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Casper artists share the ways they've stayed creative during the coronavirus pandemic
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Casper artists share the ways they've stayed creative during the coronavirus pandemic

Clint Saunders of Casper created an art piece in response to socially isolating during the pandemic.

The pandemic has changed some of his professional and personal creative modes more than others. He’s a visual artist with his own photography business as well as an actor and director in local theater productions and founder of his own dinner theater company. He’s for years remotely taught photography and visual art at Dakota College of Bottineau in North Dakota, so video conference classes aren’t new to him. But his photography business focused on gymnastics and dance studios is on hold, and Stage III Community Theater and his Outlaw Theater Productions have canceled shows.

“And what I love for myself personally is that I get the same benefit from all art. So whether I’m creating visual art in photography or whether I’m acting or directing or putting on a play, I find it equally rewarding,” he said. “It’s just this need in me to create, to express. And as long as I can do that through some medium, I feel complete.”

He’s seen a large increase in art during the pandemic with many people creating more than usual because they’re isolated and have more time.

“So I see a lot of artists using the extra time to create, so they’re creating more than they have for years,” he said. “And then also, I honestly believe this myself, I can’t speak for all artists, but for most artists I know personally and myself definitely, we create as a means of expression. It’s just how we get through things. And when we’re feeling depressed or feeling upset or we’re feeling anxious or whatever, we tend to create. So it becomes an outlet.”

Expressing

Saunders and his theater collaborators have found it tough to lose their outlet as performers. His company members are rehearsing through video conferencing.

“And I’m very fortunate that I have the visual arts as an outlet too,” he said. “So I’ve created an art piece. It kind of summed up the way I felt about it, and that really helped me.”

Earlier this month he shared “Two Years of Isolation,” a new piece inspired by the realization that social distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 would be much longer than two weeks.

“And it was like, this is already going to change the world so much, but what if it goes on for two years?” he said. “How long can people take it? How long before the breakdown?”

The piece also comes from noticing the way everyone looks at one another at the grocery store or gas pumps.

“So the possibility of it dragging out over several years, and then just the idea that even when this does finally end, I think things are socially going to be different,” he said. “I think we’re going to be afraid of that human contact. It’s just conditioned response. And the longer it goes on, the worse it is going to get.”

The main character in the scene is a wooden artists mannequin Saunders photographed because live models aren’t an option. Plastic modeling dummies become other characters. He digitally combined new photographs of the mannequin, a boot, a wood sculpture he created and other objects at his home along with images from previous photographs, like a desert and vultures, which he dressed in business suits and face masks. Saunders added more than 20 layers to add a weathered texture to the mannequin, created rust textures and other effects for other characters and spent many hours to create effects of footprints and drifting sand.

His blurb with the image begins with, “The earth was under attack by a deadly virus, so it created an antibody to attack the virus so it could heal. The antibody, COVID 19, forced man into isolation so man could protect themselves against the antibody.”

The main character “desperate for contact with others” ventures through the desert in search of a cure and finds a gate, which is a sculpture Saunders created called “The Precarious and Delicate Balance of Life.”

Saunders had already been sharing an art piece a day on Facebook in response to the election season when social media has filled with “so much hate and visceral arguing and smear campaigns,” he said. Most of his posts are previous pieces that happen to fit with the times now, he said.

“And then the whole coronavirus on top of it,” he said. “You know, where the whole world is just kind of shutting down, and I thought, you know what? This is just really a time to share art instead of the ugliness.”

Art has been crucial in his life before the pandemic.

“You know, my whole life, I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for my ability to create, because that’s just how I cope with everything is art,” he said. “For me, and I think most artists that I know, it’s a need. And I’m just not myself if I’m not creating. And I don’t feel good. I get very depressed. I get overwhelmed. And I have to create something regardless of what it is or what the cause is. I’m depressed if I’m not. So it’s literally like a physical need for me and for most artists that I know.”

Finding motivation

Susan Stubson‘s concert at the Jackson Center for the Arts was canceled because of the pandemic along with all her other performances have been indefinitely postponed. The professional pianist and Casper attorney finds herself more focused when she has commitments on her calendar.

“But for me, as a performing artist, I need an audience,” she said. “You know, there is something always magical that happens that typically does not happen in my living room, practicing by myself. I’m at my best in a live performance. I need that energy.”

She knew she needed to keep creating and keep her skills sharp, but that she needs a goal, something to prepare for when she sits down at her piano. Every musician has different inner motivations.

“It’s like a sport, right?” she said. “I mean, if you are a world-class sprinter, you cannot stop sprinting. You have to keep shooting for that four-minute mile or that sub-20 50-meter dash. So you have to keep your fingers in shape. So you have to do something.”

So she decided to learn, memorize and perform one of Deminico Scarlatti’s nearly 600 sonatas a week and plans to post performances on her Facebook page. She’s also returned to “meat and potatoes” repertoire like relearning Chopin etudes as many artists have done, she said. Besides maintaining her skills, Stubson finds music to be a comfort.

“I think, frankly, anything that you do that you can turn off the news, shut off the TV, shut down your laptop and sit at your instrument and just wholly focus on that, is hugely cathartic because that doesn’t change. The piano doesn’t change,” she said. “You know, your craft, that lifelong pursuit of being the best musician is actually should not be affected in any way, right? And I think that there’s just something very calming about just sitting at the piano bench, shutting the door and playing the piano.”

She believes it should be artists who set the tone and tenor for their communities about how to be creative during oftentimes dark and correspondingly hopeful times and to show that beautiful things can come from the challenging times. She’s seeing it happen with people creating works of art, compositions and recordings and sharing them online by the hour.

“We find out our light in those dark places where we can,” she said.

Time to create

Kelly Walsh High School band director Brent Rose posted videos on social media of himself playing his tuba and other instruments in part to motivate his students during the two weeks schools were closed before classes resumed online. Normally, the time he devotes to music is spent conducting, directing and teaching, he said. The downtime has given him a chance to create more music himself than he had in five years.

Besides his tuba, he’s been playing acoustic guitar and the electric bass while revisiting music going back to cover bands he played in during college. He’s also learning on his new electric guitar because he’s always wanted to play heavy metal guitar.

“So to get back to just getting one-on-one with my instrument, it’s been so good for my soul,” he said. “I just have all my instruments out; they’re not cased up; it’s almost like they’ve been brought back to life. And it’s just been a lot of fun.”

Often he listens to music to study scores, while recent free time gave a chance to listen to any kind of music he’d want. There’s numerous options online these days, from the United States Marine Band concerts to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s posted performances to Broadway crews’ impromptu virtual shows, he said.

He saw a post on Facebook of an empty rehearsal room that said when someone drops the baton for the first time to start the music, people are going to start to cry. He’s not sure if high school students will cry when they’re all back together, but their directors might.

“And the first time that we make music together, I think even the kids who won’t want to admit it will well recognize how important it is to them,” Rose said. “Sometimes we go so fast we forget.”

Connecting and creating

Part of Alyss Smith’s job as a freelance marketer is to create Facebook groups. But she started the Cool Cat Quarantine Facebook group to build a community when she knew she’d be isolated staying home to socially distance.

She wanted the group to be a place that was inclusive where people could create and share without feeling intimidated.

“And I wanted it to be a place where people could reach out if they needed to if they weren’t doing well,” she said. “And also, a big thing was just to laugh. Humor to me has been such a healing mechanism throughout my entire life. And that was another thing that I wanted people to be able to do, is to just like go in there and feel like a lightheartedness about it.”

The 450 members share their visual art, live music and poetry, cooking and other art forms as well as art they like, information about resources for artist and humorous images, videos and memes.

Smith created the Spread Love, Wyoming Facebook group at the request of a Cool Cat Quarantine member where people share their decorated windows, yards and messages outside their homes to cheer neighbors and essential workers.

Smith posted that people don’t need to be productive or share to have value, and a member commented that she comes to page to see what others are doing and finds hope. Many members begin posts by saying they’re not an artist. They don’t identify as an artist, but Smith considers anyone who creates art an artist.

“There are a lot of people in there that have never really like explored a certain medium,” she said. “And it’s really cool to see them share every day how they’re doing even better.”

Smith creates mixed media and digital art for fun.

“It’s like not serious, but I guess it’s kind of the point of the group, too, is to say, like, ‘You don’t have to be a professional, you don’t have to even be really skilled to be able to tell your story or to be able to create for catharsis or even distraction,” she said.

The group is helping, she said. She’s branched more from digital collages to creating collage cards and postcards to send to people in the group. She’s learning watercolor and digital illustration in online classes. She’s creating something daily partly to share with the group.

It’s a time when everything is up in the air and people are grieving.

“And I don’t know if I feel it quite like grief, but it does feel like everything has just exploded and dropped to the ground,” she said. “And I feel like I have to make meaning. And if I’m not like making that meaning, I feel lost and confused. So I guess, like, every time I make something, I feel like more grounded in my story.”

Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner

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