Asheville artists grapple with the pandemic’s one-year anniversary

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS: Asheville-based interdisciplinary artist Cilla Vee performs the final installment of “VIGIL,” her monthlong residency last July at Chashama’s space on the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront. "Angel of Light," her locally themed, hourlong continuation of that series, will be shared March 9 at the Asheville Art Museum. Photo by Fred Hatt

The past year has been difficult for performing artists across the world, and Cilla Vee (aka Claire Elizabeth Barratt) is no exception. The Asheville-based interdisciplinary artist had an entire season of gigs canceled in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, including an unusually high number of local events to complement her usual touring schedule.

But out of the lockdown, an unexpected opportunity arose that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred. The New York City-based arts organization Chashama received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council of the Arts for a project called Enliven NYC, which allowed for six performance artists to inhabit six different storefront gallery venues across the five boroughs and responsibly share creations with members of the public on the other side of the glass. Thus was born Cilla Vee’s VIGIL: Prayers of Healing for the Living and the Dead, a monthlong July residency at Chashama’s space on the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront.

“The approach I took for the project was very spiritual,” Cilla Vee says. “I did a lot of research into different healing practices, mostly spiritual or at least alternative, but also medical. And each day, the end result was not only a performance prayer but also a written prayer to conclude the day.”

Individual prayers were devoted to each of the six chromotherapy healing colors, plus themes of sound healing, breathing and hand-washing rituals, as well as wandering with departed souls and then guiding them into the light.

Upon returning to Western North Carolina, Cilla Vee knew she wanted to bring VIGIL to her hometown but wasn’t sure how or where it would manifest. Then in November, during her performance in the Asheville Art Museum’s rescheduled and livestreamed spring gala, inspiration hit.

“I was suddenly struck with the image of an Angel of Light holding vigil over the city of Asheville … for the whole year, unseen, yet present,” she says of the character she’ll portray. “Now she is revealing herself to offer hope. She is saying, ‘I’ve been here with you throughout this difficult time. Keep going, we’re almost there. The light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer.’”

Commemorating the one-year anniversary of the city’s state of emergency declaration for the pandemic, the Angel of Light durational performance takes place Tuesday, March 9, 7-8 p.m. Similar to past VIGIL installments, viewers outside — this time at Pack Square — will be able to see the artist in action as she shares the piece within the oculus window above the building’s entrance.

Diminishing returns

Cilla Vee’s resilience and success are all the more impressive considering the dire conditions facing local artists. The Asheville Area Arts Council’s latest arts impact survey — published on Feb. 1 and compiling data from 179 responses — reports $23.1 million in lost revenue since March 2020 for the Buncombe County creative sector. According to the survey, 68% of respondents said they earned enough income from their arts job to support themselves prior to the pandemic. But a year into the health crisis, 62% now state they’ve since taken supplemental work or entirely left the arts sector in order to cover their expenses. While those findings are disturbing, AAAC Executive Director Katie Cornell is even more troubled by another statistic.

“In three months, we could see 16 business closures in the arts sector and 40 in the next six months,” she says. “These businesses provide value to the community, and each closure will have a ripple effect. It will mean a loss of jobs, programs, support services and places to perform and work, sell and exhibit work.”

Based on those numbers, Cornell feels that Asheville is three-six months away from seeing “a significantly diminished arts sector.” She adds that vaccinations are “crucially important” in creating conditions where performance and music venues can resume having events, but until such gatherings can occur at full capacity, financial assistance will be necessary.

The second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans and the Shuttered Venue Operators grant (formerly Save our Stages) could deliver key support to help turn the tide. There’s also funding proposed in the new federal stimulus package that might provide additional aid similar to the North Carolina CARES for Arts grant that the AAAC was able to offer at the end of last year. Cornell says a large number of business owners that participated in the survey expressed their intention to apply for either PPP or SVO funding. Though the latter will potentially provide more support than the former, the SVO grant application period has yet to open — and organizations cannot apply for both.

“With the PPP deadline approaching at the end of March and still no clear guidance on when the SVO grant will open, organizations are getting nervous about what to do,” Cornell says. “Should they go ahead and apply for PPP — which will be less money, but they could get it faster — or hold out for SVO, not knowing when or if they will receive the funds?”

Among the businesses whose management teams will soon have to make that decision are Asheville’s numerous music venues. Cornell points out that the 53% growth of Buncombe County’s arts and entertainment industry over the past five years is largely due to the music industry, and that losing music venues could have “a long-term detrimental impact on a significant driving force in the local creative economy.”

Cornell is also especially concerned about the local musicians who rely on those stages and others to make a living. They’re a big part of why Buncombe County has 21% more gig-based workers than the national average, and many of these earners also happen to be women and members of minority groups. According to the AAAC’s March 2021 creative jobs report, 68% of creative jobs held by female workers and 76% held by non-white workers in 2019 were self-employed/freelance or extended proprietor jobs.

“These workers do not have unemployment benefits, and there is a high probability that they also do not have health insurance unless they have a private plan or are insured through a spouse,” she says. “This highlights just how important the extended federal unemployment benefits and health assistance programs are for this segment of our workforce.”

Shine on

Despite the plentiful trials and setbacks over the past 12 months, there have been occasional silver linings. Cornell says she’s seen an encouraging willingness among members of what can be a “rather siloed” arts community to collaborate, and she hopes to see partnerships built there and with local, state and federal agencies outside of the arts sector continue after the pandemic ends.

The work by creators who acknowledge the bittersweet anniversary also help. In addition to Angel of Light, local visual artists Cleaster Cotton and Bridget Benton are readying work that directly addresses the current longevity of the pandemic.

“Commensurate with new life circumstances, a new type of art emerged from me which was unlike my previous creations,” Cotton says. “A debilitating artist’s block shifted into a repurposing, manipulation and harmonic convergence of my previously created works of art into new work, which satisfied my need to express myself and put me onto a path of decompression and clarity.”

She’s coined the term “Nouveaux Outsider Collage” to describe the mixed media syntheses of her photography, drawings, hand-rendered designs and paintings. Each piece conveys the “raw emotions and mental congestion” brought on by the pandemic, including “the collective searing fear; splintering, fragmenting mental stress; confusion, isolation and economic challenges.”

“I used layers, fragments of color, [and] sharp and blurred imagery to depict that which was clearly in our faces each day, triggering the cloudy, mind-boggling uncertainty offered up daily by mainstream media and social media,” Cotton says. “And [I] used keyboard strokes, hashtags, question marks and dots to reference our main form of input, information, communication and socialization during the isolation of quarantine and government mandates.”

Meanwhile, Benton recently began working on a new collection that centers on the idea of emergence. “The series focuses on figures emerging into the light, much like plants do in the spring,” she says. “Some of the figures are still partially encased in darkness, and some of the pieces reference seeds and roots.”

Throughout the last year, she feels like she’s gone through the full grief cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Various plans were “adjusted, adjusted again and then destroyed,” all of her classes and workshops were canceled, and one of the galleries in which she regularly showed her work closed permanently.

“I went through a pretty bad depression,” Benton says. “And now I’m emerging on the other side of that. It’s reflected in the work, that sense of something new emerging, something blossoming.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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