Puget Sound artists adapt creativity, and business sense, to pandemic

Artists Sunday is an online directory that connects artists across the county, state and nation.

On a neighborhood street in Shoreline, one house stood ready for a pandemic-safe Halloween. Resident Sage Viniconis created a decorative scene outside of the house: a “pit” (made from a wood pallet) with hands reaching out of it (rubber gloves), a 5-foot skeleton logger, with stacks of wood carefully positioned around it and a chainsaw, colorful string lights blinking all over, and a peg board with bags of candy to take. Haunting music echoed out through speakers.

While only about five families stopped by, it was a satisfying evening for Viniconis, a performing artist who’s been out of work and seeking creative outlets during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Viniconis is a career artist and performer, providing interactive theatrics for events, festivals and parties. But this year he’s had to switch from full-time art to a day job. Halloween was one of his few opportunities this year to show off his mastery of theatrical ambience.

All around King County, artists are grappling with the financial and creative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are out of work, others are pivoting to new forms of expression, and more still are doing everything they can to make it up with digital sales.

King County’s 4Culture Arts Program Manager Heather Dwyer used to frequently hear from artists — painters, sculptors, performers, musicians, writers, designers — who were taking the jump to pursuing their art full time. People who finally made it to the place in their life where they could dedicate themselves to their craft.

“That’s just not going to happen now. People aren’t going to take that risk,” Dwyer said. “I just sense there’s a lot of fear.”

In the King County art world, the pandemic’s financial impacts have meant less risk taking. More people are finding or sticking to day jobs instead of immersing themselves in art. Others are giving up their art to support themselves and their families. Artists in the freelance economy have had to pile on work to keep financially stable.

This Thanksgiving weekend, an idea born to life with help of a Renton resident is hoping to garner national attention and sales for artists who have weathered this devastating year: An Artists Sunday, to follow Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, where consumers support the arts in their community.

The boost that artists see in sales during the holiday season is something Artists Sunday founder Christopher Sherman noticed in 2019, before the pandemic was on anyone’s’ mind. It was then that he and his best friend, May Valley Road resident, metal sculptor and Artist Relations Director Cynthia Freese, launched their journey. They created a nationwide event during the busiest shopping weekend of the year that would target supporting local artists.

Freese said they were unsure if they should continue their efforts for the first ever Artists Sunday when the pandemic struck, but they stuck to it. The results were an online directory of at least one artist or art organization in all 50 states, where shoppers can search for a specific type of art or location.

“This isn’t about us taking money from an artist,” Freese said of Artists Sunday, which is free to join. “This is about them getting some momentum, and increasing sales to keep them fed. Some of the stories we’ve been hearing from people have been really heart wrenching.”

Financial situation

Between March 1 and Dec. 30, 2020, the anticipated financial loss in the King County art community is over $600 million, according to 4Culture.

“It was a pretty difficult number to see,” Dwyer said.

Back in March, Dwyer said they were aware of how the rapid shutdown was affecting artists, especially those in the performing arts, but there was a sense things would be postponed until summer. Initially, 4Culture worked with artists to postpone plans, but generally, everyone kept things optimistic. Then as summer grew near, and things got worse, she said that’s when she saw artists panic.

“They’d depleted savings, depleted other friends and families’ resources and had been able to piece together what they could until now, but they were at the end of their rope,” Dwyer said.

This was especially hard for performing artists who saw most work in the warm sunny months in Washington, like Viniconis.

As a career artist and performer, Viniconis provides interactive theatrics for events, festivals and parties. He dresses up as requested characters, walks on stilts and performs magic acts.

“In March I went from having 20 events to look forward to, to nothing,” Viniconis said. “It was financially devastating.”

Right now he said performers like himself aren’t expecting those events to return until at least fall 2021. He had to get a day job as a delivery driver this year to supplement his income.

At one point in the summer, he was able to offer a magic performance to a private elementary school graduation event. He said it was wonderful to be back and interacting with others, though he had to re-adjust to keeping his distance during a performance.

“It feels like it was a tease because there’s still nothing else (to perform) since,” Viniconis said.

Since the early months of the pandemic, Dwyer’s work has been to help support artists throughout King County. In early April, 4Culture pulled together money within the organization, patchworking a fund to offer Emergency Services for Artists. They also created resources for artists who were maybe still doing well financially, but wanted to use their art to help others in the pandemic.

Dwyer said the greatest need artists asked for from 4Culture was financial support for rent, mortgage, groceries, senior care and day care. She said artists from all over King County were requesting this need, not just from any particular region, and they continue to ask for it.

“It’s good because we want to serve all of King County, but we’re also seeing this means the need is all over,” Dwyer said. “It’s not only a devastating impact on King County artists in income, from ticket sales or visual art exhibition sales, but also in opportunity. That’s something hard for anyone to measure… to see that loss has been really hard.”

For their second round of artist funding this fall, 4Culture focused on providing financial support for those basic needs, a sign of how hard things have gotten for King County artists. Dwyer said requests have mostly been from artists who engage with the community through performances or otherwise, or those who were preparing for travel.

The loss of finances, of learning opportunities, and of working with fellow artists is something that will impact the King County arts landscape for years to come. Some will simply be trying to catch up on what the pandemic made them put aside.

Adapting in Arts

Dwyer lives on Vashon Island. She said during this pandemic, she has gotten spontaneous messages from local artists that they’re doing things like an outdoor dance performance in a field. She and others will just go drive out, park their cars and watch.

“Having people pull over on the highway and wonder what’s going on, that’s probably public art in the biggest sense. People are participating in an open way, there’s no need to buy a ticket, and everyone is welcome since it’s on the side of the road,” she said.

It’s just an example of the ways some artists have gotten more spontaneous in their work as they look to pivot during COVID-19.

Some artists have been adapting really well, Dwyer said, with some performing artists offering online teaching or online virtual events. In her own experience, taking virtual classes has been very rewarding.

Still, it’s a hard time for performers, Dwyer said. She hears the frustrations of musicians, dancers and those who want to be collaborating and sharing space with others.

For Issaquah-based artist and teacher Gail Baker, COVID-19 crashed a lot of her life. Her main work is teaching expressionist painting. That moved entirely online, which has proven difficult when she only has Zoom to teach her techniques.

Baker has been drawing and painting for over 50 years, starting with more realistic drawings as a graphic artist, and moving over time to more expressive art. She now teaches other artists throughout King County how to focus on their processes, and helps her students build confidence.

In terms of both her painting and her second art form, silk scarves, she has turned her selling focus to Instagram, Facebook and Etsy. She said it’s a very different form of selling because it requires someone to search for her work, instead of just wandering into an art gallery off the street.

She also said she struggles with keeping up with online deadlines and work, so she’s happy to have support from Artists Sunday. She’s not alone because many artists struggle to find ways to make money online.

Moving online

Federal Way’s Eugene and Myla Montgomery met on a train 25 years ago. In retirement, both spend their time with art. Myla Montgomery does watercolor paintings and acrylics, and Eugene Montgomery has been creating decorative glass vases.

Both make art part-time, but these days, Eugene makes more vases then they can sell. He said he has well over 50 vases around their house right now, trying to sell them. With some work, Myla was able to create a website this year for the both of them.

“I thought, as long as we’re in the house I might as well get the website done,” Myla said.

Like other artists new to the online, Myla said the hardest part is marketing to an online customer base.

Artists who aren’t savvy with online marketing, or don’t have a tangible product, have struggled this year. Artists Sunday’s Cynthia Freese has been trying to support artists by helping all those who join the directory with a toolkit for better online presence.

She said a lot of artists have applied to the Artists Sunday directory without any website or social media URL. She quickly worked on ways to help artists prepare for what will be a very digital-first shopping season with COVID-19.

The toolkit also helps improve shopping websites and dealing with the trolls that artists might not have had to face at in-person exhibits or performances before.

“It’s important to help older artists that don’t have a background in business to make sure that we’re all being professional. We’re also trying to help get them more submissions, so those kind of things are included in the toolkit,” Freese said. “We also show them how to deal with grumpy customers… Many artists I know are very sensitive people. They put a lot of time and effort into their work, and consumers haven’t really been trained on how to talk to artists, either.”

June Sekiguchi, member of Artist Sunday and regional artist, has been one of the lucky ones moving forward with projects during this time. As a sculptor artist, she has been commissioned on several public art projects that have kept her busy with work during the pandemic, including an installation at vacant storefronts of the Downtown Seattle Macy’s, and installations at ArtXchange Gallery, her gallery representation. Most of her work has been featured in public places during the pandemic.

She’s heard from other visual artists that they’re lucky to do work that is often solo and studio-based, meaning many have gotten to keep creating during the stay-at-home order and other gathering restrictions. Like 4Culture, she’s also heard sales have increased for artists with products online.

Another artist Sunday member, Heather Daveno, said she has been pleasantly surprised by the pivot to online sales.

For almost 30 years, Daveno has been making custom hats, and she’s had a small business, August Phoenix Hats, for 20 years. All of her hats are made from mostly recycled materials, including used wool and fur coats, and inspired by her travels around the world.

Daveno watched as her galleries shut down one by one this year and art fairs were cancelled. She didn’t think anyone would be interested in her custom hats through an online store, but she tried a virtual art fair in New Jersey just to see.

She walked away from that with a new mindset, and a dozen new hats to make. During the virtual fair she had used video chat to show customers the fabric options within her sewing room, and was able to explain the hat making process in a way similar to the in-person shows.

Another downfall to her work during COVID-19, Daveno said, was not being able to travel for inspiration. But she got lucky enough that she had previously created a Kraken pattern — “A design I had been sitting on since my steam-punk days,” Daveno explained— when the new Seattle pro hockey team was announced.

“I think what artists need to be conscious of is when you’re online it expands your audience. I was talking to people all over the country,” Daveno said. “That can be very valuable to an artist when expanding your customer base.”

Artistic Expression

Daveno may have been fortunate enough to sell hats through her online sales this year, and she even stepped up further by making over 600 masks this year, some for donation and others to match the hats she has for sale (there’s a free mask with each of her orders).

But she hasn’t been able to shake a major problem during COVID-19: a loss of creativity.

When the shutdown started, Daveno said she knew she should be maximizing the time she had by working on her art.

“I just would stare at a wall for hours,” she said. “I lost my sense of creativity.”

It turned out that she wasn’t alone in this. After digging online she saw all types of creators were having major mental blocks and loss of creativity, as they were thrown into a stressful, unstable situation.

Gail Baker, teacher and artist based in Issaquah, is still painting, but she’s lost some of her whimsy. She said her work is based in an “unconscious exploration” of feelings and sensations. And what she’s feeling lately is the amount of energy it’s taken for her to grapple with life in a pandemic.

“The pandemic has turned me more inward, doing more soul searching and painting what comes up,” Baker said. “There used to be a whimsical series I did, but i just don’t feel like painting those right now… It’s changed in that way.”

Putting art on the back burner has helped some with their finances, but it also is a loss of release. Dwyer with 4Culture said she’s felt artists on the fence about losing that emotional expression.

Dwyer has no doubt the region will see more art about this time. Whether a local artist saw someone they love die due to COVID-19, or lost a job, or just started losing connection from friends and family, people will make work related to their story during this, for many years to come.

Supporting artists

Viniconis, who is also a member of Artists Sunday, said he sees the opportunity as an artist database for interested shoppers all year round.

“I think (Artists Sunday) is great, but I also believe that it should be everyday,” he said. “As far as art goes, it’s what we do. It’s our passion, our livelihood. The art is always there.”

Freese hopes Artists Sunday will be the starting point for consumers to see how much their local arts community has to offer, and not just on Thanksgiving weekend. Those who’ve signed up so far and joined the directory range in offerings from handmade lotions, to handbags to paintings, to virtual performances.

For those wanting to support local artists, Dwyer recommends giving what you can with online purchases, even purchasing event tickets knowing the date of them happening is uncertain. She’s also heard from artists that the financial help also supports them emotionally.

“The validation from a donation is really powerful. It says that you matter in this community, we want you here and want you to keep making art,” Dwyer said. “That can help people keep going in a time like this.”

Artists Sunday has partnered with many downtown associations and art commissions to help spread the word, and is already planning for ways to roll out more support for arts and the artmakers in 2021. With any hope, there can also be a more in-person aspect to it, visiting galleries and street events.

More information on Artists Sunday, and a directory including artists’ work featured in this story, is available at ArtistsSunday.com. For more information on support for King County artists, visit 4Culture.org.

Federal Way artist Eugene Montgomery has been creating decorative glass vases. Courtesy photo/Eugene & Myla Montgomery

Federal Way artist Eugene Montgomery has been creating decorative glass vases. Courtesy photo/Eugene & Myla Montgomery

Sage Viniconis is a career performing artist in King County who’s been out of work and seeking creative outlets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy photo/Sage Viniconis

Federal Way artist Eugene Montgomery has been creating decorative glass vases. Courtesy photo/Eugene & Myla Montgomery

June Sekiguchi, member of Artist Sunday and a sculptor, has been commissioned on several public art projects that have kept her busy with work during the pandemic. Courtesy photo/June Sekiguchi

Federal Way artist Eugene Montgomery has been creating decorative glass vases. Courtesy photo/Eugene & Myla Montgomery

Federal Way artist Myla Montgomery specializes in watercolor paintings and acrylics. Courtesy photo/Eugene & Myla Montgomery

Federal Way artist Myla Montgomery specializes in watercolor paintings and acrylics. Courtesy photo/Eugene & Myla Montgomery