by Sharon H. Chang
It has been said that life depends on science, but the arts make it worth living. So what role do artists play during a pandemic? A really big one. There is ample research showing the many benefits of the arts: improved mood, increased cognitive function, even boosted immunity. From streaming performances to online workshops and movement classes, Seattle artists are helping people find hope and inspiration during the COVID-19 outbreak even as they struggle themselves.
The need for art
In a series of one-on-one interviews artists talked about the pandemic, the importance of art, and how they have been impacted. Leanna Keith is a freelance flutist, improviser, and composer. She is also a flute instructor for Cornish College of the Arts. “In times of crisis, music becomes more necessary than ever,” she said. “People need art.”
“Everything you touch, an artist has touched before you,” said Jake Prendez. “We’re a vibrant part of community.” Prendez is an award-winning Chicano visual artist who runs Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery on the border of West Seattle and White Center. The gallery hosts monthly exhibitions focused on art by and about marginalized communities and communities of color.
“I really believe the arts create a situation [in] which we are compelled to live,” said J Mase III, Black/trans/queer poet, performer, author and educator recently seen in the acclaimed dance-theatre production Black Bois at Seattle’s Moore Theater. “There is going to be a lot of depression during the pandemic and the arts can ground us in a reality in which we’re able to envision a future.”
“Artists are also important keepers of history” J Mase III continued. “They are cultural workers and documenters. They innovate on the ground, connect people together, and create better conditions for creative problem solving.”
Michael B. Maine, a freelance photographer and creative consultant, could not agree more. He said looking at historical art helps him reflect on the impacts of Covid-19 today. For example, how did artists raise awareness around diseases like HIV/AIDS? “What kind of art was created,” he asked, “when people started being like ‘oh wait these are humans infected with something [not] the boogeyman?’”
“How would you notice anything without art?” asked Nic Masangkay, a queer trans Filipinx singer-songwriter, music producer, and poet. “As artists we are, and have always been, archiving in real time, paying attention to what so many overlook as mundane, everyday life, the very things that indicate what leads to global shutdown, pandemic, loss of love, violence.”
Angel Alviar-Langley (aka ‘Moonyeka’) is a queer mixed-Filipinx femme movement-based storyteller. She has long turned to art to navigate hard times and is being responsive with her art now by creating a lot. For her, “Art has always been a resilience practice.”
The impact on artists
Society needs art and artists, especially in a time of outbreak, yet Seattle artists were some of the earliest and worst economically hit by the pandemic. A couple months loss of income can have long-lasting impacts upon an artist’s career or may even devastate it.
When the first U.S. cases of COVID-19 began spreading in King County, Maine lost all photography bookings for the next two months. Masangkay’s March gigs were canceled and the studio where they work was closed until further notice. J Mase III, who travels the college tour circuit, was grounded March and most of April. Keith had eight shows booked in March that were canceled immediately. April performances were canceled shortly thereafter, and now Keith is seeing May bookings canceled too.
Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery was shut down when Gov. Inslee ordered statewide closure of restaurants, bars, and recreation spaces on March 16. The young gallery had just celebrated its one-year anniversary and Prendez worries about its future. “I think for artists, we’re used to hustling,” said Prendez. “But, you know, this is my first business…I’ve got to pay rent on this place too.”
Langley had a big residency outside the city that was canceled, along with all the supplemental performances she had planned. Now homebound in Seattle, she cannot teach in person and most of her in-person classes have been canceled. She is worried about paying for food and bills.
Strategies for survival
“I’m seeing artist left and right starting to apply for other jobs,” said Keith, “because we’re all terrified.” Keith’s partner, a full-time videographer, is washing windows to make ends meet. Maine is wondering if he needs to cancel his summer event, We Out Here, celebrating Black people actively involved in their communities. “A lot of the artists that I want to bring into this space may not be practicing by the time June rolls around,” said Maine. “They might have picked up traditional jobs.”
Thankfully, there are multiple artist relief funds available including Ijeoma Oluo’s early Seattle Artist Relief Fund, which has been joined by additional relief efforts from Artist Trust, 4Culture, and ArtsFund and others. These funds will help some artists get by temporarily.
In the meantime, artists are going to keep doing what they know how to do best: make art, show up for their communities, and draw from the wisdom of their lived experiences.
“It’s all about thinking of creative ways of surviving,” said Prendez. Nepantla Gallery has turned its Lotería-themed March art show into a virtual exhibition. People can still experience, appreciate, and buy the art at the gallery’s website. Prendez is also working on a YouTube channel to offer free, online art workshops.
Michael B. Maine has a spacious photography studio in Pioneer Square which, until recently, he was offering free to artists of color to continue making their art. J Mase III just led a free artist workshop online about healing and creating for Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists. He has more online workshops coming up.
Keith says she wants to stay active because she wants people to have things that make them smile. She has started a weekly online music history class and is livestreaming flute performances every Friday on her Facebook page. “We’re here,” said Keith of musicians like herself trying to survive. “We’re still alive. We’re still making music.”
Langley is hosting a movement webinar called Crooks, Crevices, + COVID-19. She will be co-facilitating a Queer, Trans, People of Color (QTPOC) book club and writing series called Kuwento, which means “story” in Tagalog. The group will read QTPOC science fiction, fantasy, and erotica. “I’m really leaning into the deep wisdoms and resiliency practices that have been going prior to COVID-19 and that my communities have been doing for a long time,” said Langley.
Masangkay is planning on releasing a low fidelity, bedroom, pop mixtape soon and is writing daily. “I’m archiving the everyday-ness of what’s going on,” they said. “Part of it is what I’ve been doing anyway and part of it is a new nuance of what does it mean right now, in the COVID-19 situation.” Masangkay said, “Who’s documenting our histories? Our histories are the first to be erased.”
On one hand, J Mase III is watching to see if wealthy Seattle will show up to support its most marginalized populations. Black and Brown Trans people were already struggling before COVID-19 and now “even though we’re all suffering, we’re not suffering in the same ways.” He does not want people to forget that inequity is still in place, even during a global crisis.
“On the other hand, he says, “the world is not ending.” And no one knows that better than his community. “Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks have all experienced a time in which it felt like the world was ending, or did, and there was a whole new thing at the end of it. So, there’s going to be something at the end of what we’re experiencing right now…we’ll get through it.”
You can help Seattle artists by buying art, donating to relief funds and GoFundMe campaigns, subscribing to artist Patreon accounts or other services, or by making direct artist contributions through PayPal and Venmo.
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer, and award-winning writer. She is the author of the acclaimed book Hapa Tales and Other Lies that reflects critically on her Asian American, Mixed Race, and activist identity through the prism of returning to Hawai‘i as a tourist. She lives in the Columbia City neighborhood.
Featured image: Leanna Keith (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)