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Corona versus Creativity

'Imagination is the only Weapon in the war against Reality'

- Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland

For many, creativity has been a way to make the uncertain journey of COVID-19 a little easier, whether it be experimenting more in the kitchen, rediscovering and improving the garden, or picking up hobbies that were long forgotten. But what happens when your career is centred around creativity? Do times of massive upheaval have a more profound effect on the motivation to produce other than blocking the practical avenues of output? Will this twisted period of restrictions, confusion and frustration unravel itself in an order that brings fresh offerings to the world?

We have never seen such lockdowns in peacetime. Across the globe, live music venues, galleries, open studios, and retail outlets have all faced sporadic or long term closures, with public consciousness of viral spread meaning people are becoming increasingly hesitant to come together. I fear these wounds will take some time to heal.

I started my design & screen printing studio here in Fethiye six years ago, and have spent the years hand crafting items, hosting art workshops in public spaces and teaching private students. When COVID brought the world to a halt, I was more than happy to take a temporary break from it all. Here in Turkey, masks have been mandatory for most of the outbreak, we’ve seen months and months of partial and full lockdowns, and the government has given no assistance to the self-employed. But as the days passed by, in all honesty, I got lazy. Not lazy in a sense that I sat around all day doing nothing, quite the contrary, I worked hard in the garden and discovered the forest. But lazy in a way that I didn’t have the motivation to produce things anymore. As I sit here trying to put into words how COVID has affected me, I realise I’m not sure if it actually is responsible for making me slow down. I’m not sure if I can attribute my desire to simplify things and focus on writing to the pandemic, or if I had coincidentally, naturally reached that junction in life.

The internet offers little substitution for real life audience. For most creatives, be they performers or visual artists, it’s the direct connection between art and the ‘experiencer’ that drives their desire to produce. For all its negative points, and never has there been a greater example than COVID for pointing those out, the internet is undeniably a magical tool for linking people. In a bid to use it for something good, I reached out to a few creatives, good souls, I know worldwide to see how the current pandemic has affected their creativity and productivity, and what they feel the future holds.

John Fairhurst, musician (guitarist, singer, writer), UK

John performs internationally both as a solo musician and with a band bearing his name. Since 2007 he has been a full-time professional musician, touring venues in Europe and the UK, often on the road for most of the year. He performs on the festival circuit both nationally and internationally, and has released five albums to date.

Here, John tells us how COVID has affected his creativity:

“I was 5 dates into my Spring 2020 UK tour, with a tour of 8 European countries and numerous festival shows booked for the entire year when the UK shut down. COVID Regulations here in the UK have been long periods of lockdown, mask wearing, social distancing, not mixing with members of other households, including family, travel restrictions nationally and internationally, no pubs, bars, venues or restaurants open. No mixing outside of the household.

After an initial burst of creativity followed by an unusual amount of time at home, a foray into the infuriating and complex world of live streaming from home and a manic obsessive necessity to perform, my creativity dipped dramatically and plateaued. It was an experience akin to cold turkey from a long term addiction. I retreated from social media. The train had ground to a halt. I almost completely stopped playing. I became aware that without the ability to perform, I no longer had the necessity to play. I took this as a golden opportunity to do other things. It was a profound sense of freedom.

‘I love fishing, so I went fishing.’

This sense of glorious abandonment left a lot of space for other passions and directions long overlooked. I love fishing, so I went fishing. It’s a wonderful opportunity to escape everything and focus entirely on the river, to immerse yourself in nature. I met similarly afflicted interesting humans who have become very close friends in a short space of time. A deep camaraderie developed through the long, freezing, predawn -10 degree trudges to a different spot, and days and weeks without a bite. A beautiful and primal experience of hunting on deserted waterways with your tribe and the mutual joy when the day occasionally goes as well as was hoped. Simple Pleasures. I indulged myself in my other hobby of constructing traditional bow and arrow making. There has never been time to do this before. It's a zen experience and every piece of wood is different. I made a bunch of bows, I have loads left to finish. I have accidentally ended up teaching bow making, and will be teaching courses both from my workshop and in Cornwall in the summer.

Family has been the biggest thing through this. I have never in my adult life been at home for so long, always been on the road touring. To be with my son and my partner, my parents, my brother, has been incredible, difficult, joyous, challenging and beautiful. What a joy to react and adapt to the world together. My brother Rob and I started playing together regularly for the first time in our lives. This is bearing fruit and has broadened our already diverse musical horizons. We are just at the beginning of building a recording studio together.

“It begins again, in a different way.”

The bag of life has been given a good shake. Some opportunities no longer exist. Others make themselves known. Previously unavailable time and space has been created, new seeds have been sown from which unexpected creative and productive projects and mindsets are growing, together.”

John returns to the live music scene with a show on 20th May at The Magic Garden in London. It will be live streamed through a new streaming company called Arevea, based in California and will be available worldwide.

Elizabeth Parr, yarn spinner & textile crafter, UK citizen, USA raised, now in Chile

Elizabeth lives in the coastal town of La Serena, Chile. She is a natural fibre hand spinner and 18 months ago opened 'The Sheep’s Garden', a yarn store selling her yarns and handmade gifts...

‘One month after opening my store I had to close because of civil unrest here in Chile. I reopened for the summer, then in autumn came the Coronavirus. Not the best timing to start a business!

'...fear kept most people at home.'

Elizabeth's words:

Here in Chile we have four different phases of lockdown, Phase 1 being complete lockdown. In this phase we are allowed two permits a week for two hours each to leave our house. We download these to our phones and have to show them at supermarkets or police checkpoints. Different regions of Chile have been going in and out of the phases for the past year. When the pandemic started, our region closed schools and non-essential businesses and if people could work from home they did. We weren't in lockdown so we could still go out, but fear kept most people at home. I closed my store because it is located in my mother-in-law's house and I didn't want to risk her health, however, as time passed people were asking for yarn so I opened for pre-order pick ups. Part of my creativity was spent on keeping a social media presence for my store, and knitting with my daughter since we were both at home. We also wanted to learn how to play Dungeons and Dragons, and I got creative with dice bags, maps, etc. It was a distraction to keep my mind off what was happening around the world. We have been lucky because we live in the country, my husband can work from home and after seven months my oldest daughter was able to travel home.

My creativity stopped when my Dad's wife was admitted to hospital with a heart attack. She was there for 18 days, and died the week before Christmas from septicemia. She didn't die from COVID-19, but she may not have got the treatment she needed because of the pressure on the hospitals. Helping my Dad with this was hard, and I felt I couldn't make anything during December and January. Also my dad and I were in and out of personal quarantines because some people we were in contact with were infected. It was a very strange time for us.

That was our summer, COVID numbers were down, the vaccine program had started, but our region opened up to tourists and after they left, as the schools started, we went into Phase 1. Officially stuck at home and with the help of my Dad, I converted a space here on the farm for a studio / store. It will be a bit of an experiment, having two stores, but for now I will only open by appointment. This week we have gone to Phase 2 (restrictions on weekends), so I am excited to focus on spinning, weaving, knitting, and to see if my business can gradually move to the farm.

The Sheep's Garden on Facebook or Instagram: @thesheepsgarden

Ben Woodhams, artist, UK citizen living in Denmark

Ben lives with his family on the Danish island of Bornholm, where, since 2008, he has carved his career as a freelance artist, illustrator and educator. His current practice encompasses a wide range of activities and media, taking direct inspiration from the natural environment, with particular emphasis on changes in time and space. By immersing himself in the environment, he responds to these changes, making observational drawings, paintings, land art installations, and occasionally being commissioned for commercial illustration projects. Ben also teaches at the local art school and runs private courses.

Ben writes to us from a little island in the Baltic Sea...

‘When COVID broke in Spring 2020, our island Bornholm was pretty untouched by it all. I could still go out and paint whenever I wanted so my movements were not really restricted in any way. The biggest difference I suppose was the larger number of people outside. By the summertime, the first wave was pretty much over, and galleries opened again. Most of my exhibitions that year were in the summer and actually I experienced really good sales, as there were more local tourists and people seemed to have more money to spend on art. I had some teaching projects canceled, and there was an exhibition in London that I was not able to be part of, but overall, I had a good year and COVID did not affect me much professionally. Should I have lost income, the Danish government has a good scheme running, and I would have been able to make applications for lost earnings.

'Part of being a freelance artist is accepting that life is hanging on a thread and anything can change at any moment.'

In 2021, with the second and third waves, things have been a bit more difficult. All my teaching was canceled, then we had to teach online, which was a nightmare really. Several exhibitions and artist-in-residency projects have been canceled, and I'm really hoping that all my exhibitions this summer and autumn can go ahead. Again, should I lose lots of income, the Danish state has mechanisms in place where I can apply for extra funding, so I am well insulated in that respect. The fact that I live on an island in the middle of nowhere, and in Denmark, has meant that I have not been exposed to all the hardships that most of my colleagues in other places in Europe have.

But anything can happen. I take each day as it comes, and am enormously thankful that I can still get out and be outside and paint - if I lost that, things would get very difficult.

Theresa George, business founder and creative director, India

Theresa George is founder and creative director of design brand Viakerala and design studio Thought Factory Design, based in Kochi, Kerala, South India. Her businesses employ many local artisans, designers and business support staff. She is also a mother to three young boys.

Since Theresa initially shared her thoughts with me three weeks ago, the COVID situation in India has dramatically worsened, in part due to large election rallies & religious gatherings being permitted to take place. Having overhauled many aspects of its health crisis management systems following the onset of COVID last year, the southern state of Kerala is currently suffering no oxygen shortages. However, the hospitals are full and vaccination availability is scarce due to supplies being favoured for dispatch in states which support the ruling political party.

Theresa's story:

‘Viakerala collaborates with the handmade, handloom, womens’ self help sector, a sector which has been seriously affected by the lockdowns, restrictions and other constraints that arose when the COVID pandemic hit. Responsibilities for women at home doubled with work and family responsibilities, plus work space was restricted with education suddenly being home based.

'...women at home are expected to do it all without causing any discomfort to anybody else.'

With most of India being a conservative patriarchal social set up, the women at home are expected to do it all without causing any discomfort to anybody else. This has resulted in many artisans completely stopping production, taking alternate jobs which may not be craft oriented.

There is an overall sense of desperation on the job front, but it is not viable for businesses such as Viakerala to keep so many staff on payroll when stores and travel facilities are shut. For me personally it has been tough to maintain the discipline of work and schedules while being at home with three kids under the age of seven. Schools also expect the mother to be the prominent parent in the home / zoom schooling format.

Parallel to this, responsibilities at work, my own ambitions regarding my career, the pride I feel in making a change and empowering women in different ways - have all taken a big hit. I would honestly say the last year was not kind to my mental health either. The lack of a routine displaced me in a way that I could not function to my maximum efficiency. Delayed submissions - something that I never did until now, also blemished the track record of Thought Factory in my own assessment of it. Delays have been sparked by transport issues, smaller region lockdowns, and authentic COVID related issues, but in the larger picture it does not reflect well for any service provider.

A year later, I am definitely wiser. I have learned to adopt and adapt some new systems and techniques to work remotely. I am more efficient and better able to handle work-from-home situations. We do have occasional outbreaks but it is heartening to see people taking all the government mandated precautions, and the year has proved that Kerala as a state is better off because of it. As I write this, my family has submitted swabs for testing since we came in contact with a little girl in my apartment complex who tested positive.

I feel less helpless now than I did at the same time last year, and that in itself is empowerment that comes with proper communication and social welfare efforts taken by the local government.”

Final words…

Within those who possess a creative mind there is an inherent skill to adapt. There’s a toughness that has been cemented from the difficulties of carving a career in the alternative fields. So, unsurprisingly, among those who work in the creative sector, there is a tendency to be resilient and evolve. COVID has, on the whole, caused huge disruption to the delivery of art, music, crafts and performance to its live audiences across the globe. We can only hope the audience sits patiently in their seats for the next act. Music will be live again, galleries will thrive again, and until then we’ve all ‘gone fishing’.

(Huge thanks to everyone for contributing to this, especially when COVID-19 is very much raging on in some parts of the planet. It’s so nice to be able to share stories from four vastly differing corners of the world. The internet, for all its faults, can be a magical tool when in the right hands.)


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