Essential Work: For Philly Artists, this past year was many things

By Carlo Campbell | Love Now Media

This past year was many things. Every menacing adjective has been used to describe the novelty of this year, which was unlike any ever seen by most generations who care for this planet. 

Many lines have been drawn throughout the course of this pandemic. The ones between young and old, sick and well, them and us, and notable for this meditation, essential and inessential.

The role of the artist has long been like that of an usher, leading us through dark corridors of deceit and disillusion, that come with the medley we know as life,  to the sunlit paths of truth, or at least, guide us through the search for understanding…or just a respite from the mundane. That seems essential enough.

The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s COVID-19 Economic Impact Report projects a loss of $371.7 million dollars for Philadelphia’s arts and culture institutions since the pandemic started in March 2020. 

While the lines between essential and non-essential work have grown more clearly demarcated, those on both sides have suffered mightily. While many have been thrown into the thick of it all and acknowledged for their contributions and the essential nature of their work the artist have largely been relegated to the sidelines, with an unspoken agreement in some circles that artists’ work, and thereby their lives, are not essential.

Being essential is being needed. Often being needed and being loved go hand in hand. I chopped it up with artists from a range of disciplines to see how they keep the love for themselves and their work intact, how they keep the fires burning to continue creating, and what adjustments they have made along the way.

Songstress, writer, filmmaker and proverbial multi-hyphenate Kharisma McIlwaine had a buffet of performances and sessions lined up just before the doors closed on the era of the polite public cough. Having grown up in a family of professional performers, it was far more difficult to adjust to our new circumstances than she could have ever anticipated. “When you perform live, there is an energy exchange that happens right there,” said the songwriter. The adjustments to her life as an artist were taken in stride “I’ve done a few things that are virtual, but it’s not the same because you don’t get that energy transference.”

Kharisma McIlwaine, courtesy of IMDB

While grateful for the semblance of normalcy that virtual options offer, these substitutions didn’t take away from the impact of the COVID era. “I took a big hit creatively for a long time. For a while I wasn’t able to do anything. I was hitting a wall. I’m just grateful to be out of that”.

While much has been made about artists and their nonessential role in today’s world,  Amber Arts founder, universal thinker and new world creator Keir Johnston doesn’t share that assessment. “Those statements are blatantly flawed, coming from a narrow scope and narrow minds. A lot of people who write stupid statements like that think of artists in the traditional sense, some skinny artist, in front of their easel, trying to create something in order to get  a sandwich, or some rent.”  

Keir Johnston and Linda Fernandez of Amber Arts Collective

Johnston and his partner Linda Fernandez, also a member of the Amber Arts collective, have been blessed with a means of sustenance and rewarding pivot plan as educators as curators (teachers) of future creatives in the virtual realm. The essential nature of the arts on young minds and people, in general, is not lost on him. And his life is a crusade to assure it isn’t lost on us.

“Artistic expression is the thing that separates us from the beasts. When you deny young people their truest and most natural form of expression, you see the byproduct or it in our city (Philadelphia) now. Body soul and being suffers”. Said the Amber Arts founder.

Fernandez adding, “Artists are versatile. We don’t have to identify with one medium. To be an artist is to be a creative thinker, and to come up with creative solutions. We are really creative problem solvers.”

Walter DeShields, also an artist and educator, lost many creative opportunities at the hand of COVID-19 that is not limited to a run of Tennessee Williams’s Street Car Named Desire, at the Arden Theatre. He has found a silver lining of sensibility that is easy to lose sight of while we sit suffering in pandemic seclusion. The gift of unclaimed time. Time used to protest.

Walter DeShields, performing with Theatre in the X

“It’s gonna be hard to tell the Pandemic story in the history books without telling the story of George Floyd” DeShields opined. “I’m not gonna sit on a high horse like you need my art” explained DeShields. “Our job is important” he continued. “But still in context, Black people are trying to survive in the world. Art is a luxury. Whatever art you make is not gonna save black lives.” He contends that while we have time, we need to get out here in these streets.

Kharisma says “nobody has dealt with this. It’s new and unexpected for a lot of us. Be kind to your self and move at your own pace.” One thing is for sure, whether or not you are an artist, art appreciator, or somewhere in between, we all have needs from the community. The love, affirmations, and validations that happen when we have something we now understand in a new way;  the GIFT  of being among one another.