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Illinois Artists Hurt And Heal During Coronavirus Pandemic

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"Dystopian Bath House"

Artists throughout Illinois have been hit particularly hard by the social distancing effects of the coronavirus pandemic. For many, their primary source of income has dried up as gigs and events have been canceled.

For this week’s Illinois Issues report, Sam Dunklau gathered stories of their struggles and their solutions for keeping creativity alive during a global pandemic.  

Rockford painter Laura Gomel. Courtesy Laura Gomel

For Rockford painter Laura Gomel, virus-related shutdowns have dealt a huge blow. She owns an art gallery, teaches art classes, and even enters her own work in shows. That typically keeps her busy six days a week, but all of that has been canceled or postponed because of COVID-19.

“That’s the biggest thing, I don’t have any income,” Gomel explained. “At all. Zero, and I don’t know when I’m gonna have some…because my job depends on people, [on] interacting with people. That’s what I do for a living.”

For now, she’s at home, caring for her nine year old daughter who has Down Syndrome. Gomel said she’s keeping busy; she’s helping with school work and cleaning her house. But she’s usually at her art studio, painting acrylic portraits and scenes to sell.

“Ideas just never stop coming out of my head. I constantly have something I’m working on and…I’m just flatlining.”

It’s a familiar scene across Illinois. State and local authorities have put the kibosh on big crowds in an effort to contain the new coronavirus. The social scene as many of us know it is all but gone for now, leaving many artists and performers out of a job.

Mary McNamara Bernsten, who directs the Rockford Area Arts Council, is on the front lines of the struggle.

“I shudder to think about it, because on one hand, I think this is when great art gets made,” she said, “but this is when great artists suffer.”

McNamara Bernsten said advocacy groups like hers are also suffering because of the coronavirus. The Council had to cancel a big city-wide art gallery festival, which would have  given artists as many as 10,000 new clients and creators to talk with.

Mary McNamara Bernsten directs the Rockford Arts Council. Courtesy Mary McNamara Bernsten

“I think artists grow from working with other artists and speaking with them and looking at each other’s work, in person,” she reasoned. “I think those conversations that are not able to happen between artists are really the loss.”

Farther down the road in central Illinois, music students at the state’s largest university are feeling that same loss. Bands like the Illinois Wind Symphony at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign should be rehearsing for their spring concert season.

But because of coronavirus restrictions, its conductor, Steve Peterson, is lecturing remotely. When I chatted with him, he was in the Colorado mountains and had just finished teaching his first remote class.

UIUC is one of the many schools that canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester. While that might be ok for some majors, big group events are the lifeblood of music students. Without them, it’s just not the same, and senior students don’t have the time to wait.

“I feel really, really, really bad for our seniors,” Peterson said. “They’re devastated that they can’t finish their year at school, that they can’t finish their year with their colleagues, that they can’t have commencement.”

But to make up for it, Peterson said he’s offering students nine different remote options for finishing his class, aiming to keep things as normal and as flexible as possible.

“There’s a lot of stress in our lives right now and some of these students might be home, you know, babysitting their brother or sister and they just can’t do what we want when we want, so we’re trying to be as sensitive as we can,” he explained.

That’s one of the bright spots in all of this: amateurs and pros alike are all getting creative with, well, getting creative. Take Springfield’s Theatre in the Park organization. Directors were supposed to be hosting in-person auditions for summertime shows, but instead they’ve asked actors to submit video auditions.

Adam Reisch, the theatre’s president, said their first show is scheduled for May and is, as of press time, still happening.

Brett Whitacre is a muralist in Rockford. Brett Whitacre/Facebook

“The show must go on, and with the arts, you just have to roll with the punches and work with the situations that you’re given,” Reisch said.

Back in Rockford, musicians are giving online lessons, organizations are connecting artists with one another, and individuals are reminding people they’re still creating.

Muralist Brett Whitacre is among them. He still has several commissions he has to finish, but in the meantime he’s reaching out to his social media followers for ideas, for jobs, and for hope.

“Artists are good problem solvers by nature,” he said. “Struggle is good. Everybody needs to feel it every once in a while. Hopefully it doesn’t beat too many of us down.”

To keep that from happening, musicians like Springfield’s Silas Tockey are live-streaming bedroom concerts every day. He usually hosts an open mic in the city’s downtown on Monday nights, but like so many others, is now cooped up at home instead.

“I was just trying to remind people on my live stream; we’re here all the time,” Tockey said.

“Artists and musicians and comedians and poets are the reason life isn’t boring all the time.”

Copyright 2020 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

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