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Art in the time of COVID

“Fog Over the Marsh” by Pat Nickerson. Many of Nickerson’s works are featured in “Picture Perfect: 400 Years of Eastham,” the Guild’s first online exhibit.

The Guild usually has a schedule of get-togethers for its members like potluck suppers, off-Cape art museum excursions, breakfast meetings, and plein air painting events. However, these have become nearly impossible to hold as a result of the pandemic. Members are instead devising new ways to stay in touch and maintain the social connections during the shelter-in-place orders. Willow Shire, a long-time Eastham Painters Guild member, described the shift to primarily digital interaction. “We have a lot of Zoom meetings,” Shire says, “and the other thing that we’re talking about is painting together on Zoom.” The Guild has also opted for Zoom breakfasts in lieu of their normal morning meetings in an effort to stay connected and maintain a semblance of normalcy. “There is some shared painting and shared socializing thanks to Zoom, but it’s not the same,” she says.   

One in-person activity the Guild has done their best to continue is their plein air painting sessions. The practice occurs year-round, with the Guild traveling to different historical sites and parts of the Cape Cod National Seashore in order to paint together. These plein air sessions are generally open to the public and have become very popular with locals and vacationers. However, COVID-19 has changed the scope of what is possible. The Guild is now continuing this program and inviting other painters to paint in spaces where everyone can maintain a social distance. “We’re really trying to keep people together,” Shyllberg says. “Seeing people painting in the local landscape in the last few weeks has been really good. Everybody says exactly that afterwards. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s been so good. This is the only thing that keeps me sane.’”

Despite this positive change, some aspects of the Guild’s normal agenda have been much harder to adapt—specifically, their college scholarship program. The Guild sells sets of notecards featuring work by the members across the Cape. The profits fund annual scholarships for students at Nauset Regional High School and Cape Cod Regional Technical High School pursuing art studies. Last year, the Guild gave scholarships to six deserving students.

Meg Schmidt and Karen Kollar along with members of The Guild regularly travel to locations along the National Seashore for (socially distant) plein air painting sessions, open to the public and other local painters.

Unfortunately even the sales and resulting fundraising of something as simple and benign as a set of notecards has suffered at the hands of the virus. Regular retailers have been challenged to open their businesses where the cards are available, and printing, which was conducted at Cape Cod Tech, was halted when the school closed in March. “I’m really worried,” Shire confesses. “We’re going to have to find another way to fund our scholarship program if we can’t sell cards.” As a result, the Guild is entertaining new ways to supplement the lull in card sales, including contributing 10 percent of their “400 Years of Eastham” exhibit sales to the scholarship program. “We’ll figure it out,” Shyllberg confirms. “We’re not going to stop [the program]; we’re just going to have to figure out how to make it work.”

Although COVID-19 has changed the way the Eastham Painters Guild is conducting its regular events and celebrations like “400 Years of Eastham” and its 40th anniversary, they are still making do and pushing forward, maintaining community connections, creating art, and encouraging others to do the same. “I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that after this is over, there’s going to be a flood of artwork from every artist on the Cape and beyond,” Shyllberg opines, “because I think that’s how artists cope with anxiety and the unknown.” While the future is not certain, the Eastham Painters Guild members still hope its scheduled events will occur, perhaps later than expected, and exhibits will be shared, in-person or online. “We’re just waiting this out,” Shire says. “This cannot go on forever.” 

Katie Anastas was a Cape Cod LIFE intern in 2019, and is now a freelance writer.

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