It was inevitable. As soon as one or more of the pundits coined the phrase “life in the time of the pandemic,” we reached onto the bookshelf of memory and pulled down the copy of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s life-changing volume Love in the Time of Cholera.
This is the moment in which we live. COVID-19 is our pandemic, but it seemed to have ties to other moments in history when time stopped, when commerce ground to a halt, when lives were lost and when the mere notion of tomorrow seemed frightening.
Across the span of history, when monumental things have happened, the most penetrating insights and responses have come from the arts. Across the spectrum of painting and poetry, sculpture and song, plays, films and novels, artists have captured the nature of the moment, laid it bare and brought light, beauty and hope to otherwise dark times. Picasso’s Guernica commemorates the slaughter of an entire village in a conflict that has drifted into vague memory, yet the work is honored as one of his greatest commentaries on life and continues to engage and envelope the viewer’s imagination. The avant garde (when it was first produced in 1967) rock musical Hair jolted audiences by combining lyrical music with on-stage nudity and a decidedly strong anti-war message that charmed and gently invited the audience to enter the “age of Aquarius.” The play may seem dated. The lyrical melodies live on.
How can you show your work now, who will see it?
For artists attempting to navigate the current pandemic, the notion of “making art” has been too often supplanted by the demands of “making the rent” and, most primally, “making dinner.” The painter’s studio may be in a spare bedroom or in the attic, but once the piece is finished, who will see it? The galleries have been shuttered, the usual barrage of shows in libraries and churches have either ceased to exist, or been transferred to that ethereal place know as “virtual, online.”
The summer of 2020 came and went without fairs and art shows, just as theaters were left empty, live music ceased to be heard through the hills and restaurants that featured itinerant musicians on weekends resorted to Styrofoam take-out boxes and bags imprinted with hopeful “happy faces.”
Art is still alive – is it thriving?
As the situation became more dire for individuals trying to make a living in the arts, an experiment was imagined by several cooperating groups that has become a viable effort at connecting audiences with artists and keeping the notion of art alive in the region.
With seed funding from the Northwest Connecticut Economic Development Corporation, the Northwest Connecticut Arts Council made a choreographed effort to keep its mission alive in the time of pandemic – “…To engage the public in building a strong and connected arts and culture community that is integral to the economic development and the collective wellbeing of the region.”
With the dedicated focus of Steph Burr, the executive director who assumed that role just as the pandemic began to impact all of life, and Maddie Stenson, program director for the Council, a first step in supporting the broader community of artists was to reach out for contributions to help defray basic expenses for artists who were isolated, without means of generating income, and who were struggling to keep focus.
Once that fund was exhausted, a new challenge presented itself. The Council wanted to keep the benefits of creating and acquiring art in the perception of the public. While an individual artist may have a following and have created an online commerce portal to, hopefully, keep their livelihoods intact, the task of discovery was daunting. Expanding an audience was a real challenge. How to start, again, to have the arts re-born, when the challenges and constraints are so great?
“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”
– Gabriel García Márquez, “Love in the Time of Cholera”
THE place to shop for art
The NWCT Artist Shop Directory became the answer to the challenge of making, viewing, and acquiring art less onerous. Perhaps if more people could easily and efficiently “shop” for art, there would be more commerce and a better result for both sides of the exchange.
The task at hand for Burr and Stenson was to research the e-commerce sites for artists working in the 25 town coverage area of the Council and invite them to be part of a larger effort. Each artist’s work needed some sort of curatorial evaluation in order to keep the quality of the pieces offered at a level that would entice, not repel customers. With just over 100 dues-paying artist members of the Council, the starting point was clear. The number of artists within the Litchfield Hills, however, is known to be significant, so the research and review process became a challenge.
Within weeks of announcing the development of the Directory, over 250 artists were identified, contacted, applied for inclusion on the site, and were vetted for participation. With the scope and reach of a grand art festival sprawling across a verdant summer hillside, the NWCT Artist Shop Directory has created a platform for one-on-one interaction with the region’s artists. As a start-up effort, it was determined that no fees would be charged for inclusion on the site and no commissions would be expected for work sold through the directory.
“For 2021, we’re going to make inclusion in the Directory part of membership,” offered program director Maddie Stenson. “There won’t be any additional fee to be connected, but we do want the artists who are in the Directory to be part of the broader Arts Council community.”
What you’ll find in the Directory
The range of artist shops presented on the site is both expansive and inclusive. Original art – painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture – as well as pottery and jewelry offerings would be expected. The Directory offers many more creative pieces, however, including stationery, apparel, prints, furniture and home décor, bath and herbal products, and a special section just for kids.
The Directory is an aggregation, a portal that provides access to artist’s sites. Once into the Directory, the viewer can narrow the search, review the offerings, then “click through” to see the specific works offered.
Apparel may seem like a broad topic, but once inside that category, the options are carefully delineated. Clothing, bags, hats and scarves, hair accessories and … of course … face masks are all offered.
As we push our disinfected cart through the local grocery store, we may not consider the ubiquitous blue and white face masks we encounter to be art, but when one indulges in a visit to “The Beekeepers Basket” in Burlington, “That’s Sew Gracie” in Torrington or “Milagiand J” in New Milford, all without leaving the computer keyboard, the possibilities become many and delightful.
Making a statement
Art makes a statement, whether on the walls of our homes, in the clothes we wear, or the accent piece of custom made jewelry that adorns our ears or fingers. Finding an easy avenue to the art world in a time of pandemic may not fully ease the burdens of isolation and social distancing, but it will provide moments of revelation and release.
Acquiring art allows us to invest more of our thinking and emotion in beauty than we may be used to on a day-to-day basis. It may not be too far a reach to consider that investment to be just a small moment of rebirth … of imagination, of appreciation and of satisfaction.
So, if we may borrow from the master, we commend the NWCT Virtual Artist Shop for your consideration in a time of pandemic, eagerly hope for a brighter future filled with beautiful things … and close with another moment of wisdom.
“The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good.” – Gabriel García Márquez, “Love in the Time of Cholera” •
The NWCT Artist Shop Directory can be accessed at www.artsnwct.org/shops.