NEWARK, NJ — Newark artist Gary Campbell, dressed to the nines on a walk through Branch Brook Park just before it was ordered closed to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, peered through his chic dark glasses at a world gone dim due to disease. But as the park's famed cherry blossom trees burst into color around him, his artist's eyes opened the doors of perception to a spiritual cure.
"In the words of my late, great friend and legend, Jerry Gant — document everything and do the work," said Campbell, referencing the beloved Newark artist who did just that in the city he loved before he died in 2018. "We continue to do what we do because we are accountable for putting down how what's happening is affecting us both as artists and as human beings."
It has been a time of recording, reckoning and recharging for Newark's artist community since the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread its shutdown fog over society last month. Along with the rest of the world, Newark has experienced loss, with 3,872 confirmed coronavirus cases and 231 deaths as of Sunday morning, according to Essex County authorities.
This sense of loss is not just generated by illness and death. It is driven by the psychic suffering of millions of people shuttered in their homes, shut off from normal social interaction, in the hope that imposed isolation saves lies despite growing economic hardship and creeping social angst.
Lillian Ribeiro, a longtime Ironbound artist and teacher, is using her Portuguese roots and digital savvy to help her community break through the quarantine-created solitude.
"I constantly think, who do I want to be through this? We have to think how can we support each other, through art, through music, through creating, through the theater," said Ribeiro, who is both reading children's books in Portuguese for a new virtual learning program sponsored by the Newark Public Library, as well as directing and presenting a series of virtual one-act plays with Rutgers-Newark and New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) students. "You're connecting to people in a space through their homes. You can't physically be there, but you're still connecting, supporting and engaging through a virtual platform."
Other Newark artists are working on creative ways to monetize their art, a skill difficult in the best of times and even more challenging in our current hard times.
Isaiah Little is the primary force behind Newark First Fridays, a normally citywide showcase featuring emerging artists, artisanal food vendors, musicians, and local performers with the intent of harnessing the creative and commercial forces of New Jersey's largest city in a publicly focused way.
Now, Little is focused on how to keep funds flowing for artists through an initiative called CurbCovid, a custom digital newsletter designed to disseminate accurate information, share resources, and provide support for and about needed arts and cultural experiences during the pandemic.
"We're looking to revamp and restructure Newark First Fridays and do basically the same program, virtually, from May to September, because we don't know when we'll be back outside," said Little, who is also the creative director of GalleryRetail, a creative agency and digital platform for artists and small businesses.
"We're also looking to launch a pay channel so we're able to actually hire talent. There's a lot of folks who when the stay-at-home order came down, they were looking to figure out how to feed their families. We can't have too many opportunities where the community is empowering other community members. And it's an option where you don't have to wait on someone else to OK a loan," he said.
Marcy DePina is a Newark-based DJ, musician, writer and event producer who also isn't waiting around to tackle the obstacles presented by the pandemic.
"My radio show on Newark.FM is an online show, so I'm broadcasting from my bedroom on Zoom," said DePina, who is also vice president of the board of directors for Newark Arts, the non-profit anchor organization for the city's arts community, which will soon be announcing the introduction of an online platform called Newark Arts At Home for the arts community to share virtual events. "I've been doing Zoom parties where people get a link and they have a password or a meeting ID, then we're having a virtual party. That's fun, because everybody gets to see each other."
"You also have to elevate your game. Before, I'd be DJing at Blueprint Cafe down on Raymond Boulevard on a Friday night. Now, you've got all these celebrity artists giving live concerts on the Internet for free on social media," DePina added. "So little old me is now suddenly competing with some of the most famous and talented DJs not just in my city, but in the world."
The Newark art world used to regularly converge at RyArMo Photography Studio on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., where owner and creative director Ryan Monroe presided over gatherings where local artists could rent space for gallery showings and parties of up to 50 people. Monroe, whose workspace is also his living space, is now down to a party of one thanks to stay-at-home mandates combined with social distancing practices. He's trying to figure out what the new nexus of commerce and community is going to be in the uncertain days ahead.
"In my mind, I knew April was going to be a wash, and May is probably going to be a wash as well, so I'm just trying to set up myself for June to slowly reopen here. I'm more inclined to believe that corporations and institutions will have the resources far quicker than individuals," said Monroe, who opened his studio about a year and a half ago. "People out of work for the last three months, the last thing they're thinking about is paying for family photography or to have a photographer come shoot an event. But corporations still have budgets. Institutions still have budgets. They may have canceled events for now, but I think there's going to come a time where everyone is ready to get things going as part of the new normal. I'm positioning myself for that."
Inside her apartment on Mount Prospect Avenue in the city's North Ward, artist Armisey Smith knows exactly where she wants to position herself - anywhere outside, with people she loves.
"My brother and his wife just had a baby, and I haven't been able to go across the river to see them. There is nothing normal about what is going on," said Smith, a mixed-media artist, curator and arts educator, whose apartment has a view of New York, so close but made so far away by the pandemic. "A couple of friends of mine have contracted COVID. A childhood friend of mine, her mom died last week. I just want it to be over."
Smith knows she can't control when the coronavirus crisis will end. But she can cope by providing hope for her private student, Nancy, who she is now giving virtual art lessons after working with her for more than 10 years in person.
"Nancy can't hear, she doesn't talk, and she's on the spectrum, but instead of her and her brother coming to my apartment and doing lessons, we figured out how to do it another way," Smith said. "Nancy is really great, and she's really helped lift my spirits."
Meanwhile, Smith continues to work on a multi-media project she calls the "Side Eye Series", which she says is a reflection of her feelings about how African-American women respond to ignorance, racism and misogyny, emotions that have only been amped up by her frustration at the federal response to a crisis that has had a dramatically disparate effect on people of color.
"I have so many feelings and emotions about what's happening, and I'm not going to make happy bunny pictures or unicorns sneezing glitter. That's not what I do," Smith said. "But I definitely want to continue on this path and this journey of talking about my response as an African-American woman to all the disparities that are kind of lobbed at us. And I'll keep on teaching Nancy, and work with my teachers' studio in Montclair to help them provide lessons for people with disabilities. Those are the things keeping me going, until one day I can go to New York and not feel like I'm a criminal for stepping outside to get some air."
Gary Campbell looks forward to the day he can go back to Branch Brook Park without fear of violating social distancing restrictions. But as an artist, the park might be closed, but his eyes are still open. Because for Campbell, nothing in the world is worth turning his back on what he adores most of all - documenting the world through art, even at a time when despair has hope up against the ropes.
"In a way, we as artists are falling in love with everything that's happening. Now is the time to show what intimacy between human beings really means through our work," Campbell said. "Our life is still all art."