The Trials of 2020 Tested Relationships Worldwide. Here’s How They Strengthened the Bonds of Three (More) Art-World Couples

Read the second installment of our two-part Valentine's Day series.

Amy Sherald and Kevin Pemberton. Photo courtesy Amy Sherald and Kevin Pemberton.

The year 2020 was a test for us all on individual, societal, and, for most, familial levels. For the first, time people all over the world had to centralize every aspect of their lives at home, which functioned as the singular place to eat, live, sleep, work, and, for the art world, make work that was still clear eyed, creatively charged, and reflective of our times.

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, we thought we’d check in with a few art-world couples to find out how they fared throughout 2020 (while constantly) together. In the second edition of our two-part series—the first of which featured Shara Hughes and Austin Eddy, Becky Suss and Micah Danges, and Idris Khan and Annie Morris—we spoke to Michelle Yun and Edward Mapplethorpe, Amy Sherald and Kevin Pemberton, and Najja Moon and GeoVanna Gonzalez to find out how the last year has fortified their partnerships.

Read on to learn about how they coped with one another, the little rituals that kept them sane, and what they’re cautiously hopeful for as we move into 2021.

Michelle Yun and Edward Mapplethorpe

Michelle Yun and Edward Mapplethorpe. Photo courtesy Yun and Mapplethorpe.

Michelle Yun and Edward Mapplethorpe. Photo courtesy Yun and Mapplethorpe.

Michelle is the museum director and vice president for global artistic programs at New York’s Asia Society. Edward is a visual artist who is perhaps best known for his ongoing series of photographic portraits of one-year-old children. In addition to his artistic practice, he has been the sole printer of his brother Robert’s negatives for more than 20 years. The Mapplethorpes now live in Weston, Connecticut. Edward still keeps a studio in Chelsea and a darkroom in Washington Heights. They wrote their responses to our questionnaire together.

Where did you spend most of 2020? 

Michelle and Edward: The majority of our time was spent at home in Weston. After the lockdown period subsided this past fall, we took turns commuting into New York City a couple times a week to focus on our respective work projects.

In what ways do you feel last year strengthened your relationship? What were some obstacles you had to overcome, and how did you get through them together?

Michelle and Edward: We were able to take a step back from our frenetic work and travel schedules to enjoy the beauty and slower-paced lifestyle of Weston—one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the ability to spend more time together as a family, which was not really possible after relocating from New York to Connecticut in 2017. It’s been difficult to navigate the ever-shifting structure of our six-year-old son Harrison’s school schedule in light of our respective career responsibilities… but we feel open communication, mutual respect, and a regular cocktail hour have gone a long way in seeing us through so far.  

What’s one small ritual you made sure to maintain together to get through 2020?

Michelle and Edward: Having nightly home-cooked family dinners together with Harrison is a pleasure that we were not able to partake in before the pandemic. We’d talk about our days and, over the past year, have read through a ton of joke books and other fun things, like Harrison’s current favorite, the National Geographic Kids Weird But True! book series, after dinner. Other favorite after-dinner activities include “stump the parents” quizzes or a round or two of triple solitaire. Our bedtime story hour has also been the Great Unifier. 

Sounds like a lot of fun. Where are you now and what are you working on? 

Michelle and Edward: We continue to spend most of our time in Weston with regular commutes into the city. Edward recently completed his first video installation, American Cycle, and is taking this opportunity to revisit past works in his archive and breathe new life into hidden gems. Michelle is gearing up for part two of the inaugural Asia Society Triennial, which opens March 26. She’s also getting plans underway for the first virtual Asia Society Asia Arts Game Changer Awards, which is scheduled for May 5. 

What do you hope for this year, when things begin to shift a little?

Michelle and Edward: To safely travel again and be with family and friends!   

Amy Sherald and Kevin Pemberton

Amy Sherald and Kevin Pemberton in June 2019. Photo by Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

Amy Sherald and Kevin Pemberton in June 2019. Photo by Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

Amy Sherald is a visual artist renown the world over for her painted works that seek to authentically capture Black life. Kevin Pemberton is a director at UBS group and a national advisory council member at Creative Capital, a national nonprofit organization that awards grants to individual artists around the country. At the moment, they’re based in west New York, and spoke to us over the phone while driving on Montauk Highway. 

Where did you spend 2020?

Amy: We spent most of 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia, where I’m from. We were headed down there earlier in the year and on February 18 my sister was in the hospital for a heart transplant and I just happened to be going down to visit her the same day that they found a donor for her. So everybody came down as soon as they were able—my mom, Kevin the next day, and she had her transplant. When you’re waiting for a heart, you have to have a caregiving team put together or they won’t even consider you, so we’d already had plans to be there for four weeks (for the surgery and recovery time). By the time the four weeks was up, we were well into March and it just seemed like a really bad idea to go back to our apartment building in Jersey City where we didn’t have any outdoor space and had to spend considerable time in elevators. Everything felt really crazy and perilous and dangerous and risky. I’m high-risk because I also had a heart transplant not too long ago. So we decided to stick it out in Atlanta. That ended up being really fun because we rented a house for everybody to be together and it was time I don’t think I would have gotten with my family otherwise. We were down there until May 28 and we’ve been back up here since June.

How are you feeling about 2020 now?

Amy: I feel happy that it went relatively easy for us. I know that a lot of people don’t do a lot of things and I feel as if we were very lucky that career-wise. He and I didn’t have any worries about employment or eviction or food—all of these things that a lot of people had to worry about. 

Kevin: I would echo that—I feel tremendous gratitude and significant affirmation on both the physical security as well as the economic security.   

How would you say 2020 strengthened your partnership?

Kevin: Amy always says that it feels we’ve lived five years together in 12 months. 

Amy: I said we had 30 years of marriage in one year [laughs]. And we’re not even married. We were in the house with my mom and my sister, which was part of it. It was a lot for me as an introverted person too, to be around people most of the time. Happily we had access to outdoor space, which was really great. And there was this place Recess—they didn’t have indoor dining, but you could take things to go—and we’d sometimes get sangria slurpees and go on walks. And we’d drive around and I would show Kevin houses and the parts of Atlanta where I grew up and went to college, and the beautiful old neighborhoods. 

Kevin: As a northeast-born-and-educated person, I had sworn off Atlanta early on in my life, and then through Amy’s eyes, I really got a strong appreciation for not only land, but square footage—all of that which eludes you in the northeast. It also gave me an appreciation for intergenerational living. I had not lived with my mother, and being thrust in between Amy’s mom and sister and her very cute niece and the two very sweet albino Pekinese puppies we adopted was definitely a new and sometimes crowded, but very fun and valuable experience. We had a lot going on.  

Did you learn anything new about each other?

Kevin: One of the things I learned is how incredibly patient she is. She has so much fortitude. She demonstrated to me that in the human spirit, there are levels. She maintains a reservoir of resilience and strength that I didn’t know was there, and whenever there were opportunities to demonstrate that, it always came out. It was certainly not known before. 

Amy: I think mine is similar—Kevin having to go through that time with my family was hard, especially with my mom who hadn’t totally accepted him as my life partner. There was a little hazing. [laughs] He was really patient with her and very loving and didn’t take offense to it. I feel like I found out how kind he was, despite being teased continually. 

What’s one ritual you maintained together to get through 2020?

Kevin: We had a notebook we committed to writing in every day… just a few lines about whatever happened in the day. 

Amy: Only three lines, to be exact, so it was really like a haiku. 

Kevin: And then the other thing is we’d wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, love of my life.” That was important. And because I inherited a dog-son—Amy’s first dog, August Wilson is his name—we would spend an inordinate amount of time in dog stores browsing dog stuff.

Amy: It’s true, that was like our date night. Like, “Let’s go look at stuff our dogs don’t need.” But it was fun. 

I love that. What are you up to now and what do you look forward to later this year?  

Amy: I just finished getting ready for my first West Coast show, so I’m looking forward to that. It was postponed—I wasn’t going go at first because it was like one-in-five people had COVID there for a while, but I might try to get over there. And then I’m really just looking forward to life after vaccination. 

Kevin: I just joined the national advisory council for Creative Capital, so I’m really looking forward to and enthusiastic about building their first artist investment fund. That’s in the short-term, and in the long-term I’m looking forward to getting back to life as it was… but hopefully not exactly as it was, because I think with all the transformation that’s happened in the last year, I’m looking forward to seeing what a new normal looks like. I’m equally as optimistic as Amy is about what lies ahead.  


Najja Moon and GeoVanna Gonzalez 

GeoVanna Gonzales and Najja Moon. Photo courtesy Gonzales and Moon.

GeoVanna Gonzalez and Najja Moon. Photo by Helena Pena and courtesy Gonzalez and Moon. Styled by Chaplin Tyle.

Najja Moon is the inaugural awardee of the Bass Museum’s New Monuments initiative, funded by the Knight Foundation. In March, she will unveil Your Mommas Voice in the Back of Your Heada monument to mothers that comprises a sound bath featuring sound bites from Moon’s interviews with Miami mothers. GeoVanna Gonzalez, an artist and curator, explores the shifting notions of gender and identity in our environment, specifically tapping into the relationships between the organic and the technological. Prior to her time in Florida, GeoVanna lived in Berlin, where she was a member of Coven Berlin, a queer feminist collective that organizes exhibitions and programming focusing on body politics, gender, labor, and art. We spoke to the couple from Miami, where they reside.

Where did you spend 2020?

GeoVanna: We spent 2020 in our box-truck house in Miami, where we were for the whole year. 

Looking back on the year, how do you feel it strengthened your relationship and in what ways? 

Najja: It was affirming in a lot of ways. We spent all day every day with each other, and it was entirely enjoyable about 99 percent of the time. [laughs] Going through a year like no other and being able to find happiness in the little things—daily acts of joy—made me feel more confident than ever before in our partnership.

GeoVanna: I totally agree. I think 2020 strengthened our relationship because it showed us that we really can work through anything together… we make a really good team and 2020 affirmed that and reminded us of all the ways that’s true. 

How were you able to ride out the especially difficult parts together? 

Najja: All of 2020 was a mental and emotional hurdle! But we made a lot of art and drank a lot more alcohol to get through it, and both of those things really helped. 

GeoVanna: I would agree, we went through a lot emotionally and mentally, but also took the time to make sure to find joy in different ways to get us through the tougher days. 

What’s one little ritual you maintained together to stay sane?

Najja: Honestly, we had a lot of dance parties with our dog! And they were a lot. Full light shows and all. We’re still maintaining this ritual today, which is the best.  

That’s great. How are you feeling now? What are you working on these days?

GeoVanna: 2020 was a rough year and there were moments where we certainly felt like there would be no return to life before the pandemic. But thankfully things have gotten a lot better. Right now, I’m hustling heavy and working hard, which I love to do. I’m in the process of installing my solo show at Locust Projects in Miami, which opens next month, on March 6th. I’m also working on a few film projects and a public art commission here in Miami. Najja and I are also together working on a big research project together called Occupy Leisure, which is inspired by the life of [the African American architect, artist, and art educator] Amaza Lee Meredith. 

Najja: And then I’ll be installing Your Mommas Voice in the Back of Your Head on Miami Beach for the first Bass Museum New Monuments Commission on March 17. That one I’m super excited about. I’m also working on a project titled The Huddle is a Prayer Circle, which is a collection of works spanning from sculpture to sound to photography to drawing. There’s lots going on! 

And what’s one thing you’re hoping for this year?

Najja: I try not to get too ahead of myself… I’m grateful to still be here today, to see my family and peers adapting and growing even still.

GeoVanna: I hope that people learn that there is no need to rush into things. I am grateful to be where I’m at right now, too. If I can hope for one thing, it would be to be able to travel at some point, I’d love that. That would be exciting.

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