How has the pandemic affected artists in St. Louis? Here’s what they told me

Nancy Kranzberg

By Nancy Kranzberg, Special to the Jewish Light

I’ve been worried about my artist friends and wondering how they are coping in these troubled times. So I decided to just pick up the phone — I’m old fashioned — and ask.

The main question I asked was how they were dealing with the time on their hands due to the pandemic, but many wanted to talk about the times in a broader sense. I wondered if during this pandemic they felt more creative, frozen or a little of both.

I started with bass player, Bob Deboo, who actually describes himself as a creative, improvising musician. He has traveled all over and played with the likes of David Sanborn as well as with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Deboo says since he’s not on stage, he’s had to get creative at home and is involved with teaching online and doing a lot of live streaming. He feels as if the pandemic has opened doors for him and that he has written and composed a lot more with much more time available.

Yvonne Osei is an award-winning conceptual, interdisciplinary artist and a true visionary (she won a St. Louis Visionary Award in 2018, which celebrates the contributions and achievements of women who work in or support the arts in the greater St. Louis region). She says she had to adjust to the very immediate shock of shutdowns and social distancing and face the new normal.

Osei says that she had to adjust to being creative in isolation and find a way to echo her voice. As a result, she had to refocus on everything and see the world anew. Osei says that she felt the racial crisis in our country was equal to the pandemic in changing much in her artistic way of thinking.

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Scott Miller, the creator and artistic director of New Line Theatre, says that he’s had a really rough time dealing with the pandemic. Since his work in theater is about people being in a room together, he felt as if his life had been taken away. Not only did he miss the stage, but also the hugs and warmth of audiences.

Miller, who has written dozens of nationally recognized books on musical theater, turned to writing, but as he says, “You can’t write all day.” During the pandemic, he has written two books, one on Christmas carol parodies and one entitled, “Night of the Living Show Tunes, 13 Tales of the Weird.” There’s really no way to shut Scott Miller down in my opinion.

Harvey Lockhart is an award-winning musician, father, educator and saxophonist. He says he’s taking time to feel and evaluate the situation of the times as clearly as possible. He’s been writing, practicing and trying to prepare for what the future holds.

As an educator, he is working hard to figure out how the virtual system and making the transfer. He is teaching at Cardinal Ritter High School and runs HEAL, a multi-discipline arts organization located in Grand Center.

Ashley Tate, artistic director of the Ashleyliane Dance Company, also has had a struggle learning how to deal with dance in the virtual world. Difficulties aside, she has managed to maintain a sense of humor, explaining that she is teaching out of her apartment, which she calls the “quarantine closet.”

“The whole scene is a challenge of a re-imagined season,” she said. She had to deal with dance off the stage and on film, but she is still performing. She had to think about what can be done and not what can’t be. She says that she is trying to still keep people involved in the arts.

Melody Evans works mostly as a ceramic artist and says that during the pandemic, she’s continued to work in her studio even though her creative energy feels lackluster. “As I absorb the overwhelming and distressing events of 2020, I miss the happy energy surge of creative inspiration,” she said, adding that she is fortunate to have deadlines looming for previous commitments and shows in the future. She feels that the already documented sketch books are what have been driving her work and that the nature of this work is heavy on process and repetition, which is good.

Erin Prange, executive director of the Big Muddy Dance Company, says: “I have seen the most amazing creativity come out of our team in the past few months because our usual perimeters were taken away. There’s been no precursor, no tradition, no preparation for this. And with that uncertainty comes a certain amount of freedom.

“It has allowed us to change the rules and create new online platforms for dance classes and performances that reach a national community, outdoor venues and a whole new progressive walking tour production format that enables us to give audiences more authentic views of the dancers as they tell their story of ‘Lemp Legends’ throughout the Lemp Mansion and Lemp Grand Hall space.”

Jessica Baran is a nationally recognized writer, poet, critic and director of curatorial and program development at Barrett Barrera Projects and Project +Gallery. She says that she’s found writing in any form to be difficult these past months, so she’s reoriented her focus to reading and has appreciated being able to educate herself in new areas. She’s also reflected quite a bit on why, specifically, she writes poetry and for whom. She says she’s come to the realization that for her, it’s ultimately an intimate form of communication directed at close friends rather than a general or professional public.

After listening to my artist friends, I have new admiration for what an artistic sensibility is and what a great, creative group they are. Hopefully, they — and all of us — will be back to some sense of normality soon.