s a very important moment in time, right? So our descendants are going to get to look and see: Look, there’s granny. Look at all those dried beans. Look, it’s an iPad 6. And I just do think that everybody’s documenting their own moment in time right now.”
The question Kat had to ask herself, however, was how she was going to photograph her subjects in this new, isolated world. And the answer was simple: She wasn’t.
On March 13, Kat announced to her followers on social media that she was going to create a socially distant interactive art piece and, two days later, provided instructions for participants on how to style and photograph their own portraits using the basic elements she had previously established with her original series. Four days after that, she created a hashtag: #quarantinehabitat.
By mid-April, there were 202 posts with the hashtag on Instagram, with many images coming in from around Arkansas but some from as far away as Los Angeles and Richmond, Virginia.
“Only a few people have reached out to me and been like, ‘What do you think?” Kat says. “Most people just kind of take it and run, and it doesn’t bother me at all to not have control because I like to see the results.
“I always say that my images are so good because of the performance of the sitter. And so this to me is just an extension of that, really.”
The Quarantine Habitat series, at first glance, looks nearly identical to the original. Many of the same items show up across images from both series: comforts of home such as books and vinyl records, musical instruments, art supplies, tools, family photographs, jewelry boxes, outdoor recreational gear. But upon closer inspection of the Quarantine Habitats, you’ll start to notice some subtle differences: the presence of additional items like bottles of hand sanitizer, packages of dry beans or instant ramen, gardening supplies, rolls of toilet paper. You’ll notice that the subjects are sometimes positioned in a more relaxed, lounging pose. Their dress and appearance are sometimes a little less put together, with people often opting for pajamas or athleisure wear. Considering the atmosphere of the time we’re all living through as this pandemic continues to run its course, the differences are understandable.
It’s also understandable why Kat’s series is resonating with so many people during this uncertain time. If you ask the artist, Kat will tell you she thinks people are finding comfort in her collaborative art project because it allows them to see that we’re all going through this crisis together.
“[Quarantine] Habitats make us all feel not alone because we get to see inside of their homes and what’s going on in their quarantine,” she says. “I know it makes me feel not alone.”
In this profoundly historic moment, every little bit helps when it comes to easing the isolation we’re all experiencing. And not only is the Quarantine Habitats series making us feel a little less alone during COVID-19, but it’s also providing a record: This is who we were. These are the things that were important to us. This is what our lives looked like. These were our homes.