The Art of Survival–Black Creators In the Age of Covid Pandemic


South Carolina-based Spirit.

In an effort to provide a more balanced representation of COVID and how it affects the non monolithic black experience, we are creating a series of articles to reveal how Black people around the nation are dealing with the pandemic. Through these conversations, we hope to preserve what’s real, tangible, and palpable about a small slice of the Black experience during the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020.

In this article I talk to Spirit, a South Carolina based tattoo artist, and Gabrielle, an actress and performance artist in New York City. How are they coping with this quarantine as creative entrepreneurs?

Black artists are incredibly adaptable beings. Taking the good with the bad, even while they’re feeling confined, experiencing loss of acquaintances due to this virus, and financial insecurity, artists continue to create ways to thrive. As performers tend to do lots of live work, many of them are impacted in a fundamental way. The results of their views on life during COVID are leaning towards optimistic, yet are still critical of the government.


Gabrielle is a veteran theater and film actress who, like many in New York and LA, subsidize their salary with being a part-time server.


Gabrielle was having symptoms reported to be associated with COVID about 3 weeks before the official quarantine, but did not seek medical help and instead used natural remedies. As a primarily independent artist, she lacks full medical health insurance coverage through an employer, like many Americans. Thankfully, she recovered just as the citywide shutdown began.


As a performing artist, her body is literally her instrument. In order to take care of herself while recovering, she offers the following: “I’ve ordered all sorts of supplements (black seed oil, spirulina, astaxanthin, multi-vitamins, protein, chlorophyll and sea moss soon) and am taking them religiously. I am staying on top of my fitness and going out into the sun when it’s out.”


Spirit has been taking advantage of the downtime of quarantine. “The pros are I get to have a lot more rest, rest my hands – the daily grind is starting to become tiring after all these years. When you work for yourself, the more successful you become, the more you work. Our biggest luxury is the time we get to spend at home with our families and lazing around, and that’s what we’re all being forced to do. It’s a blessing in disguise, ’cause I’ve been down for almost a month now.” 


But it’s not all natural remedies, rest, and relaxation for these go getters. “The cons [of the quarantine] are missing out on thousands of dollars,” Spirit notes. “It happened during our peak busy season [for tattoo artists]. Right as the roller coaster was on the uptake, it just stopped. And it was slow to start anyway, and as soon as it started it was like BOOM! Go home.” 


Considering Gabrielle has done most of her work live in front of an audience, she says she hasn’t started any other income producing work during the quarantine, but government aid has helped.


“I wonder how I’ll get back to working. I feel a real insecurity and need to figure out what other skills I can monetize on,” she points out.


Many outlets are offering small business aids, but it’s not without certain stipulations. I asked Spirit has he looked into any of them, and he hadn’t yet, but he did get the stimulus check. “I also have my other business, which is supply sales and that’s going pretty well. Being a non 1099 worker might make it more difficult for my business to get help, but that might not be true.”


This time of reflection has really helped the tattoo artist have a different perspective, and echoes what Julia said in her story last week about the importance of essential workers who aren’t doctors or nurses. “This really helped me see just how dependent we are on the labor economy. What will bring America to its knees is if Joe Blow can’t go to work. I feel as though I thrive in a competitive environment.”


The relationships of these artists are varied. Spirit is a single father who lives alone and Gabrielle has a roommate. “My space has shrunk due to a guest in my living room who hasn’t been able to leave due to the quarantine,” Gabrielle explains. “It has aggravated both me and my roommate as we both could use the extra space since we are stuck here.” But it’s not all bad. Gabrielle talks about her family, “Otherwise, it feels like my entire family is getting closer – staying in touch on the daily and helping each other keep our spirits up.” 


Spirit, who also hosts poetry events that are very popular and well attended in his city, is eager to socialize again. “Outside of being able to sleep all day and hang with my baby girl, I want to be a bachelor again. I’m cautious anyway, but now I have to be even more cautious. The isolation from intimacy is what makes it the hardest. I see my friends every now and then, but my main source [of intimacy] is cut off.”


There are differing views when it comes to how much artists should “make” during this time. “I haven’t been creating, drawing, and that’s a big part of my peace. That is my mental health. I made some hand sanitizer and that felt amazing. I made 15 dollars off it – I felt like I made $1000 for someone giving money for something I made.” 


Gabrielle has been redirecting creative energy towards personal and home goals. “Meditating every day. Working out everyday. Cooking every day. Watching good shows. Doing self tape auditions here & there. I want to start improving my Spanish with online classes.” She’s been handling the adjustment to downtime well, which is directly tied to how much time and energy you can spend creating. “The first few weeks were more difficult and then one day I woke up and decided I’d make the best of this confinement. Do things I’ve been meaning to do at home. There’s lots. Now, apart from missing my friends and physical touch, I’m in no rush for it to be over as I still have lots to do,” she says.


Spirit further observes, “Creatively, I’ve been blocked. I have to be in the mental space to draw or create. Money is a huge motivator for me in creating. I used to draw for free and enjoy it, now I only really enjoy drawing for money. Some people wanna not make it about money, well, it’s the opposite for me. It’s work, and I love to work.”


Artists aren’t just drawing pretty pictures or telling funny stories. They often are the most educated and vehement in their views of the political landscape. 


“The government could be pushing a health and science narrative,” Spirit asserts. “This is the hardest time in American history and right now we just have the absolute worst president in American history. A series of unfortunate events.” Gabrielle adds to the conversation regarding the initial reopening of southern states. “I find it super premature and suspect considering the governor’s home isn’t opening back up to the public and considering Black folk are more susceptible to getting the virus. It’s unfortunate & suspicious.” She adds, “It would’ve been nice to use this time to figure out how to implement a more eco-friendly system. But governments will be so busy rebuilding economies that we’ll continue destroying this earth.”


Many eco-minded individuals had offered some of the same statements, noting that Earth has had time to “rest.” 


“This thing isn’t going away. This is going to be our new normal for a while. This is life until further notice,” Spirit notes. Therefore, some say, it would be beneficial to leverage the decline of human activity in major hubs to think about some new ways to create sustainability in our environment. 

It starts on a personal level. Since the quarantine, Gabrielle notes having a deepened appreciation for nature. “It’s a lovely development.”


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