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Northeast Ohio Artists Look To Pivot In Pandemic

Lauren Herzak-Bauman in her studio [Adam Jaenke]
Lauren Herzak-Bauman applies the finishing touches to a white, ceramic cup

Some Northeast Ohio artists are looking at the devastating economic blow of the COVID-19 crisis as a time to be creative.

Jamal Collins has faced adversity before. The 49-year-old grew-up in East Cleveland, but he was able to dodge the drug boys and other dangers on the streets. He parlayed a teenaged love of art into a career as a graphic designer. In recent years, he’s become a mentor to kids who, like him, come from tough circumstances. He’s got a number of gigs teaching the use of digital design tools in various after-school programs. On social media, he’s known as “ Jay Working,” inspired by a Jay-Z lyric. 

Jamal Collins, a.k.a. "Jay Working" supervises a graphics class. [Jamal Collins]

But, Jay’s not working very much lately. All his teaching posts shut down, including area schools and the Boys and Girls Clubs. He admits to being a little scared, but undeterred.

“Because I’ve been creating content, I’ve been building relationships,” he said. “So in the worst case scenario, I could freelance. I've been doing videos. I've been teaching. I can set up an online course. I can design my own web pages. I can work out a curriculum.”

Jamal Collins teaches a coding workshop. [Jamal Collins]

He also sees this societal shutdown as a time for self-improvement, to study and learn new skills.

Potter, sculptor and public artist Lauren Herzak-Bauman is also looking to use what she’s got in different ways, after suffering a pandemic gut punch.

“I think the biggest hit that I am experiencing right now is my pottery line,” she said.

She had a profitable wholesale business, marketing her geometric cups, bowls and plates at trade shows. But as those orders started disappearing, Herzak-Bauman shifted her focus to the web. And she came up with a gimmick.

“I launched some ‘mystery boxes’ online,” she said. “I just took my existing already-made work and packaged it up into these different boxes sorted by color. And I have what I call a ‘seconds box,’ which is pieces that might have a small inconsistency or a minor discoloration - something that makes it just a little less than perfect. So I launched those boxes to my email list and on social media and those online sales have been fantastic.”

She’s also sharing some of the retailing tricks she’s learned in a blog, “ Small business in the time of COVID-19.” It sprang from discussions with friends who all were getting emails and phone calls canceling orders.

Lauren Herzak-Bauman's pottery sales took a major hit because of the pandemic (Adam Jaenke]

“We just have to try to encourage people to think differently about how to engage with us,” she said. “And so, it's all about just keeping interest and staying viable. And supporting each other, too.”    

Last week, the advocacy group Arts Cleveland launched an opportunity for some local creative minds to get together and start planning ways out of this unnerving threat to their livelihoods. CEO Megan Van Voorhis says her organization is hosting weekly online meet-ups for people to share some concerns and some ideas about the way forward.

“We'll do three of these convenings a week: one for arts leaders, one for individual artists, and then just a happy hour, because I think we all need it,” she said with a laugh.

Magan Van Voorhis [Arts Cleveland]

There was general agreement in this week’s artist meeting that this crisis offered a chance for everyone to reset and change some old ways of doing things.

“That's one of the things that this situation has presented to the entire creative community,” Van Voorhis said.  “The opportunity to say, 'well, we're in this situation because it's always been done this way. But what if - which is what artists always ask - what if we do it in this new way?' And now, that opens up the possibilities to do that.”

Like figuring out a way to diversify revenue streams in a world where gigs and grants can suddenly disappear.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.