Arts organizations on Manitoulin Island feel strong impacts of COVID-19 pandemic

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MANITOULIN – Arts organizations are scrambling to find their feet in the new world order of pandemic precautions. For many, such as small art galleries, this latest hit has wiped them from the map, for others it is a time to retrench and compose as they wait for better times, while still others are taking this opportunity to reinvent themselves and who they are as an organization.

“It certainly is a new world out there,” said Debajehmujig Storytellers Executive Director Lynda Anne Fox Trudeau, “but we are pretty adaptive.”

Even as Debaj’s international collaboration has been essentially put on hold for this year due in large part to air travel restrictions and the future of this year’s mainstage is very much up in the air, the versatile Debaj crew has been livestreaming events and performances and finding innovative ways to continue their artistic endeavours.

“We even managed to find a way to put together a livestream of the Passion Play we do every year (at Easter) for Holy Cross,” she said. Each of the Debaj members found their own way to participate on the digital highway, even while maintaining a physical distance.

“Technology has been a blessing in this time,” she said of distance collaboration. “You are seeing a lot of artists, musicians and performers log in with performances.”

The company has put its acclaimed ‘Elders Gone AWOL’ online the weekend of April 11 and 12 and posted a musical performance with Elijah Manitowabi streamed live from the sugarbush.

Meanwhile legend keeper Sunny Bear Osawabine has been regularly conducting flute performances, livestreaming on Facebook to ground the community and bring messages of hope and resilience.

“Imagine if this had happened 20 years ago?” noted Ms. Fox Trudeau.

Ashley Manitowabi has been working his magic with heirloom seeds, preparing more than a thousand packets ready for distribution into community gardens across Manitoulin.

“We are maintaining our connection to the land,” Ms. Fox Trudeau noted.

In the meantime, the company is conducting research (notably a genealogical exercise for the troupe members) and preparing items for next year. “We are laying foundations and the building blocks.”

Plenty of things have been coming out of the isolation booth performances as well.

Susan Snelling, chair of 4elements Living Arts, noted that her organization had already migrated to a “virtual organization,” having given up the lease on its physical space last year.

The organization is also focussed on building a mobile studio “based on tiny house principles.”

“So, instead of people coming to us, we will be going to people,” said Ms. Snelling, of course after the restrictions of physical distance have passed. “For now, while actively interacting is tougher for us, maybe we can find new ways to engage virtually.”

Ms. Snelling noted that the company was perhaps a bit better positioned to be able to work than live theatre companies, noting that the restrictions on gatherings of any size will likely be in place for some time to come.

Ms. Snelling said there are likely to be many projects, particularly in regards to social media, “once we have come out of our isolation.”

“So many of us are now turning to baking, listening to music, making music ourselves,” she said. “I think in times like these so many of us are drawn to the arts. It is important that we support those creative impulses.”

The artistic community is finding ways to connect and exploring different ways of thinking about the world around us, she said. 4elements Living Arts is still working on the Elemental Festival that normally takes place in the last week of September.

“We will see what is possible,” she said. “If not then perhaps we will move to virtual activities.”

When it comes to visual arts, Perivale Gallery stands clearly among the forefront of Manitoulin’s art community, but owner Shannon McMullan admits this will be a challenging year.

Normally, Perivale Gallery, situated on the shores of Lake Kagawong, kicks off its Manitoulin season with the unveiling of the latest works by its artist emeritus Ivan Wheale. Alas, that high-water mark will pass without the normal gathering of fans old and new this year.

“I’m really going to miss that this year,” admitted Mr. Wheale. “It really is a homecoming of a kind with people I don’t get to see that much otherwise.”

But like many artists, isolation is kind of the norm for the world renown chronicler of Georgian Bay scenes whose prolific works of all sizes grace galleries from Ottawa to England and beyond.

“I sent a letter out to my artists in mid-March,” said Ms. McMullan. “It took me a very long time to write.”

Ms. McMullan is often a central part of the Gore Bay Theatre productions, winning accolades for her outstanding performances, but this year she was not in the production and so could focus on the gallery, and focus she did.

“All my efforts were on the gallery,” she said, having lined up a number of Celtic music performances that double as fundraisers for local charities and the Liver Foundation of Canada. Ms. McMullan also had an incredible lineup of bespoke workshops with some of the top artists in their fields.

“These are not just paint parties where you are told to put a stroke here and a stroke there,” she emphasized. “The artists spend a lot of time with each of the participants.”

Sadly, much of that effort is now in question given the restrictions that are in place due to the pandemic. The uncertainty of if and when those restrictions will be lifted makes planning very challenging.

“We are in a good position compared to many galleries,” noted Ms. McMullan, who is a retired educator.

Luckily, having built a strong relationship with her artists and patrons, Ms. McMullan has been able to move a lot of the gallery online—not usually a viable option for artwork. “Those relationships are helping to make that work,” she said.

For her part, Ms. McMullan is pouring her deep well of energy into improving the gallery and its grounds. “This is a good time for gardening I suppose,” she laughed. “When the gallery does reopen to visitors we will be better than ever.”

Uncertainty is mixed with disappointment for the Gore Bay Theatre Company, whose QUONTA dominating tour de force ‘Molly Sweeney’ was lined up to score at this year’s now cancelled Theatre Ontario Festival. The pandemic has also trimmed plans for the summer offerings.

“We won’t be putting on a second play this year,” said director Walter Maskel. “We just might be able to hold a limited performance of ‘Molly Sweeney’, but that will depend a lot on how the pandemic plays out.”

Mr. Maskel noted that ‘Molly Sweeney’ is tailor-made for social distancing onstage. “When you think about it, none of the actors are within the proscribed distance during the play,” he said. “It is a collection of monologues.” That format is one of the most challenging to be found in live theatre and to their credit the Gore Bay Theatre troupe pulled it off brilliantly, adding deeply to the disappointment of having to forgo the provincial competition and facing at best a truncated season. They deserved better.

As for the arts funding recently announced by the federal government, Mr. Maskel said he doubts any would trickle down to community theatre groups.

“When you look at the multi-million dollar loses that are being faced by the National Ballet, large scale companies like Stratford and Shaw, most of the focus for those dollars will likely be aimed at those areas,” he said.

Still, Manitoulin’s artistic community is quite used to adversity and challenges. “It may be a while, but we will be bringing live theatre back,” assured Mr. Maskel. “When you think about it, our audiences are usually part of the over 50 crowd and aren’t likely to want to be in any kind of crowd, at least until there is a vaccine. It’s a trying situation to say the least.”