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Artists and Performers Struggle to Stay Creative While Stuck at Home


In a few short months, the Covid-19 pandemic has shut down movie sets, stopped global concert tours and pushed famous names to the sidelines. And it has also disrupted the creative lives of millions of others whose names might never have appeared on a marquee.

Once they spent untold hours practicing together, sometimes making a living. Now they are sidelined, trying to adapt. A photographer who once roamed the New York streets taking portraits now limits pictures to his apartment and his block. A nail artist used to the intimacy of holding a client’s fingers now paints images on fake nails. A classical musician plays the violin for friends after a shared video dinner. A pop choir watches movie musicals together, singing separately in their Zoom windows.

Practical concerns aside, it can be difficult to keep creating during a pandemic that has already killed more than 180,000 people worldwide. Even so, people who need to express themselves through their art are finding new ways.

According to Dr. Kaufman, people have trouble creating — a form of “self-actualizing” — when there is “too much uncertainty in our heads, too much incoherence and things just don’t make sense anymore.” We are tempted to “focus on a very narrow slice of ourselves, abandoning our highest potentiality,” he said.

Dr. Kaufman suggests that artists use the isolation for reflection. “This is a really great time to use meditation and creative expression to learn how to be, learn how to focus on what really matters and express themselves in a way that allows them to create new meanings in their lives,” he said.

That is the path to great art, he noted. “People really resonate with new interpretations of common reality, and that is what artists are really good at.”

When the shutdown drove people indoors, Ray Spears, a 30-year-old photographer in Harlem, felt aimless at first.

“I kind of just sat around the house,” Mr. Spears, who normally shoots street photography, said. “I am very scared, but also I have time to think about what I’ve done and where I’ve come from, which is great for me.”

Mr. Spears, who has been published in Hypebeast and Caddie Magazine and has directed several music videos, is slowly adjusting. Recently he ordered film, thinking he might take photos at home, perhaps still life images of household objects.

“I normally don’t do it, but I need to do it to exercise the muscle and just for my own sake,” Mr. Spears said. “I haven’t really left the block in a month.”

“The first couple of weeks my mind was nowhere near creating or thinking of nail art,” Ms. Vega said. “Stress was a bigger component than creating at that moment. It is a scary time and my mind was on my family. I’m just starting to get my mojo back now.”

She mixes different gel nail polishes to create her own colors and uses miniature brushes to draw replicas of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso and to create original work on her clients’ nails.

She now paints fake gel nail tips that she would normally use for nail extensions. Her customers can order sets that range from $60 to $120.

“It felt a little strange to pick up a brush,” Ms. Vega said. “Now it feels good, and it is therapeutic again. I’m back.”

“I’m a jigsaw-puzzle person!” Ms. Cho exclaimed in an interview. “It is a constant culling and micro decision-making. It requires the same skills I use at work.”

Ms. Cho ordinarily spends most of her time traveling for work, but she recently found fulfillment in learning how to cook pot roast, a dish she never dreamed of making. She is also spending more time with her 8- and 9-year-old sons.

“If I wasn’t a helicopter mom before, I might be now,” Ms. Cho said.

Brian Thompson, 46, a classical musician and teacher who plays with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn and other ensembles, craves being in front of a live audience.

“I miss performing so much, there’s nothing like it,” Mr. Thompson said. “Now, I am just in my apartment most of the time.”

Lately, he has found himself playing the violin for his friends after they share dinner on video.

“I ask and then play a song I have been working on that day,” he said. “I don’t think I would have ever done that, since I have other avenues.”

Last week, one of his neighbors organized a concert on Zoom, and he was able to play “The Courante,” a movement from a cello suite by Bach, on the viola, for a digital audience of 25.

“It wasn’t about quality,” he said. “It was just about performing. People clapped. It was kind of like a performance. I really enjoyed that.”

Many galleries, musical ensembles, dancers and D.J.s have moved their works and performances online. The members of the company at the 74-year-old Actors Community Theater in Jasper, Ind., now run their lines of their production of “Escanaba in Da Moonlight” on Zoom, according to Heath Kluemper, the president of the theater’s board of directors and an actor.

“We have still been having virtual rehearsals,” Mr. Kluemper said. “It is enough to sate yourself, but at the same time, not having a community to engage with and interact with is a great challenge.”

For others, the greatest loss has been the companionship of friends creating something together.

Unsettled Scores, an amateur rock choir with 40 members in New York, canceled seven rehearsals and its end of the season show because of the shutdown. The choir began to meet on Zoom and hold musical movie nights, watching and singing along with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Moana” and “Moulin Rouge!”

“We really miss singing together,” said Teresa Candori, 53, a member of the choir. “We look forward to it. It is our stress relief.”

It took a month of Zoom rehearsals, recordings and production for Unsettled Scores to put together a tribute video for Adam Schlesinger, the Fountains of Wayne singer-songwriter. He died because of complications of the coronavirus while the choir was putting together the video. It was a version of “Stacy’s Mom,” the choir’s favorite song.

“It gave me something to focus on that didn’t involve all the desperation,” Ms. Candori said, suddenly bursting into tears during an interview. “I am grateful to be able to have that.”

In the video, the choir harmonized, clapped and bopped in unison even though they were apart.

“We had to do something,” Ms. Candori said, her voice cracking.


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