How Hamilton artists are creating during the COVID-19 pandemic

In celebration of Hamilton Arts Week, we look at what it's been like to work as an artist — the building of community, the challenges, and sparks of creation — as the COVID-19 pandemic presses on.

As Hamilton celebrates Arts Week, we look at what it's been like to work as an artist

Artistic director Lisa Emmons of Aeris K​​​örper is among creators in Hamilton who are making art, continuing their businesses, and performing online. (Aeris K​​​örper/Instagram)

While the COVID-19 crisis saw performance spaces, shops, and galleries close, artists across the city continued to create in the midst of a pandemic.

They found ways to reach their audiences all the while grappling with their changing world and livelihood. 

For Hamilton Arts Week, here are a few of these artists, the challenges they face, and their work to keep connected with their audiences. 

Industry Theatre

Artists from seven different countries filmed themselves answering questions about their lives during the crisis and sent them to Industry Theatre, a company in Hamilton, to be cut together into eight videos.  

They called it the Corona Diaries.

Co-produced by Matthew MacFadzen and Rose Hopkins, the series captured what it was like to work as an artist during the pandemic — their personal losses, changing motivation, and creative process — as a sort of "time capsule."

It'll end on June 14th, with the artists video-conferencing each other for the first time. 

MacFadzen said that viewing and cutting the videos of the artists' thoughts was incredibly intimate. While you can't duplicate live performance, he said the series kept a sense of community alive in ways he didn't anticipate.

"At the beginning of the outbreak, I think there was a large feeling among performance artists that we were all somehow impotent in a lot of ways. You know, the ability to perform and express and do our thing was suddenly cut off entirely," he said.  

"The attempt through this has been to not just let people know they're not alone in this, but to let people feel that art is continuing through this even though it may feel like it's not," he said.

"I think it's been quiet therapeutic for a lot of folks to tell you the truth." 

Aeris K​​​örper

As waves of cancellations battered the arts, artistic director Lisa Emmons of Aeris K​​​örper, a contemporary dance studio, said they took time to pause and process. And from that stillness, they started to create. 

One of the first things Aeris K​​​örper did was perform in Hamilton Shows Up — a pair of live-streamed events run by CoBALT Connect showcasing local artists.

Then came an online six-week technique series and morning movement practices on social media to help people wake up their physicality, mind and imagination to start the day. 

Emmons, who uses the pronoun they, said the past months have been profound and transformative. They stressed finding value in both moments of stillness and in movement that can express what words cannot. 

"Being able to physicalize the emotions, and even vocalize, is so helpful and healthy to let that out," they said. "I feel very clear when I let my body lead...the gift of physicalizing is massive." 

As the arts landscape changes day-by-day, their focus is on staying malleable. 

"We are doing the best with what we know at this time, and that will be different tomorrow," they said. 

Shannon Kitchings, pictured above, Hemantika Mahesh Kumar, Leilani Bowry, Mikaela Demers, Mayumi Lashbrook, and Lisa Emmons will lead the choreography for their new piece during Hamilton Arts Week. (Aeris K​​​örper/Instagram)

For Hamilton Arts Week, they will create 'Dangerous Vacancies,' which will look at the "vacant spaces left behind by those we love who leave us." The community is invited to join in on the creative process. 

"The beauty of bringing different people together and allowing everyone to contribute to the pot of soup is that it ends up being something we couldn't have made on our own," Emmons said.  

Stone and Shadow 

A couple weeks after Nadia Ishmail, owner of Stone and Shadow, left her full-time job to run her holistic boutique, stores across Ontario closed and she found herself grieving for a family member. 

Amidst it all, she dove into "create-mode" and connected with an online community that she said continues to "fuel" her fire.

Ishmail, who makes gemstone jewlery and soaps by hand and is certified in reiki, is running a part of her business by selling pieces on Instagram live sales. These sales have transformed into six or seven hour open discussions on issues that people are confronting during the pandemic, including grief, low-energy, and trauma. 

Nadia Ishmail creates gemstone jewelry in her holistic boutique by hand. (Stone and Shadow/Instagram)

"As a creator, an artist, somebody who is trying to help with other people's healing [it's important that I'm] making sure that not only am I taking care of myself, but planting the seeds so that other people can help heal themselves as well," she said. 

"Every day is a complete restart and refresh of what this is going to look like," she said. "There's no blueprints, there's no format..it's how do we make this easier for tomorrow, how do we make sure everybody's connecting."

Ishmail added that while the external factors are different during pandemic, people have been dealing with the same issues they were before, like self-identity and mental health concerns. 

Coming together online, she said, has opened up people's ability to communicate a little more and articulate what they need as opposed to what they want. And sometimes that isn't necessarily a piece they can buy, but something internal they can address. 

"It completely changes you when you start doing what your body and your mind tells you what is right for you. It will transform everything," she said. 

Karma Kameleon

Drag performer Karma Kameleon spends days working on creating a set and look, recording a video, and editing clips in order to perform on live streams and pre-recorded shows across social media. Just today, she'll shoot four videos.

Her shift to digital drag has meant an immense work load, and for little to no pay compared to performing at a show pre-pandemic.  With performances leaving an online footprint, the expectations are high, especially as the audience demands continual re-invention by the performer. 

The shift, she says, is something she embraces as an opportunity to show growth. While Karma Kameleon normally performs stand ups, being online has meant engaging an audience that "isn't there" to laugh. It's inspired her to experiment with different sides of who she is. 

"It's been lovely because it does force you to get a lot more creative so you don't feel like you're stagnating," she said. "It's just one of those things where I'm very grateful to put any of my art out there, but the amount of more time and energy it takes to produce that art...it catches up to you." 

"At some point I would like a day off," she laughed. 

Despite the inflated focus on digital drag, Karma Kameleon says she hope drag artists know that no matter the quality of the camera, being one's authentic self is truly what makes someone stand out. (David Hawe/Submitted by Karma Kameleon )

The virtual stage hasn't been without its challenges. One of the biggest obstacles Karma Kameleon faces right now is music selection. While she loves performing to music like Céline Dion or Whitney Houston, she says videos have been increasingly pulled or muted by copyright infringement. 

"When the world does finally reopen, will there be a place for us? How are we going to continue making art for the next three to nine to however many months it's like this?" she asked, adding that the packed bars where she normally performs aren't going to be the first places to return to normal. 

While social media has helped communities stay connected, she stressed that it's "still not the same thing as being able to be with your people." 

That's why to celebrate Pride this month, she is teaming up with Adam and Steve whose brain child of the 'Dragmobile,' will bring a socially distanced 15-minute drag show to people's front lawns. Karma Kameleon said this moment of normalcy is crucial when people can't come together. 

Drag performer Karma Kameleon has been juggling an immense workload in the shift to online performances. (Richard Carl Cleveland/Submitted by Karma Kameleon)

"At the end of the day, my belief on art is that its core goal is to evoke emotion. If that's the joy that distracts you from your day, if that's the sadness you've been avoiding feeling. Whatever it is you need. And I think when you look at a community like the queer community, that's something they need because they go through more in a day than just your average person," she said. "So I think them not being able to come together is a hard thing for a lot of people, especially when you get to this time of year with Pride." 

What she hopes drag artists get out of this time is the knowledge that being your authentic self is always what separates a queen —  that no matter the quality of the camera, being genuine is what triumphs. 

6-Minute Memoir

Thirteen story tellers, including authors, actors and activists, are coming together for the eighth year of the 6-Minute Memoir. 

The events have typically happened live, with an audience, but the latest one will happen live online on June 20th. The roster of people who will tell their story in six minutes or less includes local authors Gary Barwin and Dorothy Palmer, as well as Leo Johnson, who spent eight years in refugee camps before coming to Hamilton and founding Empowerment Squared. 

In a press release, journalist, author, and founder of the storytelling series Anne Bokma says that it's crucial people come together to listen to each other. 

"Now, more than ever, we need to hear each other's stories and feel connected with one another during a time when so many of us are isolated," she said. "Storytelling helps bring us together."