Artists are accustomed to ups and downs, and they’ve had wildly fluctuating experiences during the pandemic. We checked in with a few from Crozet, Afton and Waynesboro see how they’re doing after a couple of uncertain years.
The Performers: “We are never going back to normal as we knew it.”
On a windy day in mid-April, Boomie Pedersen and Sharon Tolczyk met to plan the future of Crozet Arts. Their consensus after two of the most difficult years to date: It’s nearly impossible to plan. Their creative partnership (Pedersen’s the founder of the Hamner Theater, Tolczyk’s the founder of Crozet Arts) offers classes and performances in drama, dance and music, events that by their very nature suggest human interaction. The curriculum offered by Crozet Arts also includes visual arts and yoga.
Each time they expected a return to normal (when everyone gets vaccinated, when delta recedes, when omicron recedes) there’s a new surge, a new booster, a new fear of groups. What they do doesn’t readily translate online: “Performing arts inherently require groups and most—if not all the time—indoors,” Tolczyk observed.
“We are never going back to normal as we knew it,” Pedersen said. That doesn’t mean they haven’t tried to continue as they can. They’ve both taught over Zoom. “If you could have told me three years ago that I’d become good at managing online classes and performances, I would have said you were crazy,” Pedersen said. Tolczyk has taught online, taught outside, and taught little ballerinas inside, outlining rectangles on the floor as distancing boundaries.
The women are able to see the humor in their situation. Pedersen said when her improv troupe met for the first time on Zoom, they were barely able to stop laughing at the strange experience.
The teachers feel a certain responsibility to their students, not just to continue their training, but to help them deal with stress. During the pandemic, Crozet Arts cello teacher Beth Cantrell said her students never failed to tell her that the music lesson was the highlight of their week. “They’d say, ‘this makes me feel so much better.’”
Neither Pedersen nor Tolczyk profited much financially from their work in the best of times, and now are struggling to pay the rent for their space in the back of the Field School. Tolczyk said a grant helped purify the air in the classrooms, but both would like to see another performance space in Crozet, such as the one proposed for the Crozet Plaza development.
She made another point, that pandemic bookkeeping, protocols, and constant reshuffling stress the already minimal resources of small arts organizations, which generally have a staff of one or two. Tolczyk is optimistic that the public dance performance in April and the summer program—the first since 2019—will signal a return to live entertainment. The Hamner Theater continues to offer adult classes, both in-person and over Zoom: “We want people to know we’re still here,” Pedersen said.
They hope to keep changing and growing to serve what they see as their mission: “At the very time people need the arts more than ever, it’s difficult to participate, even as an observer,” Tolczyk said.
Crozet Arts has a full schedule of summer classes in theater, music, dance, art and yoga. Find it at crozetarts.org. Find the Hamner Theater online: www.thehamnertheater.com.
The Artists: Protections, Paradigms, Pandemic
In December 2020, Crozet artist Rose Guterbock was asked to put together an exhibit for the Shenandoah Valley Art Center in Waynesboro. Since the pandemic was on everyone’s mind, it became the theme of the show, with the title “Breathe: Protections, Paradigms, Pandemic.”
As she was putting the show together, she sought some insight into pandemic-related art, and called an art historian connected with the New York Museum Of Art. “Sure enough, the historian confirmed that all the issues we were facing were part of the 1918 flu pandemic, and the art reflected it,” Guterbock said. “The public fought over mask mandates, school closings, business shut-downs.” That pandemic was different from the current one in that it was so deadly that it didn’t last as long. And since there was no vaccine, there were no disagreements about that.
Piper Grove, director of SVAC, said the pandemic exhibit––open to artists all over the country––was edgy, dark, fiery and mostly centered around masks. She observed that the pandemic affected artists in different ways: “Festival artists who were used to traveling to shows suffered the most,” she said. Typically, these artists don’t have much inventory online, so they had to scramble to create online outlets. “Some of them just retired,” she said. Others who already had online galleries benefited from public benevolence, at least in the area she serves. “When people got their stimulus checks, some of them sought out artists to support.”
Guterbock sees the same paradox identified by Tolczyk. “As suffering increases, art of all kinds seems less important.” At the same time, people who have experienced losses turn to art, both creating it as a personal balm and seeking it out for comfort.
That concept is what drives a great deal of Guterbock’s work, and inspired her in 2021 to create a non-profit, Artistic Remedies for Creative Hearts, focusing on mental well-being through creative expression. She teaches art in Crozet, weekly at the Mud House and at monthly pop-ups at Starr Hill Brewery and Taproom.
Guterbock acknowledges that visual arts may have changed forever. She believes we’re moving away from she calls “high art,” richly supported museums and galleries accessible to a privileged few. “Art can also be something created by a 14-year-old on her iPad,” she said.
ARCH is hosting an auction of art-related items and assorted classes, available online, with an in-person display at Starr Hill over Mother’s Day weekend. Bidding closes May 15. To find out more, and to learn about Guterbock’s classes, go to artisticremedies.org.
The Musician: After 45 years, a welcome break
James Overton, who performs as JimmyO, has worked steadily since he was a teenager. He’s one of the few musicians who’s never had to take an additional job to pay the bills, but it’s taken tremendous organization and discipline to follow this path. He books events a year out, contacting regular clients and filling in with more sporadic jobs. His proactive scheduling helped him continue to work during the pandemic’s ups and downs, he said: “When wineries, breweries, restaurants and clubs came out of lockdown, they were desperate to get back to normal, and I was already on the books.”
Overton started playing as a child. He was raised in the Salvation Army, and was expected to learn one of the Army’s signature brass instruments. As the youngest of three, he was assigned the trombone––the others were taken, he said––and later he taught himself piano and guitar.
Graduating from rousing church music to rock and roll, Overton pushed himself to play five days a week, often with two performances each day on Saturday and Sunday. As he did his yearly scheduling in the fall of 2019, COVID seemed a far-off threat.
Then hit it home, and he saw his well-laid plans evaporate overnight. “It was an uncertain future, so that made me uneasy,” he said. “But frankly, after 45 years, I welcomed the rest.”
There were a few things he was able to continue: He plays for a Harrisonburg church on Wednesday and Sunday, and the pastor and he were quickly able to transition to online services.
“Most days, it was just me, the pastor and the videographer,” he said. He remembers with great gratitude the times when members of the faithful left envelopes with his name on them at the church, a generous offering inside.
JimmyO’s mastery of old rock and roll, ballads, blues, and southern rock appeals to a wide range of people, with varying opinions about the pandemic, social distancing and vaccines, he said. “I could look out on the crowd and recognize there were people there who didn’t believe there really was a pandemic.” When requests came in for performances in small indoor places with large crowds, he felt he had to say no: “I had promised my wife and family.”
Luckily, businesses were adjusting, adding outdoor performances, creating more space inside, and installing air purifiers. Because of the pent-up demand, Overton is now busier than ever. “I’m back to playing every day and twice a day on weekends,” he said. “The only trouble is I’m not in my twenties anymore.”
JimmyO hosts a fundraiser for the Salvation Army May 10 at the Wayne Theatre, and will be at the Greencroft Club in Ivy May 26. For other scheduled performances, go to jimmyovirginia.com.
The Writer: What it’s like to be alive during this time
Jay Varner is a writer and a teacher. Like most writers, he patched together a living based on magazine stories, assignments, books and writing classes that kept him in a constant churn of teaching, research, mentoring and deadlines. Before the pandemic, he planned to write an extensive natural history of his Afton property, and document his journey building a food forest and restoring native species. But that would take dozens of in-person interviews with experts, and “in a matter of months, it all went away,” he said.
“Honestly,” he said in an email, “the pandemic has meant that writing for me has taken a way, way back seat to teaching.” He’s a full-time JMU professor now, and since he mastered online teaching well before his colleagues, Varner spent extra time at the beginning helping them learn the skills demanded by the new world of pandemic education.
Now, in what we hope is the aftermath of the worst of the pandemic, he’s coping with the severe mental health issues he and other teachers are seeing in students. “I think everyone at the university is just trying to get to the end of this semester,” he said. “It feels like everything has been magnified tenfold, and that’s caused many issues related to labor and pay.” As he takes on more and more outside work for extra money, Varner has come to question his future in academics.
He continues to worry about his students and his home, Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, which had the highest death rate in the country. This grim statistic, he said, took a huge toll on his mental health. In spite of his worries, he’s tried to stay creative. He launched a podcast, Hidden Language, with a colleague at JMU, where he tries to connect honestly with present physical realities that include the isolation and wide-spread experience of death, he said. “Each day I just try to live in the present tense, and to somehow capture what it’s like to be alive during this time.”
Find out more about Varner’s books and other writing at jayvarner.com; listen to Hidden Language in your podcast app.