North Dakota artists show resilience in uncertain landscape

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – The archetype of the gloomy, secluded artist never appealed to Bismarck painter Nicole Gagner.

“Community connection is really another big part of my work, since everything is inspired by the world around me,” she said. “It is really easy to get isolated as an artist and just hole up in your studio and not talk to anybody for days. It would be so easy for me to do that, and I know that that wouldn’t make me happy.”

But in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, artists, like most people, are being asked to do just that: keep to themselves. In the Bismarck arts community, creators are facing a loss of income and community as galleries close, shows are postponed and performances canceled, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

Artistic process

Mandan artist Helen Campbell is primarily a plein-air painter, meaning she sits outside to complete her paintings of nature, shunning the subjective view of a camera lens. As social distancing has increased, Campbell said, she is still able to practice her craft in rural areas and parks.

“It’s a time to draw back,” she said. “And I can do that. I can just keep going and try to make what I do, and do it well, and I’m going to really pursue that.”

Though she usually draws much inspiration from her extensive community work as an art teacher, Gagner said she has been trying to keep up a work ethic at her home studio. The internet, besides being a continued space to sell art, has been both a source of distraction and motivation.

“There’s definitely more online distractions now because you want to feel connected to everybody else but you can’t see them in person so you go and text with everybody, but then you can fall down a rabbit hole,” she said.

Still, as an instructor for Bismarck State College, she has tried to be open-minded as she’s been thrust into the world of distance learning.

“Online teaching is not a bad thing, she said. “It’s not the enemy, so getting more comfortable with that is a good thing.”


Besides continued teaching for BSC, Gagner also has been hosting various online workshops and classes that she would typically perform in person. As a full-time artist, Gagner said she is fortunate to have multiple streams of income.

“Luckily for me I’m kind of used to seasons of high and low,” she said. “I’m lucky to have a wide source of income in that way, but that’s definitely not the case for all artists.”

Many artists supplement their income with flexible jobs that have been impacted by people staying home, according to Kim Konikow, executive director of the North Dakota Council on the Arts.

“The fact that a lot of people are in the food industry means there’s a double whammy,” Konikow said. “So they’ve been hit with job loss or severely curtailed (hours). Unemployment may not have come in. They’re not in a position to do teaching of art because schools are not gathering.”

The Council on the Arts moved quickly to help bolster the state’s artistic community as infrastructure began shutting down. They have already extended five grant deadlines from April 1 to May 1. Throughout March and April, they hosted digital listening sessions for local artists to talk through collective struggles.

The council also issued a survey to gather information about how artists were being affected by shutdowns. Data from the survey was sent to the federal government to help inform the coronavirus relief bill, according to Konikow.

“If we have data, it helps us with funding for sure,” Konikow said, noting that the survey is still open. “I would say the arts community is very used to responding, because invariably the threat to arts and culture funding is always there.”

Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the council received $421,700, $371,700 of which will be distributed to local arts organizations and artists through various funding channels.

Getting online

Individual artists are not the only ones being hit hard by the social-distancing effects of the virus. Nonprofits and businesses that showcase art also have been trying to find ways to continue to reach people after shutting their doors and canceling events. Many have turned to online spaces.

What’s important is “getting imagery out there,” said David Borlaug, president of the Capital Gallery. The gallery is “ramping up” its social media presence, he said, “hoping we can communicate with people that way, engage them.”

Paul Noot, manager of the Bismarck Downtown Artist Cooperative, said the organization is used to selling art on social media, and during this time, their pages also have been encouraging artistic activities for people stuck at home “just to get their mind off other things and stay creative.”

There are limits, however, to promoting visual art on the web. Though Gagner said she sells many of her pieces online, she estimates that about a half to a third of her online customers have already seen a piece in person before purchase.

“There’s something really different about seeing an art piece in person and getting that connection to it, then imagining it in your space or how you want to live with it,” she said. “My work is really textural, so that’s hard to photograph and hard to convey online. I do put a lot of work into trying to make it translate.”

That work can be daunting, Campbell concurred.

“It has its downsides for sure,” she said of online marketplaces. “Say you sell a piece and someone sees the artwork and it’s too different, so it’s really important to take care.”

Uncertain future

Even though the show will inevitably go on at some point, the arts community is anticipating hard times ahead in a tough economic landscape.

“In my heart I think this is worse (than the 2008 economic crash),” Konikow said. “I think the loss of life and health and the fact that we’re still in the middle of it and really don’t know what the other side’s going to look like – I think it’s going to be a little harder to rebuild in some cases.”

In a previous incarnation, the nonprofit Capital Gallery was the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn. Borlaug said he remembers 2011 being the organization’s hardest year after flooding wiped away a summer’s worth of tourism. Even then, he said, the organization survived with community support.

“I think at times like this when people are facing uncertainty … people realize the things that endure and in our society today, arts and culture matter and I really think that a lot of people are going to understand that and rally to help institutions like ours,” Borlaug said.

Campbell said that as an artist, she’s been asking friends and family not only if they have enough food and toilet paper, but also if they have enough art supplies. Creativity, she said, will be integral to the rebuilding that will occur after the virus has peaked.

“Philosophically, this is a time that I think artists do have something to give to society,” Campbell said. “They know how to innovate. They know how to communicate from a new place because even when we work, the very act of making a piece of art takes a certain amount of risk.”

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