Rania Matar drives her car around the Greater Boston area in search of signs of life and human interaction. She simply can’t let go of the intimacy harbored between a photographer and their subjects. As the stay-at-home advisory in Massachusetts has limited her contact with photography subjects, Matar finds a way to still capture them in their current natural state: through a glass window.
Artists are seeing their worlds close during the pandemic. The exhibits, displays, and sales that provide their income have come to a halt, and artists in and around Boston have found themselves alone and unsupported by the government while struggling to find their footing financially.
“I think it’s important to stay motivated and to try to use this for something better. I’m trying hard to stay in that frame of mind, because this could last,” Matar said.
As a productive way to cope with the coronavirus outbreak, she enlisted the help of her Instagram followers. Just a few weeks ago, she made an Instagram post asking her followers to volunteer to have their portraits taken through a first floor window or doorway, while still following social distancing guidelines.
“I usually work very intimately with people so for me to be photographing people across the window, it’s going to be a whole new experience,” she said.
Matar’s art explores the intimate connection between women and themselves as well as with others, which is why this new distanced project should come as a challenge to her.
“What became important in my work was focusing on that universality of womanhood, I guess, in the sense that maybe every one of us is different, but ultimately there’s something universal of being grown and growing up and going through physical changes,” she said.
Her work is currently exhibited in the Harrison Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Art on display, but the museum is closed until further notice, as all museums are throughout the United States. The case is the same with multiple exhibits of hers up in museums such as the Smithsonian National Design Museum in New York City, and others.
One of her upcoming exhibits was canceled due to the pandemic. Her portrait collection, titled “Particular Portraits” was due to be shown at the Essex Art Center in Lawrence during the month of May. “I rely on photo sales, and that’s not happening now,” she shared.
A few of her photography workshops were also canceled, which was also a big source of income for her. “I don’t want to complain […] I had a good two years before so I’m okay now, but it’s hard,” she said.
Regardless of the oddness of the situation, Matar believes that “if we can make art out of this, this is something we all should do in one way or another.”
Feda Eid, a Lebanese American visual artist, photographer, and designer, is also experiencing a lot of artistic and financial pressure.
Not much has changed for Eid in her daily life since she started self-isolating. She mostly works from home, but this proved to have a bigger impact on her life than she expected.
“In the beginning, I was like ‘oh, this is gonna be fine, I’m always home, it’s not a big deal,’ but then I started to feel overwhelmed because of the heaviness of the situation and that made me go a little bit crazy,” she said.
Matar wasn’t the only artist who had lost multiple opportunities to showcase their work and profit from it. Eid had exhibitions shut down. “When it first happened I was devastated because I had two events canceled, and they were at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and like, it was kind of a dream gig for me,” said Eid.
“It’s scary because you lose all your income. And if you’re someone that is an artist and you sort of plan month to month, there’s no real stability in your income,” said Eid. Three months of planning had gone into her photography illustration event at the MFA, which was scheduled to be a two-day event.
“I’ve had to like, go through all my expenses and get rid of a lot of stuff that I’m paying for monthly,” she said.
After Eid got the news of the cancelation, she decided to cancel a photoshoot she had also planned to hold that weekend. “I just think I could feel that it wasn’t the right thing to do to expose ourselves to each other. And it was going to be with a big group,” she said.
Even grants and relief funds for artists aren’t enough at this point to sustain a living when their main source of income has halted. “I applied to three or four grants. Most of them are like $200 or so, so it’s not that much,” she said.
The coronavirus has brought artists’ ability to work to a standstill. Photographing has proven to be difficult, collections can’t be exhibited, and their work is not being sold. “Everything stopped, so we have no source of income and we have to pay rent, and we have to buy groceries,” she said. “There’s a little bit too much pressure put on artists right now to create and give.”
Eid has expressed her frustration with the lack of support for artists during this time. “We’re seeing now how important art is and people are staying home and listening to music and watching movies and looking at artwork and this is what keeps us going as people,” she stated. “So all those people that have their jobs and they’re just working from home, I think now’s the time for you to give back to all of those communities that enrich your life,” she said.
Nathalia JMag, a Colombian American sustainable fashion designer who makes most of her living from planning, curating, and showcasing her designs at fashion shows, has found herself unable to continue with her work. She also sells sustainable clothing on her brand website. “My income that was coming from doing events and from doing educational things has stopped,” she said.
“I had four gigs lined up for the next few months. I had a show in May, a class I was gonna teach in April, plus the workshop that I was gonna set up. It’s a pretty big chunk of money that I’m missing out on,” she explained.
As a founder of her sustainable clothing brand, she makes it a priority to refrain from wasting any fabrics as much as possible during the process of making her clothing. “It’s really hard for me when I cut and there are pieces that I’m not going to use and I always save them. And I try to make something from them. So that’s kind of what I’m doing now,” she said.
As a way to aid the shortage of masks, particularly in the US, she has added a new fashion item to her clothing brand: masks. “Thankfully I am selling the masks and that’s been a good source of income. It doesn’t make up for the lost income, but it’s something,” said JMag.
She is using some of the profit she’s making off the product to buy fabric in order to make masks to donate to institutions in need. “I want to make things that people need. This is something that people need,” she said. She also wants to make sure that these essential supplies are also accessible to her customers. “If someone can’t afford one, I will give it to them for free if they pay the shipping,” she said.
Like Eid, the Safarani Sisters’ day-to-day does not look much different. “Usually the day begins by picking up the brush to paint or camera to shoot,” they said, and that’s what they continue to do today. “Staying motivated is the key these days, which, we know is easier said than done, but keeping busy with your work will help to make it happen.”
The twin visual artists were scheduled to speak and exhibit their work at the Cue Ball annual event in June, as well as produce a project for Burning Man in Nevada in late August. Both events were canceled. “We were part of the visual artists of the Boston Calling Music festival, which was scheduled for the end of May and was canceled,” they said.
They say that there is no clear policy on how artists will be protected or supported throughout the pandemic. “Even after reopening the economy and different businesses, it is very likely that the art financial market will not recover as fast as other sectors of the economy as it won’t be prioritized,” they shared.
On the other hand, the sisters believe that art isn’t necessarily the most important concern for the public. “Artists and artwork in general contribute to a community’s mental health and well-being which certainly is a critical aspect, but not a priority right now.”