Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has not stifled creativity for North Perth artists

·13 min read

NORTH PERTH – For many local artists, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a burst of creativity, but it has also hampered their connection to an audience.

Gary Moon, a founding member of the North Perth Arts and Culture Council said the pandemic eliminated the public connection with artists and their artwork. The council’s biggest project was art displays at the Listowel branch of the North Perth Public Library, but with the library shut down or restricted, so were most of the displays in 2020.

“Starting in mid-fall we switched it to a video format and we have continued it,” he said. “You can’t see any work at the library for obvious reasons, but we’ve continued with it and we’ve had new people to town as artists since then.”

The Arts Council has been using its website and Facebook page to provide the background information and present the artwork from the artist. Currently, the Artist of the Month is booked through April.

“It’s been working really cool,” said Moon. “It’s getting numbers for us and numbers for the artists. We always knew there was a good number of people seeing the artwork in the library … we were getting great comments.”

But Moon compared displaying art to music – live is best. A four-feet by five-feet painting loses some of its impact when viewed on a 10-inch screen.

“It’s the environment that is suffering a little bit … if you have a six-foot tall, three-dimensional sculpture, it doesn’t always translate to a flat screen,” he said. “I don’t care how big the flat screen is.”

Moon feels the biggest thing missing during the pandemic has been the connection between the artists and the viewing public or the potential buyer.

“You don’t get the feedback where people say I like that or it makes me feel happy or it makes me feel sad,” he said. “We just haven’t been able to do that for the last year. It’s important to the creative process.”

As far as Moon has seen, creativity for local artists hasn’t been affected in over the past year.

“People who are presenting for our Artist of the Month are presenting new work, so I think if you have the opportunity as an artist, if an idea strikes you – you go to the artwork,” he said. “It’s just the nature of the beast but you might not have as many opportunities or you might have more … If something comes up then you have to prioritize and sometimes that isn’t very high on the list of other stuff is happening.”

Moon still gets creative when he can, but because he doesn’t want to damage his equipment he doesn’t do a lot in the wintertime.

“I don’t like to put my camera at risk for extreme cold or dampness,” he said. “It’s just a freaky, you’ve got to be ready for the moment to get it to work – like a hoarfrost in the morning, you’ve got a very small window before the sun melts it off.”

The Arts Council executive is planning to start meetings again to look at plans for events this fall.

“We are working on plans for stuff later on this year,” said Moon. “We’re not going away; we’re just trying to reinvent but you can only reinvent so far because you might get two-days’ notice that we’re clamped down again.”

Jevon Coxon, a local musician and owner of Back Alley Sound Studio, was able to keep his business functioning as a recording studio but was not always able to offer music lessons over the past year.

“Recording studios, rehearsal studios and production studios were allowed to operate with a COVID mandate,” he said.

Just before things shut down last March and concerts were cancelled, Coxon had landed a spot in a Leonard Cohen tribute band. The obvious setbacks caused by the pandemic have kept that project from moving ahead with the theatre bookings that had been anticipated, but Back Alley Sound Studios has allowed the band to get together to work on promotional recordings and video that will have them set for promotional material when concerts resume.

“It’s a project of a booking house out of Toronto,” he said. “It’s been four or five years since Leonard Cohen died. They truly believe there is a market for a Leonard Cohen project.”

Bob Shea, the man who will be Leonard Cohen in the project, stayed at the Country Inn and over a weekend they recorded five songs while following public health recommendations to make the session COVID safe. It was all documented by videographer Mark Hughes.

“It is intended to be a promotional tool for the booking house,” said Coxon. “Hopefully they are going to look at it and go ‘Wow, we want to go with it.’”

For Coxon, the last year has led to some pretty great things on the horizon. He has been working on original music for the first time in years.

“I was sending them to Gregg Dechert and it motivated him too,” he said. “We’ve been trying to do an album for years … I’m such a solitary person and he is too, that was totally within our ten-person bubble for the whole year.”

Through his return to his music, he ended up connecting with Robi Banerji. Banerji, now living in Waterloo, is a producer who has spent time in Los Angeles recording a diverse range of world-famous bands such as The Rolling Stones, Herbie Hancock and Rancid.

“He has been here and likes the environment,” said Coxon. “Right now he said he has about four projects he would like to bring to use (Back Alley Sound) as a tracking studio.”

It’s been a frustrating year financially, and Coxon said he was thankful for Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in 2020.

“I’ve talked to several other musicians that said the same thing – CERB was necessary,” said Coxon. “I have the luxury of a very supportive family … but CERB has been the main thing for sure.”

He feels lucky as a musician that he has students and a little bit of a legitimate recording reputation.

“Not a lot of other musicians that I know have that to help out either,” said Coxon. He said he knows musicians that he believes are at a higher level than himself but are delivering parts or driving a truck to pay the bills when they would normally be playing six days a week.

“I look at the last year as being a growing year for me as a person and as a business,” he said. “I certainly hope that live performing comes back because I love to play music in front of people, but for me it’s always been about creating … I love sitting back listening to a piece of music that I just spent a month on, or I got inspired and I stayed up all night and wrote a new song and here it is. It’s that kind of thing I’m doing now anyway.”

It has been easy to adapt the studio for recording during COVID since it is an environment where vocalists work behind glass in isolation booths.

“It’s nice my facility lends itself to keeping people separate,” said Coxon. “Then it was the sort of thing that you are supposed to be under a ten-person limit. The way I generally do things is the only people in the room are the ones that are needed … We never had two vocalists in the same room at the same time. I guess in a way a lot of it doesn’t change. The people that are here wear masks and social distance respectively… There are only two people left anyways. It’s kind of a funny thing.”

Another local artist who has found some success adapting her art to the pandemic is Megan Myke, who has been able to connect with an audience using Facebook Live for Painting with Megan videos.

“I know that when I make art that I feel good and it’s therapeutic in a sense to me,” she said. “It kind of gives your mind a break so I continue to do the videos because I know the benefits and I know from feedback from other people that it’s beneficial for them.”

It has not been tough for Myke to find inspiration during the pandemic.

“Art is my passion … I always have ideas in my mind that I want to do,” she said. “But, if I’m working a lot then it’s harder to get the motivation to do it because being busy takes energy. When I can, then I paint. I paint at least two times a week.”

She had in-person art classes booked before the pandemic but those got cancelled and it pushed her to go online.

“I was always kind of nervous to do that but … I knew that it was going to help people so I wanted to put it out there because more people were off and looking for things to do,” said Myke. “It’s something to look forward to, something to do. I have had a lot of good feedback.”

She has also offered some private lessons via Zoom, and when things were starting to open more in the fall, she held an art fundraiser event at the Legion.

“I wanted to help raise money for the Listowel Salvation Army,” said Myke. “I had myself there and other vendors. It was really fun because I had sold a couple of pieces of my art and I donated half of my income to the Salvation Army and the other vendors also chose the amount they wanted to donate. All together we raised over $400 that day.”

People have shown interest in another art show, but she is waiting to see what restrictions will be on events in the spring before making any plans.

“You don’t want to let people down so I’m just staying online for now, which is going well,” she said.

Pete Galway is a semi-retired stained-glass artist who spent 38 years working for a studio, so the pandemic has not been too hard on his work.

“I did some work over the past year but not a whole heck of a lot,” he said. “It was difficult to meet with clients and, of course, potential future work is kind of shut down a little bit because everybody is staying inside.”

According to Galway, decorative glass which will become part of a home is usually made by couples and with limits on shopping this year there has been fewer people coming to him to make those types of purchases.

“I guess I’ve been using this year – I’ve not been sitting on my duff put it this way – I’ve been using my craft and my art to try to pass the time,” he said. “I’ve made things here and there – probably two or three assorted things every week. So, once we do have a chance to have a show, I will have things. I won’t have to scramble and make stuff so I guess that’s a blessing.”

Galway said the pandemic has not been bad for creativity but the real problem has been getting the work to the people.

“We need people interacting,” he said. “That’s what you kind of feed off of, too. It’s not the same talking to somebody online or with Zoom. Maybe we can harness the creativity that’s been formed and in that sense maybe it will end up being a half-decent thing in the long run.”

Over the last year, he has received requests from people interested in private lessons but until the pandemic over he has no plans to teach classes.

When the lockdown first hit last March, local musician Erik Begg suddenly found himself with a whole bunch of time and felt inspired.

“There was a bunch of stuff that I had in the queue that I hadn’t had time to work on,” he said. “So I had a productive April and I did a 13-song solo album where I just recorded all the instruments and had a bit of fun with it.”

But as the pandemic went on, his creative spark fizzled out.

“I tend to be goal-driven so if there are no goals and there are no shows within the foreseeable future it’s tough to keep motivated,” he said. “However, in the last few months I have sort of kicked my ass back into gear and I’ve done a few streaming shows. Not necessarily because I was expecting to do a whole lot with the music or turn up new fans … I feel I have to play periodically or I’m just going to get weird and twitchy.”

Not being able to play live shows has been frustrating for Begg because playing music has been a big part of his life for almost 35 years. Over the last year, most of the venues he has played have closed.

“I can think of three in Ontario that I’ve played that are still alive,” he said. “It’s so much weirder doing a show through my phone … I just turned 49. I started when I was 15. I don’t know what else to do with myself. So now and then I have to get on stage and act like an ass just to reset everything.”

Begg thinks that when things open up and people are allowed to get back to concerts there will be a lot of pent up demand.

“Like at the end of the previous major pandemic, we had the roaring 20s where everything goes and it was just a wild time for a few years,” he said. “I’m expecting there is going to be a lot of pent up demand for live music and live events and there may be a short-term explosion where a lot of stuff happens and there is a lot of excitement and then it may peter out again.”

North Perth Mayor Todd Kasenberg would be interested in seeing arts and music-based festivals showcasing local talent when the time comes for people to gather again.

By the fall, Kasenberg believes the community will have enough experience with the vaccine and be used to masking, and that it may be a prime time for a celebration of local arts.

“I think what we have to concern ourselves with is that there are great people in our midst who are artists and who make a living, or at least part of their living, from art,” said Kasenberg. “The pandemic has very likely curtailed some of that. We must not, in our desire to celebrate, in our desire to bring the richness of the arts back amongst us be cheap and not pay those artists. That will be the temptation. The starving artist is a very real trope in society and that’s a shame.”

He encourages people to value arts and the artists that create them.

“In some ways, the income security programs that have been wrapped around the pandemic have been really helpful to artists in allowing them to at least not worry about the roof over their head and the food they put in their mouths,” said Kasenberg. “It gives them some security so that they can create, and wouldn’t it be nice if this were an enduring thing. In some cases, CERB has stabilized the household income and in some cases raised it. I think we have to allow for the fact that I think there is going to be some pain when these income supports are removed from the system.”

Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner