The coronavirus pandemic and its ripple effects have wreaked havoc on all walks of life, and the artist community has not been immune.
Here are four Berkshire County artists, sourced through Assets for Artists — it's a professional development program based at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams that helps artists in all disciplines — who describe, in their words, how the pandemic has impacted their livelihoods and how they are surviving.
Losing income, but gaining community
COVID-19 has completely halted our business, B4 The Other Creations, as freelance teaching artists. My business and life partner, Christopher Beaulieu, and I had over 15 contract cancellations within the first couple weeks. After the first month, we lost all future contracts for 2020.
We travel throughout the U.S. and internationally teaching play-embodied leadership through educational residences. We see our core mission of building stronger communities through play, vulnerability, and generosity as more important now than ever before. We believe our process is our product and are offering online classes.
That first week of shutdowns and contract cancellations was devastating for us, from complete loss of income to losing loved ones. To our surprise, what inspired us was witnessing our neighbors, who were less affected, leave groceries at our door with notes of faith. Our landlord offered lower rent. The strangers we were living next to were truly embodying our company's mission and being for us.
Reinforcing the goodness of others feels extremely important these days. Our community did that for us by offering the security that we were all going to survive this, together.
— Malia'Kekia Nicolini, North Adams
Sara Farrell Okamura
Using the internet to promote artwork
As artists, the recommendations to shelter in place sent tremors through our finances. All exhibitions and studio visits were canceled. The printmaking studio we used as members closed temporarily and all means of supplementary income discontinued. We are fortunate that our studio is in our home.
This enabled us to keep working on artwork. I received a grant from Assets for Artists and participated in a webinar on using social media, emails and websites to promote work in lieu of personal interaction.
Bernay Fine Art in Great Barrington, which represents my husband, Hideyo Okamura, diligently sold and promoted his work online and is now open. We both participated in an online exhibit curated by LABspace in Hillsdale, N.Y., and are included in a number of upcoming exhibitions in the Berkshires, Albany and Northampton.
Our experience has us rethinking how to utilize the internet as the primary vehicle to promote artwork. This works for now but will never replace the exhilaration, inspiration and camaraderie of the real-time experience.
— Sara Farrell Okamura, North Adams
Puppet-maker finds resources, opportunities
I'm a theater and teaching artist, so almost everything I do has been affected by COVID-19. In spring and summer, I usually lead a woodcarving workshop at Mass MoCA and a puppetry-training course for actors and designers at the Eclipse Mill. Because we live and eat together, it was too risky to run.
A puppet-carving residency at the Gros Morne Marine Research Station run by Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada, was also canceled, as was a residency at the Ko Festival in Amherst. The Berkshire Lantern Walk was put on hold.
I turned to what I could do online — grant writing, requests for emergency funding, and arts advocacy. The Massachusetts Cultural Council and MASSCreative were quick to reach out. I feel grateful that I qualified for the North Adams Emergency Fund and Berkshire Theatre Artists Fund — created from a generous gift from the GKV Foundation.
Like so many, my days quickly filled with Zoom discussions about how to manage resources during a pandemic, how to reimagine your artistic practice, and other support groups. The Massachusetts Cultural Council hosted a weekly Zoom meeting for teaching artists to share ideas.
I was inspired to see possibilities to continue some of my work online, so I enrolled in the Michael Chekhov spring workshop for professional development, where I was able to join with 100 or so other theater professionals.
COVID managed to generate an incredible opportunity: The National Arts Center of Canada asked us about remounting our illuminated, nighttime puppet show "Iinisikimm" to celebrate the return of the buffalo to Banff National Park in Alberta. We expect 50 or so people for the outdoor performance. A video of the production will be on the NAC website shortly afterward.
— David Lane, North Adams
Navigating the downs by finding the ups online
For about three months, my business and life partner, Andrew Casteel, and I were not able to work at our full-time jobs, and were forced to focus on our clothing and sewing practice, WallaSauce, as a means of income. Through it, we produce handmade quality clothing and other products from recycled materials. Masks were a huge part of our March and April sales.
Additionally, during these and the following months, we applied for, and received, a grant from Artists At Work, secured a studio space and were able to finance ourselves to be back at work part time and working five-plus days a week on our personal practice.
Since we have not been able to participate in social events and festivals for sales, we polished our website to make it easier to display and sell our products, which was something we'd been meaning to do for a while but didn't really have the time.
It's definitely been a lot of ups and downs, but we seem to have — knock on wood — a bit of luck right now. Blessed to be where we are during these times, we know it hasn't treated everyone with the same hand.
— Sarah DeFusco, North Adams