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Are Artists “Essential Workers?”

As an artist, we are taught to plant deep roots and ride out storms. Turn off the news and channel our fears into our art. Once we get through this pandemic, a bit beat up and wounded, we will hopefully be better for it. A phoenix will rise from the ashes that we can hold up […]

Rachael McCampbell, Artist, in her studio in Franklin, TN © 2020 Photo by Curtis Stewart
Rachael McCampbell, Artist, in her studio in Franklin, TN © 2020 Photo by Curtis Stewart

As an artist, we are taught to plant deep roots and ride out storms. Turn off the news and channel our fears into our art.

Once we get through this pandemic, a bit beat up and wounded, we will hopefully be better for it. A phoenix will rise from the ashes that we can hold up and say, “Ah, yes, now I understand.” But until then, we have questions.

COVID-19 is an unusual truth finder, a seeker shining a spotlight into the corners of our lives we’d forgotten about and didn’t deem important. Suddenly grocery store clerks, farm workers and truck drivers are essential workers — weren’t they always? Well, now, they’re literally putting their lives on the line for us to live. We’ve gained a new appreciation for the basic machinations that keep our society functioning.

Everything we’ve taken for granted, like traveling, buying toilet paper, eating out, ordering something online and having it arrive the next day, hugging our friends — they’ve been curtailed or altered at best. The proverbial brakes have been stomped and we’ve been sent to our rooms for a timeout to contemplate what this is and what this new normal is all about. 

I cannot speak for all artists, but our now quiet, home-based, introspective lifestyles where salaries are in question and being sequestered is a must, is an almost daily occurrence for many of us. Living an isolated life is not unusual, and I don’t ever know what my financial life will be like from one month to the next. Staying home is my welcomed normal. To get any sort of serious work done, an artist needs and craves time away from people to explore their creative depths, recharge their imagination and dream up something new. 

The arts have proven a great escape during the pandemic

But for many, being forced to stay at home is painful. When the doors to a go-go-go, outward-focused life are slammed shut, many people didn’t know where to turn. After they watched Netflix until their eyes were swollen, ate every salty or sugary thing in their cupboard, reorganized all the corners of their home, they turned toward the creative arts — and not merely as passive observers, they decided to partake in music, painting, dancing, writing, filming videos, etc. It’s been an awakening of the creative juices for many, and for artists, quite refreshing to witness. 

Yet, I opened the newsfeed and read who were considered essential workers. When I looked over the list of  jobs, I thought it ironic that artists were not on there, when it’s art that’s saving us now. What would we do without the beauty and inspiration that comes with the creative arts? I would hate to think what life would be like in this quarantine without it. No music, film, books or art?

I know by essential they mean those who need to get out and do their work and those who need to work at home, but the term essential struck me. As the arts get cut from public school curricula and the federal government continually reduces its funding, artists wonder are we wanted, needed or essential?

Something may not seem essential until you take it away. What would this country do without the many creative ways we have expressed ourselves throughout this quarantine? As we have a new appreciation of health care workers and Amazon drivers, I hope we will look too at the arts in a new way and see that the health and well-being of our souls are as valuable as our bodies — perhaps more so.

An essential gift

So, to my artist friends reading this, please know that I believe you are essential. God gave you the gift to ask why, to explore what is behind the obvious curtain and to learn what makes us tick. We’ve always been the truth-tellers, the dream-makers and translators, the ones who find, explain and illustrate the glorious, hidden magic that surrounds us — the magic others are usually too busy to notice. Artists will seek out the lessons, imagery and goodness resulting from being held hostage by an invisible foe and weave a new tapestry of stories through film, visual arts, music, literature, dance, playwriting, performance art and more — inspired storytelling that will reflect on these challenging months for lifetimes to come.

This article was published in The Tennessean Newspaper May 30, 2020.

Rachael McCampbell, a native Tennessean, has lived in New York, Los Angeles, London and Italy and now resides in Franklin where she works as a painter, creating both large-scale private and public commissions, and leads workshops and painting trips abroad.

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