Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended their lives, Asheville-based visual artists Maxx Feist, Jen Toledo and Liz Williams were gearing up for a busy season.
Feist, a painter and illustrator specializing in “bright and slightly creepy pop art paintings,” and Toledo, a pen and ink/watercolor artist who focuses on Appalachian wildlife, were getting ready for shows, retail sales and art markets. But the galleries and retail shops have closed indefinitely, and the markets have either canceled or are in a place of uncertainty.
Williams, a digital artist working in photography, graphic design, illustration and experimental video work, hasn’t been able to schedule photo and video shoots as she normally would. Her role as the Artist-in-Residence for local LGBTQ nonprofit Campaign for Southern Equality, where she tries “to start a dialogue and create a visual narrative documenting and highlighting the lives and many facets of the LGBTQ community in the South,” has also been impacted.
“I was laying down the groundwork for an exciting collaboration with multiple queer musicians in the area,” Williams says. “The project would have incorporated photography, videography, as well as a musical showcase. The concert would also be an effort to encourage voter turnout in November. Unfortunately, with this pandemic, everything is on hold.”
Creative minds that they are, each artist has adapted to the changes. Toledo already worked from home and credits having an “established space and routine” with keeping her grounded. During quarantine, she’s been doing more commissioned work than usual, which allows her to branch out in subject matter based on what people have requested. She appreciates the randomness of these assignments, which push her out of her comfort zones and in new directions, be it through textures, color palettes, shapes or feelings. She’s also utilized the extra downtime to explore ideas she’s previously had to set aside, as well as make art “that feels less like work and more like play,” which she feels is something that can be lost in the daily grind.
“As an artist, I feel like it is extremely important to do this from time to time. At times, it has felt extremely difficult to focus with the world turned upside down, but it is a reminder that difficult times are what initially turned me to art as a child, teenager and young adult, and got me on this path,” Toledo says. “When you can’t control the environment around you, all you can control is yourself. Creating something is a great way to feel grounded again.”
Inspired by the current cultural climate, Feist has been making “mostly plague- and pandemic-themed pieces,” which they describe as “a little different than what [they] usually paint.” Williams, who works full time in a grocery store, says she’s had PPE, safety and anxiety at the forefront of her mind since mid-March, which can’t help but affect her creations.
“Because of this new era of life, my work has incorporated a self-portrait series featuring me in isolation with masks I’ve received from work and from friends,” Williams says. “Luckily, nature is in full bloom, and that has also inspired my work during this isolation.”
Selling artwork, however, has proved more challenging. All three artists have turned to online sales, including Instagram, Facebook and personal websites, though sales are far from robust. Feist estimates a 90% loss of personal income, which has made them financially dependent on their partner, who for now still has a job.
“If retailers sell anything, then they send me money through PayPal. Otherwise, I’m just making attempts at sales through Facebook and Instagram,” Feist says. “If I’m gonna sell my own stuff, I would prefer to do so when I can engage with the public at markets. Online is tough. It is very competitive. I also know that people are struggling, so I don’t want to push people to buy my stuff.”
Feist is additionally “trying to think of other ways to engage with people about art without it just being geared to financial gain” — a sentiment that also resonates with Toledo. Her work is based on animal life in Western North Carolina and consistently serves as a point of connection between her and the people she meets at art markets. She misses hearing stories about animal encounters or why a specific animal is meaningful to the customer and looks forward to resuming these conversations when the time is right. The time away from these traditional revenue streams has also increased her gratitude for industry facets that rarely receive proper credit.
“Not having access to the public via public downtown spaces in multiple cities and towns has decreased my sales a lot but also really makes me appreciate the business owners and workers who have been working those spaces and who will likely be going back to work soon, or who already have gone back to work,” Toledo says.
In finding the strength to persevere, each artist cites the supportive local art community. Williams shares “inspiration, experiences and resources” through virtual engagement with friends and artists, including digital meetups each Tuesday with queer artists around the South via Southern Equality Studios. Meanwhile, Toledo has persevered by giving herself permission not to be positive or motivated, though embraces inspiration on days when it’s present, and Feist is learning to garden and be more self-sufficient.
“I remind myself daily that I am very fortunate to be in such an amazing community. I have lived in Asheville for 20 years and have seen people come together through hard times before the pandemic,” Feist says. “This time is harder, but I believe in the people here. My community, my dogs, my partner and knowing that there are scientists working all the time to fix this problem help keep me going.”