By Sam Bojarski and Leonardo March
Haitian-American artists share how the pandemic has impacted their lives. Video by Leonardo March.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the economy, visual artist Steven Baboun could no longer work from a formal studio. So, he created a studio of his own.
The floor space in his Manhattan apartment is covered with glue, wires and other art supplies. Sculptures adorn the bathroom and living room, and his work has taken on new themes like mental health and solitude, he said.
“This is what artists do, we move with the times, we conform with the times, we’re chameleons in that sense,” said Baboun, 24, who works in photography, video, performance and installation. “Now, my practice has developed, where I can literally be in a shoe box, and I can [create] work.”
Stymied by the pandemic, which shut down in-person gatherings and prompted would-be patrons to stay home, many artists like Baboun have since used their creativity to adapt. Often, they work on projects that reflect themes that Covid-19 has put in the spotlight, such as mental health and solitude.
Mixed media artist and paper maker Rejin Leys, 54, of Queens, created an illustrated dream book featuring pandemic themes. Photographer and videographer Richard Louissaint, 44, also of Queens, created a self-portrait series he dubbed, “An Emotional Quarantine.”
Musical artists have been promoting their work, too. Famed singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Paul Beaubrun released his latest album, “Rasanbleman” in April. For him, the laid-back pandemic times have been productive.
“I’ve used this time to stay silent and think and just face whatever emotion that I’m going through,” said Beaubrun, 35, of Manhattan. “And there’s a lot of music coming out of it.”
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Life changes overnight
During the economic uncertainty and job insecurity, patrons worldwide have become less willing to spend on art work. And the artists feel that reluctance directly.
Before COVID-19, Louissaint worked part-time at a museum, while shooting portraits and events as a freelancer. In March, the freelance clients started canceling.
Leys, the mixed media artist, had taken her Pulpmobile, a mobile paper-making studio, to public parks and plazas throughout New York City.
“All that just went away overnight, a lot of events that I had were canceled,” Leys said. “I was starting to build my calendar for the season, and that all went away.”
Carlo Thertus, a renowned painter who also serves as president and founder of the nonprofit Creative Art Space for Kids, said he had begun discussions with a private art dealer to open a gallery in Lynbrook, New York. Coronavirus shut down the economy in March, before a lease for the gallery space could be signed, he said.
If the gallery opens, Thertus can display 30 or more art pieces there. He said the deal to open the gallery, now pending, is worth about $1 million.
“Tourists buy a lot of art in this city,” said Thertus, 64, of Elmont. “Probably for the next year, year and a half until they eradicate this pathogen, tourism will be low.”
Adapting to uncertainty
Artists are embracing the new social environment the pandemic has created, though it is not as lucrative.
In music, Haitian DJ Michael Brun has experimented with geofencing ‒ virtual shows limited to viewers from a specific geographic area. Three separate virtual concerts offered people within 100 miles of Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago a virtual show for $5. The shows, streamed from Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, were designed to offer a more intimate experience for fans.
Beaubrun participated in Brun’s geofenced shows. Beaubrun has participated in such virtual concerts as the “Unity Benefit Concert” and “Virtual Concert to Benefit Entrepreneurship in Haiti”, and broadcasted several virtual concerts from his living room.
Still, the virtual shows did not compare to the live experience.
“[Playing live] is profitable not only in the sense of currency money, but profitable in a sense of you’re meeting people,” said Beaubrun. “Someone might not be a fan before, but once you meet them, you have that connection with them.”
Despite the rise of streaming platforms in recent years, top performing artists make most of their money from touring. In 2017, for example, touring generated 75% of revenues for the music industry’s highest-paid acts.
Eric Holt, an assistant professor of music business at Belmont University in Tennessee, said livestreaming simply is not as captivating as in-person shows. It also does not allow artists to generate as much money through merchandise sales. Virtual shows net no more than 50% of live concert revenues, he said.
However, Holt said, artists will continue to use virtual performing to reach new audiences, at least until people feel comfortable gathering in large groups at venues.
Visual artists have found ways to adapt to new realities as well. About two months into the pandemic, Louissaint said he started to pick up more work. He shot a theater performance broadcast virtually and a documentary for the five-year anniversary of Grandchamps, a Haitian restaurant in Brooklyn.
For the latter, Louissaint conducted interviews via Zoom and used pre-recorded footage.
“It was definitely very hard for me, especially the early part of the quarantine,” Louissaint said. “[But] the creativity, like it’s also what has kept me sane.”
For a brief time during March, Leys wondered when she would ever get to present her work again. But cultural organizations, many of which had time-sensitive grants, figured it out.
Leys participated in a livestream with one such organization, the Korea Art Forum, presenting Pulpmobile via video stream from her driveway.
“Digital skills suddenly became a lot more important to my practice,” Leys said, as they have for other artists. “People suddenly had to learn and adapt.”
Leys hopes museums and cultural institutions explore ways to continue presenting work digitally. This would provide greater access for certain populations, like the physically handicapped, she said.
Baboun, the Brooklyn-based visual artist, has received gigs like portfolio reviews and some video shoots since March. But much of his work also requires a cultural research component. One example is his “Bmalké, Have You Seen Port-au-Prince?” The film, produced earlier this year, examines his identity as a queer, Haitian-Syrian artist.
“Being in quarantine has given me a lot of time to research,” Baboun said. “Now, I see myself developing this kind of brain for literature and writing.”