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Charlotte Observer Fall Arts Guide Feature

The Phoebes Band perform a mix of rock and the blues. The band was among the performers at Tosco Music’s FabFest in July, which marked Tosco’s return to large in-person performances.

This photo by Daniel Coston was featured on the front page of Charlotte Observer's Fall Arts Guide where the Observer highlights the return to arts in-person!

See the full article with photos and video clip about local arts groups adapting during COVID in this recent Charlotte Observer feature, or read the article text below.

Charlotte arts groups look to lift up representation, remain adaptable during COVID
By Heidi Finley
This story was originally published September 13, 2021 6:31 AM
U
pdated September 22, 2021, 2021 3:00 PM

Quiet studios, shuttered theaters and sitting in front of computer screens were the norm for most of 2020. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant more time alone for Charlotte artists, squashing the way many have grown to collaborate on paintings, festivals and music.

After more than a year of coping with cancellations and navigating shutdowns and restrictions, Charlotte’s arts groups found their way back to a new normal, holding in-person events again. Then COVID-19 cancellations began to return.

This fall, some concerts are back in theaters and stadiums, while others are being postponed again.
The Observer asked members of three arts organizations — Arko of Talking Walls, John Tosco of Tosco Music, and Amy Herman and Kiki Nicole of Goodyear Arts — how they coped during the pandemic, what returning to some normalcy meant to them and what’s ahead.

ARKO, TALKING WALLS
Arko, who uses his alias and a mask to separate his persona as an artist from his real identity, volunteers as the artist liaison for the Talking Walls mural festival in Charlotte. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, organizers still pulled together a modified festival last October.

Coronavirus restrictions meant modifying an event that normally spreads regional, national and international artists across the city into one site.

Last year, fewer artists — none of whom traveled internationally — participated in the festival held at ThExchange, and gatherings with the public were put on pause for the year. Festival-goers were largely able to view the work from their cars, except for a few that required a bit of walking to see.

Coupled with calls to increase social justice, the 2020 festival also provided an increased focus on diversity in age, race and gender among the artists selected, especially in a genre that’s historically focused on white males, said Arko, who has Colombian heritage.

“One, it’s about representation, of course,” he said. “And two, we are a social organization. It would be hypocritical not to acknowledge these things and provide a platform. These are the same voices that lift us up as an organization providing art to the community.”

Overall, Arko said he tried to remain adaptable amid the pandemic — and that mindset from Talking Walls carried over to his day job as a land surveyor.

He was considered an essential worker on construction sites during the shutdown, and COVID-19 outbreaks struck some of those locations. Arko said he wore his mask diligently and changed clothes immediately when returning home.

At the same time, the shutdown also offered more time for reflection and meditation with fewer distractions. “It gave me time to refine my work and my craftsmanship, and explore some other aspects,” he said.

Normally he aims to give the viewers of his art a “pleasant feeling,” with bright, bold happy colors. But during COVID-19, he looked back to a time when he worked in black and white, with pen and ink and a more serious feeling, which included depression.

“I was able to touch back into that and see it was still there, and get to know myself a little bit more because of it,” he said.

This year’s Talking Walls is set for Oct. 18-24. International artists will likely be pared back again, due to concerns about COVID-19’s delta variant and international travel regulations.

Still, Arko said, “It’s getting easier to do the things we know how to do, and that allows us to diversify the way we approach bringing this art to Charlotte.”

AMY HERMAN AND KIKI NICOLE, GOODYEAR ARTS
When the pandemic closed most things in Charlotte on March 13, 2020, Goodyear Arts was poised to open an exhibition called “Conversations with Nature: Hollowed Ground.” The public never got a peek, co-director Herman said.

Artists were also ready to start residencies at the nonprofit residency and events organization as the shutdown happened. One person had even started moving into the studio space right as the program was postponed.

The normally busy, colorful space fell silent for weeks. During the time Mecklenburg County was under a stay-at-home order, no one stepped foot in the building.

During the shutdown, artists in residence were in a holding pattern. Nicole, a Black, queer, agender artist and poet who uses “they” pronouns, was out of work. The store they worked at was closed for three months, and they felt uneasy about returning when it reopened.

“I have a pretty uncommon auto-immune disorder and just felt nervous about the lack of research and care for my condition and for other disabled folks in general,” Nicole said. “So instead of going back, I took a medical leave,” Nicole said.

Nicole stayed at home, except for walks with their partner, doctor’s visits and grocery store/Target runs. They were also diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder during that time.
There was little energy left to spend on art.

“I was focused on surviving. If I had the means, I would sign up for a virtual workshop or class or two, but I hardly wrote,” Nicole said.

“I did some temporary social media and editing contracts for money. I was applying for jobs daily and nightly. I watched a lot of television with my partner. We got a cat. I did therapy. Sometimes I would schedule out creative time blocks, but I never finished anything.”

Others at Goodyear Arts took their work outside.

A COVID-19 grant from the Foundation for the Carolinas led to Goodyear Arts’ event in June 2020 called “Joyride,” in which audiences experienced installations and performances from their cars. Herman called it “wildly successful,” and noted it sold out in just a couple days, so the group added another day that also sold out.

Last summer, as protests demanding social justice sprang up across North Carolina and the U.S., Goodyear Arts also focused its efforts on arts and activism training with the advocacy coalition Charlotte Uprising. Ash Willams, a previous artist-in-residence, co-hosted a free online workshop that hundreds of people attended.

Goodyear Arts co-director Amy Herman said COVID-19 was hard for the organization’s audience as well as its artists: “A little bit of our community was lost as a very unfortunate side effect of COVIDAs time passed, Goodyear Arts held a couple of outdoor, socially distanced shows with live audiences.

Its annual “Strange Times” fundraiser last October featured outdoor tours at Camp North End with an original soundscape. The event made for “a very weird and emotional fundraiser, having not seen live performance during the pandemic and then to be immersed in it,” Herman said.

The public returned indoors at Goodyear Arts in December for “Nutrient Rich,” a grant-supported show of small works with the theme that art is essential. It also was available for viewing online. More than 30 artists showcased over 200 pieces of art — 160 pieces of which were sold.

This year, Goodyear Arts hit the use-it-or-lose-it moment for grant funding set aside for artist residencies. So all nine artists slated for 2020 residencies were crammed into the first six months of the year. That meant challenges for everyone involved.

Nicole had originally applied for a fall 2020 residency but instead worked on the program during the summer, which took a toll on their already-inflamed body and joints. There were some upsides, however.
“I had never had a studio space before. All of my work, written or visual, had always been created in my bedrooms. I noticed there was an immediate shift in my mental health,” they said. “Being able to go out of the house and do work without anyone else needing something from me was really important.”

JOHN TOSCO, TOSCO MUSIC
After about 30 years of Tosco Music Parties, even COVID-19 couldn’t bring the celebration of music to a halt completely.

“We missed the music, and we missed the human connection of being together and singing together,” said Tosco, who is executive director of the nonprofit organization that carries his name.

So like many other arts organizations’ events, Tosco Music Parties — often called TMPs — went virtual in May 2020 on YouTube and Facebook Live.

They followed their usual format of plucking groups from all genres of music, with each group doing one song. There was only one big difference: No singalongs.

“We had those performers send in a recording, and we edited it all together with me doing like I’d do on stage, introducing the act,” Tosco said.

The silver lining for Tosco Music, he said, was that “people really stepped up.” Membership dropped, but the financial difference was pretty much made up by donations. The group asked for $10 per viewer.
John Tosco had been teaching fewer guitar lessons before COVID, as he had finally grown his nonprofit Tosco Music to the point where he could be employed as executive director instead of volunteering.
Meanwhile, Tosco Music’s youth music scholarships program continued, as did virtual and outdoor performances at the Aldersgate retirement community.

Tosco also received federal PPP funds, along with a grant from the Arts and Science Council’s Culture Blocks program for virtual, one-hour lunchtime concerts this past April and May. Those concerts returned in August, with five new acts — one performing each week.

“Other than that, we’re kind of done with the virtual world,” said Tosco, who mostly stayed in during the pandemic and cut down his normal load of guitar classes while teaching via Zoom. “I can’t tell you how incredible the energy was coming back in person.”

The group’s return to live performances was celebrated in July at Spirit Square with its popular Fabfest Beatles festival, this time expanded into a whole weekend featuring 20 musical acts and The Fab Four, a well-known Beatles tribute band. More than 500 people attended just the Saturday daytime event.
Tosco also noted that even during Fabfest, Tosco Music has continually had one of the most diverse stages in the Charlotte region. It’s not uncommon to find Black performers in R&B and jazz groups, followed by a group from Bogota, Colombia, singing in Spanish, along with a youth act and a senior act all in one show.

Tosco Music’s 2021 FabFest stretched into a weekend at Spirit Square and Belk Theater, featuring a cover song contest and memorabilia marketplace along with indoor and outdoor performances.
Tosco Music has planned a return to Knight Theater for its annual holiday show Dec. 20, complete with its traditional singalongs. And a new Valentine’s Day event is on tap for next year, featuring love songs at Booth Playhouse, which will be set up cabaret style with cocktail tables.

“All of this kind of helps us come together as a community — our love of music, regardless of all the politics and religion and things that divide us,” Tosco said.

For more information on these groups:
Talking Walls: https://talkingwallscharlotte....
Goodyear Arts: https://www.goodyeararts.com/
Tosco Music: https://toscomusic.org/

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