Caitlin Tan Published

W.Va. Artist Recovered From COVID Reflects On Past Year

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On a recent episode of Inside Appalachia, the show reflected on the past year of the pandemic, as well as the long road to recovery for people’s social lives, jobs and health.

The show featured Appalachians who had been interviewed before, including Robert Villamagna.

Villamagna is an artist based in Wheeling, West Virginia. He repurposes old metal — like coffee cans or antique toys — and turns them into art pieces. He was named West Virginia Artist of the Year in 2016.

Inside Appalachia featured Villamagna at the start of the pandemic. He offered advice to fellow artists on how to maintain creativity during quarantine.

“Hang in there,” he said. “And if you’re an artist, go make your work regardless. Just try to find some time in the day to make work and share it with your friends.

In August 2020, Villamagna contracted a serious case of COVID-19. He was hospitalized twice.. He stressed how important it is to take the virus seriously.

“What unfortunately, I think, is going to convince somebody who has not been convinced, is that either they wake up with this, or a family member wakes up with this,” he said in a 2020 interview. “Because, I kid you not, you’re in for the fight of your life…You can’t believe that there’s something that can get inside of you that has so many different facets. And it’s not the damn flu. It goes way beyond that. It can bring with it so many things. This thing, this thing is so for real.”

Robert has since recovered and is making art again.

Inside Appalachia’s Co-host Caitlin Tan spoke with Robert Villamagna, to reflect on the past year.

**The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Caitlin Tan: So Robert, catch us up to speed — how are you?

Robert Villamagna: Well, you know, it seems like everything is pre-COVID or post-COVID. And I got through having it. My wife and I both. It took several weeks. Sometimes I think that we got better faster than we actually did. As a matter of fact, a few weeks ago, I actually played back that interview you did with me, just after I got out of the hospital, and when I heard my own voice I thought, “Is that me?” I was really weak. I was really beat up.

Tan: Yeah, it really puts it into perspective, that in a way you had a near death experience. Does it leave you with any new outlook on life?

Villamagna: It’s kind of funny, because whether it was a near-death experience, I don’t know about that, but I do know is this: I was the most scared probably of about any time of my life. I was really, really, really frightened.

It felt so great to each day get a little bit better. I’m thinking about it now, I’ll have little flashbacks. But since then, I got back to working in the studio just about every day. And right now I have a small solo show, which is the first thing I’ve done in over a year as far as an exhibit. That’s been really good.

Tan: And you just got your second dose of the vaccine correct?

Villamagna: [laughs] I did. The reason I’m laughing is because I’m thinking, “This makes absolutely no sense to me. Like, wait a minute, I’ve been through this COVID thing. Why is it that I get the vaccine and it knocks my socks off?” Granted only for 48 hours.

Tan: I know I’ve been really reflective on what this last year has looked like for me. Are you feeling sentimental? Are you feeling hopeful?

Villamagna: I feel more hopeful and am looking more forward to being with other people.

Tan: As an artist, Do you feel like having social interactions is important for you?

Villamagna: I do. And I got a feeling that I might speak for a lot of people who are visual artists, or maybe writers — anything where you’re in the studio.

You’re not hanging out with other people in the studio, and so sometimes at the end of the day, or maybe on a weekend, you’re really looking forward to getting together with other people. And it’s usually, of course, going to be other artists, other writers — you get to change ideas, you get to talk and you get to reflect on the world with each other. And then when you don’t do that for a year, to me that’s kind of crazy. So as an artist, I’m really looking forward to it.

Tan: Robert, one of my favorite things about talking with you is you have a very lovely, poetic way of saying things, and you just seem to have a lot of wisdom.

I think a lot of us were happy that maybe there’s the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s still scary, and it still feels like it could be a long ways away. And I’m wondering if you have any kind of comforting words or words of wisdom you might share with us?

Villamagna: That’s so heavy.

I don’t believe that we’re out. But at least we’re easing up with the pandemic, things are getting better. And guess what else is happening? Spring is coming. We still got some cold days and some wet days and stuff like that. But wow — this winter, we’re finally closing the door on it. And I think, “Wow, that’s like a double combination.” You know? It’s like going to the movies and getting both popcorn and candy. So that’s how we’re getting it right now, and I think that’s kind of awesome.