The Art of Creative Survival

From Mask-Making and Porch Concerts to Podcasts and Online Classes, Community Spirit Drives KC Artists’ Response to the Pandemic

Jennifer Owen of Owen/Cox Dance Group is spending part of her time offering free virtual barre classes on Facebook. (from the artist)

“What I wouldn’t give to be on a stage right now!” says actress Krista Eyler, who recently completed “The Sparkletones,” a new musical inspired by her mother’s 1960s singing group (of the same name), created with partner Barb Nichols.

“We hope to open the show in March 2021 at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center,” Eyler says, “if COVID releases its grasp by then!”

The constraints and upheaval of the pandemic have presented new challenges — and creative inspiration — to artists across Kansas City. Eyler spent part of her time during the pandemic selecting local entries from the Nextdoor app and turning them into 18 monologues, part of an immersion in community reflected in the activities of many artists during the pandemic.

Textile artist Debra Smith met the COVID challenge head on by turning her talents to supporting mask production through fundraising and delivery of supplies to sewing cooperatives. She also researched materials and supervised delivery to hospitals and organizations. She is a founding member of KC Helps, which offers barrier mask guidelines for home sewers making masks for others. (For a copy of the guidelines, email kchelps2020@gmail.com.)

“The work that I am most proud of is the mask research that I have been doing with Chloe Schimph,” Smith said, “testing material combinations trying to find materials to build a better, more efficient mask.” (Visit Schimph’s site to see test results and order masks.) Smith also credits Ritu Nanos, Jill Thompson, Miranda Treas, Christy Schee, The Sewing Labs, WeCanKC and Jennifer Tierney and her American Dance Center, for their tireless efforts on behalf of the mask project.

Smith is one of many artists who have responded to the pandemic by exploring new directions, turning their talents to everything from mask making and porch concerts to podcasts and online classes. Actress and singer Katie Gilchrist battled the pandemic by organizing Monday night “KC Strips” cabarets featuring a changing roster of talents, with contributions going to local charities.

A drive to engage the community, lend support to worthy causes and make work that addresses the issues of the day are hallmarks of art created during the pandemic.

Yetunde Felix-Ukwu and Khalif J. Gillett’s recently created “Acting Black,” a videocast in 12 episodes that illuminates their experiences as young Black actors and attempts to guide others through the trials and challenges. The platform examines, as one follower describes it, “(conversations about) topics that most of us have had behind closed doors because of fear of what the larger community would think or say.” See “Acting Black” at www.youtube.com/channel/UCNPO5TRx1_vc2Wtn7NdNmzA.

The lockdown dealt a double blow to choreographer Jennifer Owen. Her Owen/Cox Dance Group, founded with Brad Cox, had to postpone a U.S. State Department public diplomacy tour to Ukraine, as well as the Kansas City world premiere of aRound & aRound, a collaborative work by Cox, Jeff Freling and artist Nate Fors. Both projects were more than a year in development.

Disappointing? Yes. But Owen figured out a way to, in her words, “blow off steam and feel grounded,” by offering virtual barre classes on Facebook, using just a regular ladder in her room. “The livestream classes aren’t the same as being together in the studio,” she said, “but there is a sense of community and coming together as a shared experience.”

Unlike many virtual classes, Owen’s are free. “I know how much artists are struggling financially right now,” she said. “These classes have been helpful for me in coping with the sense of isolation we’ve all been experiencing these last few months, and my hope is that others find connection, solace and community through them as well (and some dancing!)”

For Kansas City’s musicians, the online platform has also been a lifeline.

Since March, Mark Lowrey, pianist, has been holding evening “Jazz and Plants” sessions Monday through Saturday at his home, where he plays sent-in requests at his keyboard in front of a botanical backdrop. He donates a portion of the tips he receives to organizations including the NAACP, the Midwest Musical Foundation, HALO, Water.org and The Black Community Scholarship Fund.

In May, Elizabeth Suh Lane and Bach Aria Soloists performed their first of several virtual Hausmusik concerts. In June, they expanded outside to neighborhood concerts, available on Facebook and YouTube. All proceeds went to Justice Project KC.

Online performances are just one of the strategies that Kansas City’s musicians have adopted to showcase their skills and keep their audiences engaged.

Flutist Amber Underwood shot a music video and finished an album of original work.

Drummer Bryan Alford, who frequently performs with Underwood, set up a home recording and photography studio. He also revamped his steel drum repertoire with Caribbean, soca, calypso and reggae tones.

As the pandemic tightened its grip, multi-instrumentalist Amado Espinoza shifted focus from playing music to making hand-crafted native instruments. His recent creations include Native American flutes adorned with hummingbirds, believed to “reweave broken spirits” in the Andes Mountains of his native Bolivia.

Some local efforts have taken on an international dimension. Coleen Dieker, violinist and multi-instrumentalist, pulled together musician friends worldwide for a cappella “window” videos, which can be found on her Instagram @glassyeyedlight.” In May, Molly Balloons and her flamboyant Sunday evening community parades through Midtown landed a spot on the “Tagesschau” (German for “Review of the Day”) TV series in Hamburg, Germany. The event’s motto, “Stay positive, test negative” “Bleib positiv; teste negativ” was a rallying call to all.

For more great projects and performances produced during the pandemic, read online exclusive story here.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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