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Bay Area Artists on Challenges, Unexpected Victories in the Pandemic

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A year of COVID completely upended nearly every sector of the arts. How have you gotten by?
A year of COVID completely upended nearly every sector of the arts. How have you gotten by? (Illustration by Vida Kuang)

A year ago, on the verge of shelter in place, country singer/songwriter Rosanne Cash offered an encouraging reminder to the world’s artists, writers, musicians and other creatives: that “when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”

Looking back now, things didn’t work out quite so well for most artists in today’s pandemic. With jobs lost, income evaporated and safety nets thinner than ever, the Bay Area’s arts sector was lucky to simply hang on (let alone write a 350-page tragedy).

One year into shelter in place, we asked Bay Area artists how the pandemic has affected their creative practice. Several themes emerged: loss of work, loss of inspiration, pivoting to streaming, tackling side hustles and mental health challenges. At the same time, some were able to take advantage of the new pace of life and continued to create.

Hear from them below—and if you’re an artist who wants to join the conversation, let us know here.

A man writes in a notebook
(Illustration by Vida Kuang)

Losing Inspiration to Create

For many artists we talked to, the dearth of outside stimulus and the gloppy elasticity of time has meant a severe loss of inspiration. Add in guilty feelings from being unproductive, and creative struggles were very, very common.—Gabe Meline

Chris Black, San Francisco choreographer

“You know, dance is such a social endeavor. Especially how I’ve made work over the years, it’s just usually very collaborative. And the isolation and the space and combination kind of just made it harder and harder to bother, honestly, or to focus on it, or feel like I was getting anything out of it. … I think the Trump years were kind of hard on me in that department as well, at times. Just with the juggernaut of all of it, my creativity definitely went up and down a lot, even before this. It’s just been harder and harder to focus.

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“It’s interesting, before the pandemic, I had this sort of studio practice that was very geared towards still imagery and video. And even that outlet (livestreaming or Zoom), I’ve just not been interested in. There’s something about the idea of making something only for the screen, when I can’t do the other thing that I like so much to do—which is be in a room with people, whether it’s other dancers and/or audience—and it’s just not in the least bit appealing. It’s been really hard for me to watch things, too. I’ve got friends and colleagues who’ve done things online, and even when I want to be supportive, it’s been hard to make myself attend some of those events because it’s kind of heartbreaking.”

Tanya Rey, Oakland writer and author

“I just feel like somehow maybe things just take longer right now. I don’t know about you, but I’m really tired. And it seems like things just seem to take longer than I think they’re going to take, and eat up my day in this way that I just don’t anticipate. And so I can’t necessarily like make time for it, because there is no schedule, you know?

“On a day-to-day basis, I’m constantly frustrated that I’m not writing enough … and the harder I am on myself as an artist, that doesn’t breed good grounds for productivity, and it doesn’t breed the best creative self that I know that I can access. So I know that in order to actually make something worthwhile and to enjoy that process, I can’t be too hard on myself. It’s only going to take me twice as long.

“So it’s been really challenging. I think that we are experiencing a collective grief. And within that grief, there’s our own personal grieving. I know I’ve lost people, and certain relationships have been strained by this time and distance, and all of that compounds itself. And so I have certainly have had days where I just want to be on the couch or in bed.”

Tracey Rolandelli, Oakland painter and artist now staying with and helping family in Santa Rosa

“As an artist who was having two solo shows a year, it has affected me financially. Even my online sales have suffered. It has also affected me creatively, because I haven’t been able to attend live life drawing sessions, which I did weekly. That also was a community near and dear to my social life. A tightknit group that meets at an artist’s house every Tuesday night.

“Because I’m high-risk (autoimmune disease related), I also have been affected by not feeling as comfortable going out to sketch in public. To be honest, while my area might not be as bad as other parts of the country with conspiracy-theorist anti-maskers, I’m nervous enough now around other people, due to my risk, if I became sick.”

A woman sings into a microphone
(Illustration by Vida Kuang)

A Surprisingly Productive Time

While many artists found their creative energies tapped out this year, for some, the new speed of life—one without concerts, tours, commutes and everyday distractions—allowed them to give more space to their practices, and let their work grow in unexpected ways. With little control over anything else in 2020, these artists relished the opportunity to reflect more deeply on their art—and their work flourished as a result.—Sarah Hotchkiss

Eki’Shola, Santa Rosa musician, physician and founder of UNMUTE magazine


“I released the album [Essential], and the challenge is, ‘Okay I have this album, now what? How do I get it out there?’ … But for better or worse, we’re all plugged in more now. So I just went on a virtual tour. And the beauty of it was that I was able to play for audiences in Japan and the UK and across the country all from my music studio. That was wonderful. 2020 was actually probably one of the more prolific years for me in terms of the opportunities.

“It forced me to think outside the box a bit more. If I were to have toured it would have been to music venues. But this time, I was able to really meld the three things I’ve always wanted to do, which is music, mindfulness and wellness. … I ended up being able to do performance, share my story, teach a mindfulness tool and talk about health—all in one hour. And I did that for health care organizations, for colleges, for all different kinds of groups.”

Janice Lee Lazaro, San Leandro singer/songwriter


“Now that I no longer have to commute and am spending more time at home, I’ve been dedicating my extra time to writing music and releasing my original songs. With that being said, it has been a great experience to finally be able to devote more time to music, making me feel happier, productive and fulfilled.

“The biggest challenge has been learning how to pivot fully remote. I learned to adapt, however, it was a bit of an adjustment to rely on wifi to keep up with Zoom communications with folks. Maintaining relationships has been a huge shift for me to adjust to.”

Lorene Anderson, Oakland visual artist

“I had been scheduled for a solo show that was supposed to open last fall. So I was working really hard, but when the shutdown happened, everything kind of came to a screeching halt. … After a few days, I decided I wanted to keep the thread of my regular studio practice. I go five days a week, and I was lucky that it was still accessible—I have friends whose buildings were locked.

Lorene Anderson, ‘Cleaving Grain,’ 2020; acrylic on panel, 18 x 24 inches. (Courtesy the artist)

“I felt really compelled to look over the past 30 years of my old work. I don’t know if it’s that feeling of mortality and ‘What’s going to happen to all of us?’ but elements of old work have started creeping into my current work. … Sometimes I feel like I’m just hurtling through my life and studio practice, and to stop and make thoughtful decisions and reflections was something I hadn’t done in a long time, if ever. …

“I can be very self-deprecating and doubtful about stuff and maybe not so brave and I think [the pandemic] has made me get rid of that BS, and I feel braver, in a way, about my own work.”

A painter sizes up her subject
(Illustration by Vida Kuang)

Year of the Pivot

Although it hasn’t been easy by any means, some artists have used their time in the pandemic to successfully change gears. Out of necessity, musicians, writers and other performers have learned new skills and become full-on media production houses, filming, editing, recording and organizing online collaborators from their communities and even all over the world. The road has been bumpy, but these evolutions have opened new avenues and expanded their creative practices.–Nastia Voynovskaya

Sahba Aminikia, San Francisco classical musician, composer and founder of the Flying Carpet Festival

“2020 has been one of the busiest years for me. I worked on seven different projects, but each of them ended up being becoming basically a YouTube or Facebook video.

“In the context of my festival Flying Carpet, we work with 5,000, 6,000 children [in Turkey] every year. And this year, we’ve been able to reach out to maybe 200 children through online means, which brings a lot of issues because they’re in an area where data is expensive. … This year, we are planning on creating a home edition of this online Carpet Festival and reaching out to embassies and organizations for the funds to create a magical box that we can send to children in that region. And each box would include 10 to 12 modules created by different artists.

“One of the things I learned is that my work has always been in the line of human human rights work.

“I think artists have an essential job in unifying the nation and unifying the people in a real sense, instead of just unifying your own allies or people who think like you. I think it’s the time for artists to reach out to rural areas, to areas where entertainment exists—maybe even good lifestyle exists, privileged lifestyle—but culture does not exist. And it’s a very good time to separate culture from entertainment because culture definitely has an educational aspect to it.”

Autumn Allee, Oakland opera singer, voice coach and creative producer of Exquisite Corpse Projects

“I had been considering doing a production company for a while, even before the pandemic. The concept was bringing together of artists from completely different mediums to create theater, which is my medium. And so I have a friend who’s a ceramicist. I have a friend who’s a playwright, a friend who is a classical music composer, that kind of thing. Completely different mindsets, completely different artists, bringing them together and create something completely unique.

“Once the pandemic happened, I had a couple of goals for what I wanted for the project. I didn’t want to waste artists’ time and I wanted to pay them something. So I came up with an idea to create these short one-minute videos. And each artist watched and responded to another artist’s video, so it creates this chain of videos, each by a different artist taking something from the previous video and transforming it through their own lens and through their own medium, et cetera. Then we presented it and we we got funds through donations, essentially. And then we were able to pay our artists a stipend for the work that they did.”

Bronwyn Emery, Alameda writer, writing and creativity coach

“My personal creative process has taken a backseat because my practice has expanded to meet the needs of people who can’t get together anymore. And writing in particular is an isolated, isolating experience. You write by yourself. But a lot of people need accountability; they thrive in a group setting that has gives them inspiration and motivation. The shelter in place, the pandemic and the existential dread of the past few years has impacted creativity, so coming together in groups has been more important and has had a greater impact. So I spend a lot more time establishing online write-alongs and places to share what you’ve written that day, places to share what you’ve been working on and polishing for a month or two. Places where people can get together and talk about the writing process, different workshops. It’s really kind of taken over. Now I’m at the point where I need to coach myself on where do I find my place to be creative?”

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