Creative Separation

A look at how some local artists and teachers are helping people connect while isolated.

The impact of the coronavirus on the arts community in Richmond has been swift and unforgiving. With the closure of theaters, galleries, pop-up markets, farmers markets and community arts centers and other venues across town, local working artists are among the many experiencing a financial crisis in addition to the international health crisis.

“It’s been pretty scary. Fifteen thousand dollars in 24 hours just evaporated,” says artist Michael-Birch Pierce, who makes most of their income embroidering portraits at events and parties with 300 to 1,000 attendees. Pierce, who uses the pronouns they, them and their, had been hoping to make up for a dry winter and get ahead for the coming months with the lost income.

“I’ve got another one coming up in June which is weird though, because is that far enough away to actually plan on being able to do stuff again? Who knows,” Pierce says.

The artist’s travel plans, which included exhibiting and embroidering portraits in Hyères, France, for the 35th International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Fashion Accessories, are also canceled, as is the festival.

Pierce is a board member at Diversity Richmond and co-chair of the Iridian Gallery, a project of Diversity, and is mourning the loss of an audience for artist Mac McCusker, who also uses the pronouns they, them and their, whose work is currently on display in the gallery.

“They were going to sell their work, and they were going to have their work in front of curators and really make their statement about trans and gender nonconforming artists making space in their work,” Pierce says. “Having that silenced really feels like a huge hit.”

The Iridian Gallery is working to make McCusker’s work available online and has extended the show, “Trans-cendent: The T is Not Silent” until May 23, hoping to open again before then. Looking forward, Pierce says it has canceled one show completely and some shows that were planned for April and May have been postponed to September.

“We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Pierce says.

“This is having a huge impact on anyone involved in the gig economy,” says Stefanie Fedor of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. “The big questions for us have been, ‘How do we continue to pay our teachers who are working artists in our community? And how can we keep people feeling creative, feeling connected, from home?’ They will need this now more than ever, this connection to creativity. People will be seeking it out.”

Fedor and VisArts staff were quick to respond to the crisis, making the decision to close March 13.

“To close those studios was more emotional than I had anticipated,” she explains. “People come to the VisArts Center for connection with the community and to work side by side with other people who have these shared interests. … It’s a place where a lot of people come for personal healing.”

Fedor and the staff are turning their attention to finding new ways to connect and new ways to keep artists paid and communities in touch.

“Over 200 teachers over the course of the year, and these are all local artists in our community, and it’s important to keep them employed,” Fedor says.

She and her staff are looking into which classes can be taught online — creative writing and digital media, for example — in hopes they can help both artists and community members who might need a creative outlet.

Similarly, local weaver Emily Nicolaides is leaning in to serving her community remotely. Like Pierce, Nicolaides also relies on in-person events for much of her income. But she also offers an online weaving membership, through which subscribers can order supplies and follow along with her lessons at their own pace from the comfort of their own homes. Nicolaides says she thought it might be a good time to open up registration.

“I received messages on Instagram, and I thought, ‘Oh, there is some interest.’ It’s a great activity to do while people are practicing social distancing,” Nicolaides says. “Students are asking for more ways to be together, we all need more connection right now.”

Pierce, too, is moving to online instruction for Virginia Commonwealth University students and says more online instruction opportunities aren’t off the table. But Pierce is also concerned for those impacted in other industries.

“My sister-in-law runs a wedding planning business and all of the weddings are off,” Pierce says. “Working in the event industry, I work with event planners, DJs, singers, drag queens — I’ve got several drag queen friends whose job is drag, six shows a week. Literally all gone.”

Nicolaides echoes Fedor’s sentiment that the role of the arts community is to foster connection.

“This whole experience so far has been an exercise in problem solving, looking at new ways to support my community and my students, Nicolaides says. “We are all going to have to get very creative, and there are more online opportunities, which will present themselves, for however long we need to do this.”

“I think anybody who works in the arts, we defy that idea of working in isolation,” Fedor adds. “We thrive on community, we thrive on being together, it’s what keeps us going. So to be physically separated from one another is hard, but luckily we are in the business of being creative so we can make a lot with so little.”

Ways to Help Artists

If you’ve purchased a ticket to a canceled event or paid for a canceled class, and if you can afford to do so, consider the cost of the ticket or class a donation to that arts organization.

Buy local art online. Check the artists’ websites and social media outlets to find out how you can do so.

Spread the word about local artists you like. Share their work on social media and with your friends and family.

Take advantage of digital and online learning options like webinars, video lessons, live stream or prerecorded classes.

Purchase gift certificates to be used in the future. “Buying gift certificates says, ‘We support the organization’ and it also says that we know we are going to be back. We will be back together someday.” — Stef Fedor


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