Art has a way of bringing people together, even when they’re apart.
It also, as it turns out, is one way people in Campbell River have been coping with the stresses of the last year.
With ever-changing restrictions on what we can and can’t do, where we can and can’t go and who we can and can’t see, at least one thing has remained constant: the increasing number of people who are exploring their creative side.
Eleven months ago, as the reality of the global pandemic was setting in, Nadia Rieger, owner and teacher at The Crows Nest Artist Collective in Willow Point, was scared the business she’d worked so hard to start – and then expand – would soon come to an end.
The bulk of Crows Nest’s revenue was in hosting relatively large groups of people for art classes in various mediums. That suddenly came to a screeching halt when gathering restrictions began to be put in place by the provincial health officer.
“My business has always been in educating people,” Rieger says. “But that part of what I do had to be rolled back substantially. I had to do a total 180, because I had to take the largest part of my business – and how the business was succeeding – and change it entirely. I had groups of 45 people booked to do classes right before the pandemic hit – I had five of those booked – and then suddenly we were told it couldn’t be more than six people at a time.”
But people kept coming in for art supplies to make art at home.
She didn’t have a ton of art supplies – she had a few, but that wasn’t really her focus – so she started ordering more. She also started offering her classes in a video format and selling the kits people would need to accomplish what she was teaching. She found herself having trouble keeping up with the demand for products because she had been so focused on in-house teaching since she started the business.
“If the Crows Nest was going to survive, we had to pivot hard, and it was clear that the need we were going to have to help fill was providing ways for people to make art at home, and we’re happy to have been able to do that.
“Ultimately, we are surviving because people need art right now. 100 per cent.”
Ken Blackburn, executive director of the Campbell River Arts Council, thinks he knows why that is. Why do people need art right now, maybe more than ever?
“There’s one word that has a lot of different connotations as to why I think that the arts are being seen as having more value right now, and that’s the word ‘connection,’” Blackburn says. “Connection goes a few ways. The arts in a community works to connect us. That’s what it does, whether it’s dance, theatre, music, visual art, whatever. That’s why it’s such a key component within communities: they connect us.”
But even when the arts can’t connect us literally, there’s another “connection” they serve.
“The other thing they do is make a personal connection,” Blackburn says. “They connect us to ourselves, or to our childhood, or to a time that we saw ourselves with more freedom and liberation. Art takes us out of our stresses, our work routines, or in this case, our isolations.”
But using art to heal and provide emotional support isn’t a new idea, nor is it unique to periods of isolation – or a pandemic.
“Art Therapy has a long history as a discipline, and the therapeutic value of the arts has been well documented,” Blackburn says. “I’ve been giving talks about this at conferences for over 15 years and talking about (the art council’s) Art in Health initiative at the hospital. There’s no shortage of research – across the entire breadth of the arts, whether it’s visual arts or music or dance – of the therapeutic value of the arts. Medical schools are even starting to introduce it into their training programs.”
And based on the art he’s seen that has been produced within the community over the past year, he can see the difference a pandemic has made. He was recently part of hanging the annual Members’ Show – which he has done for the past 15-plus years – and says there are new names he didn’t recognize, and it’s “probably also the strongest Members’ Show I’ve seen.”
“It would be an interesting exercise to sit in there for a couple of hours with that critical eye and try to figure out, ‘Is there something COVID here?’ that over-arches the show?”
But if others are experiencing their own art like he’s been experiencing his own, he thinks it’s likely.
“Personally, I’ve returned into landscape as a coping mechanism,” he says. “I’m seeing in landscape the unpredictability of landscape – and of the sky, in particular – and that’s been reflecting how I feel about the world right now.”
His hope now, however, is that people’s love and embracing of art doesn’t slip away with the virus.
“It will be essentially important to hold onto this,” he says. “Anybody who thinks we should go back to the way things were before COVID is delusional, what with all of the problems we already had. We want to shift the status quo now that we have that opportunity, and one of the ways we can do that, significantly, within the community, is to have more connection.
“And that’s what the arts do.”