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‘There’s just something about being together’: In the age of COVID, Interact Center maintains community for its artists

“We decided to offer a series of virtual online classes,” said founder/Executive Director Jeanne Calvit. “We didn’t want anyone to get bored or feel isolated. We created a Zoom community, and the response from our artists was immediate and enthusiastic.”

Artist Jill Reedy, at right, with a piece of her fiber art.
Artist Jill Reedy, at right, with a piece of her fiber art.
Courtesy of Interact

The first time Jill Reedy visited Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, she knew she’d found a new home.

Two years ago, Reedy, who said that creating art helps manage her anxiety, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury, was looking for a place where she could spend her days. She’d already been attending a day program for adults with disabilities, but was underwhelmed by its limited arts offerings. (“They said they’d have art as part of the program,” she said, “but the art time was very minimal. It was once a week, a half hour a day.”)

Reedy talked to her case manager about her frustration. Her case manager told her about Interact, a 24-year-old St. Paul-based performing and visual art center for artists with disabilities. The two scheduled a tour.

“It was the funniest thing,” Reedy recalled. “We walked through the door and that’s all it took. We both looked at each other in the entrance and I said, ‘This is it.’”

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Art is central to Reedy’s life. She remembers sitting in her mother’s lap, drawing circles and talking about all the things that could be made from that one simple shape.

“She showed me how I could use a circle to draw a wheel or a smile or a flower,” Reedy said. “I remember just being amazed that I could draw something out of these little circles I was making. From there on, art was always my favorite subject. Any art that I could get my fingers on I dabbled in and tried.”

Reedy knew that Interact was the place for her because from the moment she walked in the door she could see that people with disabilities were encouraged to see themselves as serious working artists.

“Their art was hanging up on the wall,” Reedy said. From her vantage point in the entryway, “You could see through to a studio; there were all kinds of people doing all manner of different things. I was like, ‘Wow. This is amazing.’ The whole atmosphere of the place was what I was looking for. Immediately I felt like I was at home.”

In the two years since she went on that tour, Reedy has spent three full days a week at Interact. She’s expanded her artistic skills and created and sold many works of fiber art. The center quickly became her home away from home and her fellow artists became some of her closest friends.

Then, this spring, coronavirus hit Minnesota, and Reedy feared that her happy life could come crashing down.

“When everything started shutting down, I felt frantic.” Reedy said. “I knew that eventually they were going to have to shut Interact down, too. The clock was just ticking before it was going to happen.” This realization was a major source of stress and sadness.

“I knew that if Interact completely shut down I’d be lost,” she said. “It’s the same thing for a lot of other people. It’s our life. It’s our job. It’s where we have our people, where we make our connections.”

Jeanne Calvit, Interact’s founder/executive director, said that at first she and her colleagues felt blindsided by the reality of the pandemic and its potential impact on the artists.

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At first, Calvit said, “We were just living from one day to another. We shut down not really realizing that it would be a long-term thing. I think that at the beginning, everybody didn’t get the gravity of the situation.”

But as they began to realize that the nonprofit’s physical closure could last for months or longer, Calvit and her colleagues began to hatch plans about how they could keep going in times of quarantine.

Jeanne Calvit
Jeanne Calvit
“We kept our staff on and made sure that they called all of the artists to stay connected with them,” Calvit said, adding that as much 60 percent of Interact artists live with physical conditions that put them at high risk of serious consequences if they were to catch the virus. (“They’re not going to feel comfortable coming back until there’s a vaccine,” she said.) After completing a round of calls and check-ins, staff delivered supplies to the artists’ homes so they could keep producing their work from a distance.

But Calvit and her colleagues knew that distributing art supplies so people could work at home wasn’t going to be enough. They needed to find a way to keep the organization’s sense of community going for artists like Reedy who see it as a central part of their lives. After attending a series of Zoom meetings with staff at disability arts organizations around the country, Interact took the next step.

“We decided to offer a series of virtual online classes,” Calvit said. “We didn’t want anyone to get bored or feel isolated. We created a Zoom community, and the response from our artists was immediate and enthusiastic.”

Interact’s Zoom community grew quickly. Options for virtual classes, team meetings and studio time expanded, as staff, artists and others stepped up share their skills and experience. Interact artists were enthusiastic about having this option available to them, and attendance shot through the roof.

“We now offer 50 classes are week,” Calvit said. “We mix it up.” At semiweekly virtual brainstorming sessions, “A lot of artists give ideas for classes they want, and people volunteer to teach. It is very collaborative and incredibly creative.” Participants can take part in a wide range of classes, she added, “from cooking to how to make red curry noodles to poetry, phone photography, theater history and voice class.”

Keeping the community alive

Moving Interact’s programming online wasn’t an easy task. Many of the artists didn’t have the technology needed to support hours-long Zoom classes. This required staff to scramble to find and update used laptops and tablets and help artists gain access to high-speed internet service.

Brittany Kieler, Interact’s gallery director, explained that even with the full support of staff and donors, the switchover to virtual didn’t happen overnight.

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“It was at least a monthlong process to outfit artists with technology,” Kieler said. “Some would say that we are still working through a few bugs. It’s been a long process.” And some artists needed special help to expand their comfort with virtual education. “One of our studio instructors took it on themselves to learn how to download the right software and then troubleshoot with the artists. She’d call them individually to make sure that they knew how everything worked.”

Interact’s Zoom community grew quickly.
Courtesy of Interact
Interact’s Zoom community grew quickly.
Interact artists receive a waiver from the State of Minnesota that helps pay for their time at the center. The nonprofit relies on these payments, combined with larger foundation grants, to survive.

At the beginning of the outbreak, Interact was told it would not be able to bill for online curriculum, Calvit said, but they eventually won approval.

“We were doing a full-fledged program but we weren’t allowed to bill for that. Quite frankly during the two months after we had to shut down and before we got all these regulations changed we didn’t have a whole lot of hope.” Calvit and other disability-rights advocates lobbied hard to get the regulation changed.

When billing approval was granted, Calvit said, “Everything shifted.” To help keep organizations like hers running smoothly, earlier this month state legislators approved an additional $30.4 million in CARES Act funding for disability services providers. Interact is now expanding its programming and accepting new artists.

Brittany Kieler
Brittany Kieler
“I think we’re all feeling a lot more positive now,” Calvit said, adding that funding limitations put a serious squeeze on her nonprofit’s finances, forcing staff to take a series of staggered furloughs. “We can now take on more people and therefore we can survive.”

Artists responded to the art-supply drop-offs with a flurry of productivity. Within weeks, the drop-offs began to include pick-ups. “We’ve been picking up stacks of drawings that people have been making at home,” Kieler said. “People are doing the best with the circumstance we’re in and they’re creating some amazing art.”

Reedy, for her part, can’t say enough about all the effort Interact staff is putting into keeping artists connected to their community.

“The staff is unbelievable,” Reedy said. “Since the COVID thing has hit, they regularly check in with you about your art and how it’s going. That’s their job, I know, but they go way beyond that. They also ask about how you’re feeling, how you’re dealing with everything. They’re like, ‘Is there anything we can do? Do you need anything? Can we help you out in any way?’ I really feel like they are my family. They want us to be able to keep doing what we love.”

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Not the same, but not bad, either

One of the things that Reedy likes best about Interact is the relationships. While she’s happy with the depth and variety of options now available to her on Zoom, she said they will never take the place of in-person interactions.

“I miss the people and I can’t wait until we can get back into the studio,” she said. That said, the virtual programming has been a lifeline.

“I’m amazed at how good it’s gone. I don’t know where I would be without it. It would be a real struggle for me. I live alone. I have a dog but the dog doesn’t give me feedback on my art. There’s just something about being together, even if it is on Zoom.”

The range of virtual offerings combined with the convenience of being able to take classes from home on different days and times means that Reedy has actually been able to expand her participation at Interact. She used to do three full days a week in person at the center; she’s now on Zoom five days a week for four hours each day.

“I’ve taken a watercolor class, something I’ve never dabbled in before,” Reedy said. “That’s been a really fun and exciting thing to do. I’m in the middle of a collage class. That’s been fun. It’s great to do different things I haven’t tried before.”

Many Interact artists often spend hours each day in the center’s studio, working on their art and getting feedback and support from their colleagues. When the center took all programming online, staff worried that this essential element would be hard to reproduce via Zoom. But artists said it was important to keep studio “open,” so they decided to offer daily virtual studio time. It’s not the same as making art together in one big, sunlit room, but the sessions remain popular.

The virtual studio hours are, Kieler explained, “a Zoom session where everyone is present with 30 or so people making work together. They can see each other on their screens. Their laptops are set aside while they’re painting and they ask for opinions or offer feedback to folks. It actually works.”

One unique upside to Interact’s virtual programming is the accessibility it offers to artists who in the past may have struggled to consistently make it into the studio.

“A lot of our people have said to us, ‘I didn’t attend all my hours because I have chronic pain. There were some days that the idea of getting up and getting into a Metro Mobility van was too much for me so I would stay at home and miss out,’” Calvit said. “Now that we have remote services, they can be part of what we’re doing.”

While she’s worried about the isolation that the coming winter could bring, Calvit said that she hopes online classes and studio hours will present options for people who often skipped classes during the darkest, coldest days of the year.

“In the winter, especially with our people with mental health issues, if you’re already depressed you think, ‘I’d rather stay at home today,’” Calvit said. “With remote options, we think we are going to be able to increase our attendance.”

Artists are naturally innovative and creative, Kieler said, and those qualities have served Interact well during this uncertain time.

“I think that artists are always going to adapt to whatever challenges are brought to them.” At the beginning of the crisis, she said, “we were met with this wave of frustration trying to figure out the technology. Now it almost feels like a well-oiled machine. Being online is never going to replace being together in person. It is never going to replace that studio environment. But it is a good alternative. I think we’re learning how to navigate this new set of conditions in an exciting kind of way.”

Latest show up and running

For many artists, showing their completed work and/or performing in front of a live audience are central elements of their craft. As it has with so many elements of everyday life, COVID has forced major changes in the way Interact artists are able to display their work for the public, but staff and artists are finding unique alternatives to leap over those hurdles.

Because even the most socially distanced gallery shows carry some risk of infection, Interact decided to present all pandemic-era exhibitions in a virtual format. The first, “We Are Not Disposable,” an ode to the vitality of the disability community featuring the work of 44 Interact visual artists, opened May 11.

Interact artists all receive 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of their work, so many were in favor of keeping all exhibitions up as long as possible. Staff set up portfolio pages where visitors can browse and purchase available work by each exhibiting artist.

“We Are Not Disposable” “will be up indefinitely,” Kieler said. “Anyone with an internet connection can access the show and the work available for sale.”

The Interact gallery’s latest show is called “Fresh Work.” Though it will also stay up indefinitely, different artists’ work will be featured on specific weeks. Reedy, a fiber artist whose graceful wool sculptures often revolve around nature themes, was one of a handful of artists featured during week three.

A selection of art that will be featured during week 3 of "Fresh Work," Interact's latest exhibit.
Courtesy of Interact
A selection of art that will be featured during week 3 of "Fresh Work," Interact's latest exhibit.
Interact performing artists are also busy. Calvit that they are developing a new production that will be staged completely online.

“We’ve reached out to some people who are specialists in making Zoom shows,” she explained. “We’re planning on making a show. We’re thinking the theme will be, ‘Love in the time of corona.’”

The fact that life goes on at Interact, albeit in a significantly different form, makes Reedy feel hopeful about the future. This era of social distancing and isolation could continue for some time, she knows, but at least she has a way to keep her treasured connections alive.

“When I think about what’s going on outside my house, I get stressed, I get worried,” she said. Working on her art in the virtual presence of her friends brings her a feeling of peace that can be hard to come by these days. “When we are all on Zoom together we are laughing, we’re working together, we’re encouraging each other like we would in the studio. That’s so important to me. When this all started, I didn’t think that was going to be possible, but it actually is.”