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Omaha Magazine

Art In Isolation: COVID-19 Changes the Local Arts Scene

Jun 25, 2020 09:36AM ● By Katrina Markel
spotlight on lone easel, black and white

Quarantine and social distancing have affected the way most people conduct business, socialize, worship, and shop. It’s no different for artists who are navigating a tough landscape where they can’t easily connect with patrons, collaborate in person, or nurture young talent face-to-face. Despite the unprecedented times, the drive to create doesn’t disappear.

“You can’t just stop being an artist, you’re creative all the time,” said Tim Guthrie, professor and program director of Graphic Design and Filmmaking at Creighton University. “Creativity is problem solving. I’m just always looking for something that I can do that doesn’t just make a difference for me, but also the people around me.” 

Kimberly Faith Hickman, artistic director at Omaha Community Playhouse, said OCP staff are working on solutions for engaging audiences and students remotely until it’s safe to share physical space again, including streaming some past productions on YouTube. 

“It is a little bit of an unknown time, but I feel like theater people are very creative and one of the things you learn doing theater is how to be in the moment and react to what’s being given to you, and so I feel like if there are people that can survive this, it’s artistic people,” Hickman said. 

For arts educators, it’s also a matter of serving students who are no longer learning in a traditional classroom setting. Normally, Creighton film students can check out university equipment, but once they started learning from home, Guthrie said, “the disparity was really broad in terms of what they have access to.” He encouraged his pupils to use whatever tools they had available to complete projects, even if that’s only a smartphone. He said he was more concerned with his students’ well-being than their performance in class. 

“Some of my students—the emails that they [sent] me—they’re really anxious and they’re really lonely,” Guthrie added. 

OCP is also conducting classes online. “It’s been really great. We’ve had great responses from families,” Hickman said. “OCP feels like a home to a lot of our students, so it’s a good way for us to keep that connection going.” 

Fran Sillau, artistic director of the Circle Theatre, is positive about using video conferencing tools for arts education and the possibilities that it might have in the future. Part of the mission of his organization is to serve “differently abled” individuals, his preferred terminology. The theater has been conducting playwriting workshops for special needs students in Omaha and Millard public schools with grant money administered by the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. 

“We were doing a series of in-person playwright residencies,” Sillau said, “In this case, self-contained classrooms for individuals with disabilities, seven visits and they learn how to write a play with a professional playwright.” 

Sillau said that he’s received mixed reactions to moving the classes online. “Some of (the students) love it because there’s anxiety in public and they can control their own environment, when to talk and when not to talk. So those folks love it. Some of our friends think it’s weird to do acting on a camera through a computer.” 

Music teachers are also adjusting. Ernest Richardson is the resident conductor and principal pops conductor at the Omaha Symphony. He and wife Tara Cowherd, executive director and founder of the vocal ensemble Résonance, said that their son switched to online dance and music classes this spring. It’s not ideal, but it keeps the kids and the professional instructors going. 

“That’s not only how they make a living. That’s how (arts teachers) find meaning,” Richardson said. 

While many of the symphony musicians and guest artists are teaching lessons and performing solo recitals and concerts on social media, not all artists can work online. 

Cowherd said that Résonance is open to a variety of online performance options. One challenge to staging large ensemble performances on a platform like Zoom is that unreliable broadband connections could destroy the required split-second timing of an orchestral or choral performance.

Instead, Richardson found a new method of creative expression.  

“One of the things that I’ve been working on is woodturning because I want to turn the baton handle, so it works in the way that I want,” Richardson said. 

“For conductors, we don’t have much to do if we don’t have an orchestra,” Richardson said. “We are boring by ourselves.” 

A common refrain among many local artists is that they need to be creative, even if it’s not in their primary discipline or the activity they’d be pursuing if life were normal. At OCP, Hickman said they’re exploring ways for the performers whose shows were canceled this spring to perform in a safe, probably online, venue. They’re calling it “Cancelled Cabaret,” and as of this writing, it was in the early phases of preproduction. 

Guthrie said he was taking this time to learn to play guitar. He’s also encouraging artists of all stripes—amateur and professional—to submit work to a new project at KANEKO. 

The Tessellation Project at KANEKO draws its name from a style of design that features a repeating pattern, such as a chess board or a tile floor. The world-renowned art center and gallery in downtown Omaha is seeking digital submissions from across the globe that are formatted to fit an eight-inch by eight-inch square. Anyone can participate and while it was conceived before the global pandemic took hold, the overarching theme of the project is ‘isolation.’ 

“We decided to call it Tessellation because not only are we going to be putting the same sized thing right next to each other in a big mural, at least for the first iteration, but we know that there’s going to be some pretty interesting patterns that emerge from this with regards to what people are thinking and feeling and what they’re using to distract their time,” said Stephan Grot, executive director at KANEKO.

Having worked with KANEKO on past exhibits, Guthrie said he’s confident that professional artists will participate. It’s the novice artists he’s encouraging to submit work to Tessellation. 

He said his early reaction to the project was, “Oh, I’m going to get all these people, who wouldn’t ever submit anything to these people, to submit.” 

Grot and his team have received submissions from at least 27 states and six different countries. Student artist contributions range from school children in Omaha to youngsters at an academy in Hyderabad, India. Work from a professional artist based in Los Angeles will be displayed alongside that of a retired Marine Corps veteran whose only formal art training was at Omaha Central High School. 

“We’re telling people right now that the theme is isolation, but people are coming back with a picture of a bird or an abstract picture of color, so it isn’t necessarily a subject matter to read into objectively,” Grot said. “We definitely want to have many different kinds of themes that are going to tell us many different kinds of stories.” 

Storytelling and connecting through story are intrinsic to the human experience. Arts organizations are finding new ways to make those connections. 

“A really important part of what we’re doing during the social distancing is staying in contact with our patrons and donors,” said Bob Fischbach, interim director of Marketing and Publicity at OCP.

OCP partnered with Pitch restaurant to offer patrons “Dinner and a Play” in the comfort of their homes for the streaming premieres of locally created productions. They launched the partnership with Eminent Domain, a play about a Nebraska farm family facing conflict over the construction of an oil pipeline through their land. It was developed as an original work at the Shelterbelt Theatre and then premiered at OCP in 2017. It’s a rare chance for Nebraskans to see themselves on stage. 

OCP staff emphasized that they were able to get the rights to record and stream these previously produced shows because the playwrights are local. Additionally, the partnership with Pitch was a win-win for two organizations in industries hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Pitch has always just been a really good partner with us,” said Art Director Amanda Hoklin. “They took it farther than we ever expected so we’re really pleased with what they came up with.” 

Omaha arts leaders are also thinking ahead to how they might help the community heal once we are safely able to gather with one another again. It’s a role that the arts have played throughout human history, including in ancient Greece where theater provided catharsis for a hurting population following traumatic societal events.

“We need to develop a case that the arts are essential and they always have been,” Richardson said. “Sometimes we forget that this is a critical part to being a human.” 

Sillau echoed those thoughts,“We are not essential in the way that the health workers are essential, but we’re essential for what’s in [your heart], we’re essential for your soul. We’re keeping you fed in that way.” 

The streaming productions on the OCP YouTube channel have provided sustenance for isolated audience members. 

“One person, this is my favorite quote, said watching it was like ‘balm for her soul.’ And I really loved that and it was really nice that we’re still able to connect with people in that way because we’re missing connection so much right now,” Hickman said.

No one can predict how events will unfold over the next few months, but Richardson believes that local artists will keep moving forward. “Artists are optimists, they have to be otherwise you’d choose a different business.” 

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This article first appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.