Lessons Learned And Lives Changed: Six Kansas City Artists Look Back At A Year Disrupted By A Virus
As the year 2020 comes to a close, several area artists and performers talk about the highlights and setbacks of creating and surviving during a pandemic.
Artist Kwanza Humphrey's studio at the InterUrban ArtHouse in Overland Park is surrounded by the colorful, large-scale portraits he paints. He likes to swathe his subjects in African textiles.
“Black Americans have been uprooted from Africa,” Humphrey says. “I'll have models come in and sit for me and I'll take photos and I say wear whatever you want. It doesn't matter because I'm probably going to change it and wrap you in these beautiful patterns from Africa. For me, it's a way of reconnecting with that culture that is lost and to see that richness.”
For Humphrey, 2020 began with a solo show at the Smalter Gallery in Kansas City. He had big plans to apply to exhibit his work in national shows. But as his paintings came down in March, it became clear that finding a national audience would have to wait. Humphrey says he doesn’t mind.
“That's all going to be there after this year,” he says. “For me, it's always been about trying to make good work and that doesn't change in a pandemic.”
Despite the challenges of 2020, Humphrey says he’s had a good year. Virtual shows this fall at The Bunker Center for the Arts and the Natasha Ria Art Gallery have kept him busy — and he’s sold a few paintings.
Humphrey says he is fortunate to have a day job that supports him financially and allows him to create in his free time. He works for Garmin International in its wellness division. When offices closed in March, Humphrey moved his work station to his studio at InterUrban. He says the arrangement has allowed him to be enveloped in the paintings he has in progress all week long.
“Now it's like I turn around and my paintings are right there,” Humphrey says. “So it's been exciting for me to be immersed in the work. Then when I do have that opportunity to get back to it, it's like you pick it right up and jump right in.”
Humphrey says trying not to worry about things that were out of his control helped him focus on the task at hand — both in work and art.
“I tried to keep mentally and spiritually on a consistent schedule and tried not to get too up and too down about anything that was going on,” he says. “The most I worried about was just making sure that I was doing everything that I could to be as safe as possible and then making sure that I was keeping my my family safe and not making poor decisions.”
And he keeps his eyes on the future.
“The thing is," he says, "there will be an end to this, you know, there will be an end.”
Michael and Andy Grayman-Parkhurst
Spinning Tree Theatre
It was when they realized that the fall series of Spinning Tree Theatre would have to be canceled that Michael Grayman-Parkhurst and Andy Grayman-Parkhurst began to fear for the future of the company they founded 10 years ago. So they decided to widen their vision.
Since moving to Kansas City from New York City in 2010, the two have produced musicals and plays like 'Violet,' 'Every Brilliant Thing' and 'Casa Valentina' -- many of them debut works for Kansas City. In that time, they have also married and have a son together.
When COVID-19 hit in March, they abruptly shut down their production of 'La Cage aux Folles,' a musical they'd been looking forward to producing.
"That was difficult because 'La Cage aux Folles' was going to be like our 'Nutcracker' or 'Christmas Carol' of the season," Andy says. "That was our built-in crowd pleaser, if you will."
Many of their season ticket holders chose to transfer the value of their tickets to a donation rather than seeking refunds. So the two were cautiously optimistic they'd be able to come back strong in the fall for their 10th anniversary season. But that wasn't possible.
Their theater was at a crossroads and Michael and Andy needed a plan.
"We wanted to keep doing this, but if we return in a year with no ticket sales, there isn't going to be money to produce professional theater," Andy explains. "Unlike larger organizations, there's no endowment. There's no savings. We're hand-to-mouth and we've always been that way."
While some organizations started offering productions online, Michael and Andy were reluctant to lose the special connection that comes from performing in front of a live audience.
"The thing that's amazing about live theater is the relationship performers have with the audience and the energy that goes back and forth with them," Michael says.
So the two decided to rethink their mission entirely. For the time being, they won't return to a schedule of professional productions. Instead, in late November, they partnered with Variety Children’s Charity of Greater Kansas City. Once it is safe to bring live theater back to the stage, Spinning Tree will offer year-round opportunities for local teens with disabilities and their able-bodied peers to collaborate with professional artists to produce plays.
The decision didn't come out of the blue. Last year Spinning Tree worked with Variety KC on a production of 'Starlight Express' during a summer youth theater project.
"We always called it our heart project," Andy says. "We want joy and we want light and we want authentic experiences in our professional lives as well as personal lives. We want to be in a room with people that are open-hearted and that are grateful, because gratitude begets gratitude. And it just felt like, with that group of kids, we were at our best and what we gave them, they gave back."
The collaboration fills a need. Locally, there are few opportunities where kids with disabilities can collaborate with able-bodied peers.
"We couldn't wait to do it again and we also can't wait to find even more kids who want this opportunity," says Michael. "We have a very supportive board that's gone with us."
For now, with their hectic production schedule on hold, Michael and Andy have been able to spend more time with family — including their 3-year-old son, Sammy.
"I think it taught me to slow down and look around and take a breath, look at what we do and and make a huge decision like this," Michael says. "For us, it was like 2020 allowed us to say, 'We think we want to do something new.'"
Brad Cox and Jennifer Owen
The Owen/Cox Dance Group
Dancer and choreographer Jennifer Owen and musician and composer Brad Cox had big plans for 2020, and COVID-19 interrupted them in a big way.
The married couple, and founders of The Owen/Cox Dance Group, had to cancel their troupe's U.S. State Department Public Diplomacy Tour to Ukraine. Thirteen dancers were scheduled to perform "The Goldberg Variations," Johann Sebastian Bach's complex work, which Owens had choreographed in 2013.
“There has been a lot of a lot of disappointment,” Owen says. “The whole year has been trying to make tentative plans, but also knowing that plans are most likely going to have to change for a while.”
The Owen/Cox Dance Group is known for dynamic performances with live music and modern dance — often onstage at the Carlsen Center’s Polsky Theatre.
“I don't think we were positioned very well to make a transition like this, because our work is all based on large ensembles and it's all based on live performance,” Cox says. “So it's definitely been quite a rethinking of things to try to figure out, well, what can we do that’s small.”
By the time summer rolled around the couple had a project in mind. They collaborated with filmmaker Elizabeth Stehling to create a five-and-a-half-minute video performance they called “across again," with dancers Latra Wilson and Winston Dynamite Brownat the Encampment Theater at Kaw Point Park.
“It was just so nice to be able to work in person outdoors,” Owen says. “You miss seeing people and your friends and the people you work with. And so just being able to connect even in a different way in person was just a huge blessing.”
When New Dance Partners, a showcase of local dance companies, moved their performances online, collaborations with filmmakers became bolder and more ambitious. With support from Johnson County Community College, they worked with multiple dancers in different parts of the country to produce “Keeping Time,” choreographed by Caili Quan. It’s a work that begins in the close confines of an apartment and then moves outside to rocky landscapes, leafy walkways and rooftop car parks.
Owen says working with videographers has added another layer to the work of building a performance.
“On an artistic level, we’re trying to be open to all the ways that we can create and trying to create something special and beautiful and moving for people to experience,” she says. “That's our goal.”
Looking ahead, the U.S. Embassy in Kiev has extended their contract through May of 2021. Besides working on rescheduling the tour, they are moving forward with dance partnerships in Ukraine.
“One of our dancers offered a master class to the students at the University of Poltava,” Owen says. “Zoom, in a lot of ways, is opening up some other possibilities. We don't actually have to be there on the ground to start building our friendship and our relationship with our partners.”
Cox says he's ending the year feeling grateful.
“One thing I’ve thought about a lot is just being thankful because, you know, in our situation, anyway, things could definitely be far worse,” he says. “It’s really important to be thankful for, not only things we have, but the things that we can do, the things that we can do for one another.”
Natasha Ria El-Scari
Author, Poet, Gallery Owner
In early November, Natasha Ria El-Scari was busy trying to get ahead with her many projects. Those included promoting her two books, writing poetry, running her gallery, starting up a life coaching side gig, and helping her daughter navigate her senior year in high school.
She was looking forward to spending some time with her college-age son after a stressful but productive year. Then she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
“Having COVID was the scariest thing of my life,” says El-Scari. “I’ve never experienced anything even remotely close physically and I've given natural childbirth."
What’s more, her illness made it impossible to work. Even though she’d put money aside to prepare for the possibility of getting sick, with the effects of COVID-19 lingering, she worried about paying her bills.
“It was 45 days,” remembers El-Scari. “No work. No income. So obviously that impacted me financially.”
Once she felt well enough to check her social media accounts, she wrote a post about her illness on Facebook. Friends and family immediately jumped in to help.
“The community really reached out to me and I was getting donations and Cash Apps from people I did not know, like literally just from me sharing my story,” El-Scari says.
Though better, she was still struggling with back pain and other effects from her bout with COVID as the year closed out.
Looking back to the early days of the pandemic, El-Scari says at first the shutdown was a relief.
“I will say for my many African-American women creative friends, those first three weeks, we all just were happy that things stopped,” she says. “It was scary, but we were all exhausted. We all had been overworking."
Soon El-Scari was back at work. And some good things were happening.
"People started to notice, because they were in their houses every day, how sucky their art was,” El-Scari says. “So we had a boom in the sale of original art."
When the pandemic shut down many small businesses, El-Scari started organizing personal showings at her gallery for serious customers.
And she kept artists out in front with online events. She was a veteran of the virtual art opening even before the pandemic. Her artists regularly show in unconventional spaces — like barbershops and beauty salons. Without the possibility of a traditional gallery opening, Black Space Black Art openings always have an online element.
Over the summer, El-Scari worked with the Troost Market Collective and the The Urban League of Greater Kansas City to curate the artists for Kansas City’s Black Lives Matter mural project.
“Six simultaneous Black Lives Matter murals going up — and they were not just the yellow paint,” says El-Scari. “This was an artist's interpretation of the work. To be able to help the artist think about what they wanted to do and kind of brainstorm with them, it was just powerful."
All along she was writing poetry, usually seizing time in the middle of the night.
“Poetry has always been how I've processed emotion and experience,” says El-Scari. Here are lines of a work that resulted from her COVID experience:
“As the poem was coming together it did feel like I was just compressed in this strange stillness when you're in the eye of the storm," says El-Scari. You’re just in the middle of it, you feel the pressure and all the destruction that's going on around you."
When things became too much in the pandemic year, El-Scari took to walking along the Missouri River.
“I would walk miles, she says. “Sometimes I cried and sometimes I prayed and sometimes I screamed and sometimes I danced. I don't want to ever be too busy that I cannot stop and go to the river front for either sunrise or sunset. The river reminded me that everything is still moving. You know, that I'm not stuck.”