On the penultimate Friday of April 2022, the sunshine cuts through the cerulean sky. The bright light reflects off the pale orange and black brick Real Art Ways building in Hartford where people gather inside its theater to watch Call of the Forest: Forgotten Wisdom of the Trees. The smell of buttery popcorn from the concession stand permeates the theater amid hushed voices that fill the darkened room. A ball of energy seems to zip from person to person, as an event like this one would’ve been unthinkable two years ago. The film kick-started the Poets for a Greener World event hosted by the Connecticut Literary Festival to celebrate the earth almost two years after the state went into complete shutdown because of COVID-19. The pandemic wreaked havoc across the art community, changed established patterns for artists, and created unprecedented challenges. But it was their dedication to their craft, their determination, and their creativity that kept artists producing art throughout the pandemic.
Hailing from Hartford, but currently living in Bristol, Tim Adams, 27, plies his artistic trade as an actor for the Hole in the Wall Theater in New Britain, Connecticut. He has medium-length black hair, a beard, and sports a wide smile. Tim began acting in 2016 at the suggestion of a friend, when he was at Tunxis Community College. “I was like, I don’t know about this. But I auditioned. I got the part and I just loved it.” Adams says of his first acting role as Major Paul Petkoff in Arms the Man, which led him to discover his passion.
He later became involved with Hole in the Wall through their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The role he auditioned for only had four lines, but after being cast, he remained around the theater, where he currently serves as an officer on the theater’s board.
Part of the beauty in working at Hole in the Wall, according to Adams, is the diversity of plays that they get to choose, from Shakespeare to Modernism. When the pandemic hit, things paradoxically stopped yet kept going at the same time. The lockdowns and strict social restrictions of 2020 had Adams putting his acting plans on hold, though he saw an increased need to grow.o, he got to planning. “I felt pretty good about where I was, very hopeful about expanding, and doing more around Connecticut.” A unique set of challenges arose for performing artists. “With theater, the audience is a major factor. And I didn’t really realize how much it was until the audience was gone. We did some pre-recorded shows just because we really had no other option,” he explains over Webex with half an eye roll and a shudder. Other pandemic pains, Adams explains, were the safety precautions imposed, like the masks that hindered the actors from performing their roles effectively because they rely on facial expressions so much. And the social distancing measures that prevented them from feeling each other’s “vibes.”
Two years after the onset of the pandemic, Adams is filled with hope and ready to pull the curtain on COVID-19: “There are a lot of theaters that are really itching to go; everyone wants to do some shows. Everyone wants to do theater. And I think we all saw how much it meant to us, and how much it meant to the community.”
The United States is a country of brushes and bombs. The arts and all it encompasses make up 4.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, or $878 billion, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts. In contrast, the nation allotted $768 billion to the military budget in 2022. Independent artists (actors, writers, musicians, visual artists), or creatives not backed by big agencies and corporations, contributed $38 billion, or 4 percent of the total contributions. This is important because in an era where entertainment is becoming vital to Americans’ lives, independent artists remain the most vulnerable, and the data doesn’t tell the complete story of how COVID-19 affected them.
The pandemic brought many firsts for writer Lara Ehrlich. Author of Animal Wife, a collection of short stories which won 2018’s Red Hen Press Fiction Award, Ehrlich presents an interesting case study because she published her book in the middle of the pandemic. Ehrlich admits she’s always known she wanted to be a writer; she kept journals documenting her life, while also writing short stories and attempting to write novels. Ehrlich thought she wanted to be a journalist at first, and almost went to journalism school, but decided not to pursue it, but found her way back to journalism later. She was an editor for Boston University’s alumni magazines and did feature and news writing. “Anything having to do with stories is what I’m writing. At heart, it’s all about fiction,” she says over the phone.
SIx months before the pandemic, Ehrlich was in the middle of editing Animal Wife.
It came out in September 2020, five months after the world came to a screeching halt. This created a particular set of challenges for Ehrlich that writing did not prepare her for. Because of the prohibition of in-person activities across New England, events had to be moved online. All the advice she had received about promoting her book was no longer relevant in this brave new (masked) world.
“My means of promotion were no longer available, so I had to kind of rethink from scratch how to do a book promotion tour. And no one else knew how to do that yet,” she explains. Ehrlich had a Neil Armstrong moment. She capitalized on her experience as director of marketing for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas to re-imagine her book tour with online events, setting the standard for how authors should handle their mid-pandemic promotions in the process.
“I think that if you don’t have that inner drive, and that perseverance, it’s really hard to be a writer. Now more than ever, probably.”
Besides working on Animal Wife, Ehrlich also started an untitled book, during which she came to face a situation that challenged many mothers in the pandemic: balancing childcare with personal pursuits. Because Ehrlich’s daughter’s preschool closed, she was at home, so Ehrlich had to divide her time between child-rearing and writing. “That’s not unique to people who don’t have the means for childcare, and work, and try to write. It sort of leveled the playing field for people. But at the same time, women were really set back by this pandemic. Women’s rights, women’s advances in childcare and work-life balance—women sort of took the brunt of that situation,” Ehrlich explains with conspicuous deep passion in her voice ringing over the phone’s speaker, making it vibrate on the table.
Ehrlich took on these challenges with a specific approach. “I think that if you don’t have that inner drive, and that perseverance, it’s really hard to be a writer. Now more than ever, probably.” From this experience, Ehrlich learned that she is a driven person who takes on too much, and that the challenge lies in balancing, or trying to find harmony, with all the things she wants to do. Coming out of the pandemic, Ehrlich says, “I’m in the process of thinking about all these priorities and how to rearrange them so that I’m not driving myself crazy all the time. And I can prioritize writing more.”
Not only did independent artists have to adapt to the pandemic but also to a volatile industry that’s shifting towards subscription-based pricing models and social media engagement. Though it was recently reported that Netflix lost two hundred thousand subscribers in the first quarter of 2022 (and expected to lose up to two million in Q2), they are still one of the leading providers of streaming content, with approximately 68 million subscribers in the US, reported in Q2 of 2021 with a revenue of $2.9 billion. For comparison, music streaming service Spotify boasted 180 million paying subscribers worldwide at the end of 2021. But these on-demand companies are hurting the independent artist with their gatekeeping and business practices. Under pressure and with nowhere left to go, artists do the only thing they know what to do: produce art.
Craig Wall, 53, was born in New York, raised some in New Mexico, and eventually found his way back to the East Coast. Somewhere in between, he met Frank Zappa, fell in love with progressive rock, learned to play guitar, and dreamed of being in a successful band. Living in the Big Apple in his twenties, Wall pursued his musical aspirations for over twenty years, before a career in pedagogy and English literature instruction in many Connecticut schools. Though he is no longer interested in pursuing a traditional career in the music business, Wall still chases his dream through his Pink Floyd cover band, Eclipse, and solo endeavors.
A multi-instrumentalist, Wall has been playing for thirty-four years, but describes himself as a “casual” these days. He has short, thin, light brown hair, small but tense eyes, and a thin nose. His apartment, just off downtown Hartford, is as wide as his appreciation for music, which ranges from blues, soul, and jazz to KISS, Metallica and, of course, Pink Floyd.
“I most like to write. I started writing my own stuff, but I learned people’s music simply so I could deconstruct it and write my stuff from it.” Wall plucks voiceless notes from the air with his hands as he speaks, and continues. “That’s that chain from that chord to that chord. I liked that, I’m gonna steal that. But I would’ve learned it because I wanted to perform it. I wanted to learn it because I wanted to figure out what made it tick so that I could steal from it, you know?” He likens it to a painter using the best paints, or a sculptor using the best clays. Yet his musical philosophy would not prepare him for the personal struggles he faced during the isolating pandemic.
“COVID was like, ‘I’m gonna shake you to your core.’ And I’m like, well do. And I would say ‘do your worst.’”
Two weeks before officials reported the first COVID-19 case in Connecticut, Craig and his band, Eclipse, were on top of the world and on the cusp of greatness.
“We were about to go from playing bars and restaurants, to getting booked at Infinity Hall in Hartford,” Wall exclaims with longing in his voice and a gleam in his eye, staring into nothingness and crossing his right leg over his left knee. He rests his hands palms up on his right calf, and his thumbs and index fingers tune imaginary radio dials, searching for a signal. His face contorts into a grimace as he fast forwards time, and the days pass him by in his head, until the pandemic sets in. Wall says the venue postponed the booking by a couple of weeks. Then a couple of weeks more—until they canceled it. Then he faced the loss of two of his band brothers.
Instead of retreating and disbanding, Craig demurred from the challenges that he faced, and went to work to replace the departing guitarist and bassist. “Literally in two texts,” he gestures a two with his index and middle fingers and makes himself comfortable on his couch before continuing, “the first two people that I contacted, they came into the band. They said, ‘Sure, we’ll do it.’”
He faced the pandemic with marked optimism. Fueled by his passion for music, heartbreak, and a never-say-die attitude, Wall kept his band together. Despite some initial protestation from the other band members about their future and the lack of gigs because of the restrictions, they made their keyboardist’s garage their new Woodstock, and continued playing the music they loved. “COVID was like, ‘I’m gonna shake you to your core.’ And I’m like, well do. And I would say ‘do your worst.’”
What Adams, Ehrlich, and Wall all have in common is that, despite the insurmountable odds created by the pandemic, they continued producing art. Calamity has a way of inspiring creative types. Artists in the past have responded to tragedy in different ways. It lies on some sort of existentialist spectrum. On the end of absurdism, we have the artists of the 1918 Flu, like Schiele and Munch, and their complete obsession with abstraction and meaninglessness, scarred by the industrial death toll of the first World War and the invisible enemy taking the lives of their loved ones. Or, on the other end, there is the work of Xavier Cortdada, who drew attention to the climate change crisis with his 2018 installation Underwater HOA, a participatory art installation in which he highlights how many feet of glacial water must melt before coastal waters submerge residences and businesses in the Village of Pinecrest, just south of Miami. Nevertheless, the production of art never ceases regardless of tragedy and adversity, which speaks to the will of artists to work through hardships.
It is 9:30 p.m., and the poets at Real Art Ways are still engaged in the main gallery, telling their stories of the pandemic and reading their poems to celebrate Earth Day, almost as if the pandemic is all but a distant memory. Outside, the air has grown cool, and the wind has picked up. The sky has grown darker as the last rays of twilight hang on as the starless void of the cosmos encroaches them. Like a flower in bloom against the deep dark, the state will continue to reopen, galvanized by the nutrients of the work of artists who did not give up through the worst of the pandemic, and are now ready to share their art with Connecticut, and the rest of the world, once again.
Header image credit: nktwentythree.
Danny Contreras is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine
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