By Ian Ferguson
With nonessential business shut down, artists and musicians around Bellingham have had to get creative, not only to find avenues of income, but to do what they do best: inspire connection and positivity in an increasingly virtual world.
“Everybody’s an artist in residence,” said Fl!p Breskin, a Bellingham musician. Breskin has been a Bellingham resident for decades, playing music, hosting shows and teaching novice guitar players the fundamentals of folk.
Like millions around the country, Bobby Bruce is stuck at home without an income. He said he built his life off working in the service industry to support himself financially and to support his art, but now he has no job, and there are less people buying art.
A local artist and designer who goes by BxPacific in his artistic circles, Bruce sells his pen and paper illustrations on prints, t-shirts and stickers through his website. He also works for commission for local businesses.
“At the beginning of all this, this quarantine and just kind of COVID-19 situation, I will be honest: I did have a couple freak outs, a couple anxiety moments,” Bruce said.
Breskin said she runs a popular neighborhood email list and blog that has been devoted to sharing information to the Columbia neighborhood during the pandemic.
“All the arts organizations in town have had their income shut off,” Breskin said.
She said artists do not do art for the money. But bottom line they still have to pay rent, making these times especially challenging. To respond to this issue, several organizations around Whatcom County have joined together to promote arts and offer support.
“All these organizations are just figuring out how to respond,” Breskin said. “And they decided that instead of competing with each other they could come together, cooperate and do this totally cool thing.”
That “totally cool thing” is the Whatcom Arts Project, a brand-new response to the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing together over 30 artist-based Bellingham organizations to bring free artistic content intended to “uplift, educate, and inspire during these difficult times,” according to a Whatcom Arts Project press release.
Valerie Dalena, one of the coordinators behind the project, said the idea was first floated in early March. At the time, she was having discussions with the advisory board of the Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival, in which she is a member. The festival was supposed to take place on April 17. The board was determining what actions they should take.
At the meeting, Dalena said stressed the importance that they respond, that the whole community needed to respond.
She then connected with John Purdie, executive director of the Mount Baker Theater. An email was sent on a Thursday, she said, and by Monday “so many people were on the call.”
“It was just the right thing at the right time, people felt like the community had supported these arts organizations for so long and it was a great way for us to support the community,” Dalena said.
The project is now in full stride, with daily posts on Facebook offering a variety of content: full jazz performances, drawing lessons, virtually gallery tours and children’s ballet lessons, to name a few.
“We need [art] to feed our soul,” Dalena said. “It’s always the artists that answer the call in time of need like this.”
Katie Gray, executive director of the Make.Shift Project, a nonprofit organization that offers
resources and support for local artists, said she is both hopeful and afraid about the current situation and the livelihood of artists and arts organizations.
She said much of what everyone is doing during isolation is touched by the arts, whether that be through personal expression or enjoying entertainment.
“Even if you are binge-watching a show,” she said. “That is a creative art. There are people creating that!”
All the actors and contributors that make binge worthy entertainment, she said, were likely in spaces like the Make.Shift or in high school drama classes at some point.
“I mean, of course I have some fear, and I get hit with some of that existential dread like everybody else does. But I mean, I can't believe that this is going to completely destroy DIY arts,” she said. “I think it will take some time to heal, but I do think there will still be a way for individuals to make a living.”
Since those first few stressful days of the Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, Bruce said he’s spent his time getting creative and learning new artistic skills. Along with his usual pen and paper designs, Bruce said he has been exploring new mediums of work — playing with acrylic and pastel paints, music production and animation.
“I think there might be a lot of people coming out of this that didn’t realize how much potential that they had,” Bruce said. “That if they actually put time into a drawing or a painting, or creating music, they can create some absolutely magnificent pieces of art.”
Just a month ago, Breskin had been planning and organizing tours and events in Oregon, as well as the folk festival Guitar Camp, for which she gathered 80 musicians from all over North America. With those events now canceled, she said she’s spending her time at home with her husband, playing music, writing blogs and doing her best to stay connected.
“I see something that I can do in this time as a musician is to be as deeply reassuring as I can to offer some profound reassurance … We’ll get each other through as best we can,” she said. “And at the same time present the really hard facts. It's easier to face those facts when we're together.”