What Happens When Your Livelihood Shuts Down?
Two months ago, Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. was still recovering from a devastating car accident in November that left the Charlotte photographer with lasting physical injuries and plenty of bills.
But hope was on the horizon: He had a residency scheduled at UNC Charlotte, a teaching gig with the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, and wedding season – his most lucrative time of year – was fast approaching.
And then, the coronavirus. And the North Carolina stay-at-home order. And the shutdown of essentially everything that allowed him to make a living in his artistic profession. Poof! The residency, the teaching opportunity and weddings were all canceled.
That means Jacobs still is working to get his life restored from that accident that totaled his car and left him unable to work for a month – and he now has to do it with limited job opportunities and while burning through his savings.
“What I've learned as an artist, as a man -- as a black man: No one cares,” he said this week. “Like, my problems, my issues, underlying conditions -- whether they're socio-economical or race or whatever -- those are my problems, and no one is going to help me with those problems. So, what I have to do is try to negotiate the fallout.
“That's why I'm not running around (outside). (People say,) ‘Well, you can just go get an essential job.’ What part of ‘I have asthma with an inhaler’ don't you understand?”
Jacobs was part of a Gantt Center virtual panel Tuesday called, “Unmasked: An Introspective Conversation with Creatives.” He joined artists Bree Stallings, Whitney Austin and artist/moderator Dave Butler to talk about how the coronavirus has affected the lives of artists in Charlotte. In particular, how it has affected artists of color.
Jacobs sees how the coronavirus has disproportionately ravaged black communities and can’t help but connect that impact to the art community as well.
“Absolutely, black everything is being disproportionately affected,” he said. “We're disproportionately affected throughout -- from artistry through any business. We're on the bottom end. That's always been that way.”
For Stallings, an accomplished artist whose murals appear throughout Charlotte, the pandemic has altered everything about her life.
“What hasn’t changed and forced us to change in this time?” she said. “Everything is completely in flux. Just on the basic, non-abstract level, I didn’t have access to my studio space. I went through a period of 10 days where every day I got an email where a job was being canceled or a commission was being pulled back, and it was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ It just kept coming.”
After several major commissions were canceled, Stallings started to collect unemployment.
“I come from a place of poverty,” she said. “It just reminds me, and it triggers me in that way. I’m not painting in my studio; I’m painting on the floor of my apartment, and I just feel like, ‘Am I back 10 years ago in my career?’”
Austin, who owns an art gallery in Charlotte, has been confined to delivering her art virtually – and feels pressured to create during this time we’re all forced to be at home. But there’s stress from not only worries about coronavirus but also her own personal output.
“My creativity has went down the drain,” Austin said. “I have been so overwhelmed. I feel like there’s more pressure on us to create, and there’s even more pressure to create masterpieces.”
Jacobs sees one silver lining in all of this: Artists who never treated their career as a business have been forced to do so, now.
“If you don’t have your paperwork in order, there are resources you don’t have access to,” he said. “This pandemic is a mess, right? A lot of smaller businesses have been forced to professionalize their practices, which is going to set them up for success in the long run.”
And just one small blessing to be thankful for right now is enough.
This story originally appeared in our arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.