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In their own words: How artists are staying productive (and mostly positive) during the pandemic

From left, filmmaker Errol Morris, illustrator Alexis DeLeon, theater artist Maurice Emmanuel Parent, and set designer Cristina Todesco.From left: ERROL MORRIS; Alexis DeLeon; KEVIN JP HANLEY; MARK S. HOWARD

We’ve all heard the stories about artists triumphing over hardship: Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” in quarantine. Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” while stuck indoors due to some haunting summer weather. The implication, it seems, is that a little retreat from the world is all that’s needed to create a work that will withstand the ages. But what effect does a life of constant hand-washing, physical distancing, stay-home advisories, and chaotic news briefings have on creativity? We talked to a handful of Boston artists across many generations and disciplines to find out.

The filmmaker

Errol Morris, 72, lives in Cambridge. He has been making documentaries since 1978. His most influential is likely “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), which led to the release of a man in Texas wrongly convicted of murder. His best-known, “The Fog of War” (2002), won an Oscar for best documentary feature. He spoke by telephone from his office earlier this month.

Errol MorrisErrol Morris

How am I holding up? I’m alive! I am indeed fortunate. I can continue to work, and that in itself is a blessing. It’s a strange time, as we all know. I come here [to his office] virtually every day — no, not virtually, it is every day. My wife once described my office as a day care center for myself. I thought that was meant as an insult, but it’s true. That I have this place I can retreat to is kind of great.


It’s a big office, and nobody is here but my writer-researcher and my son. My wife and I sent a car down to Brooklyn to bring Hamilton back to Cambridge, maybe two months ago. Time blurs. It’s been fantastic having him here, so that’s been an unexpected blessing.

I’m working on two major projects, one for Apple TV+ and one for Showtime: a movie with John le Carré, based on an autobiographical book he wrote called “The Pigeon Tunnel”; and the other is about a woman who was heavily involved with Timothy Leary in the ‘70s, Joanna Harcourt-Smith.


I’ve started writing again, which is good. I just wrote an essay on “Mutiny on the Bounty” and Donald Trump. Here’s the quote from our president, “Tell the Democrat Governors that ‘Mutiny On The Bounty’ was one of my all time favorite movies. A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!” April 14, 2020. I’m not altogether clear what he’s saying, but then neither is he.

Last weekend I shot a series of commercials for Miller High Life in my house, which is, of course, ridiculous. We figured out a way to do it. My son is one of the actors. Josh Kearney, who works in my office, me, and a cameraman who’s a friend of mine, Jared Washburn. We shot something like a dozen or more spots. And they look pretty good! It goes to show what you can do. Normally, I work with a crew of 70 or 80. Oh, there was an additional actor, my French bulldog, Ivan. He has star quality.


The theater artist

Maurice Emmanuel Parent, 40, is an award-winning actor and director. He cofounded the Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company, where he serves as executive director, and is a Professor of the Practice at Tufts University’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies. He spoke by telephone from his home in Roxbury.


Maurice Emmanuel ParentKevin JP Hanley

It’s certainly taken a toll, having all the work just evaporate and the future being so unclear. The uncertainty is the most disturbing. If we could say that all the shows that were postponed are definitely happening in the fall, that would be one thing. But we don’t even know if theater will happen again till 2021.

I’m fortunate that [I have a] non-theater job. I’m a professor at Tufts University full-time, and an adjunct at BU and MIT. So the income was still coming in. As one of the few people blessed with income, I wanted to support others, so [I’ve been] buying groceries for people who have lost income. You kind of want to be there for family and friends if you can.

For me, for a lot of us [theater professionals], once we’re on the other side of this we’ll have learned lessons that we’ll carry with us. With video conferencing, I am connecting with people more frequently than I have before. The challenge of trying to use those platforms of connectivity to make art is frustrating, but we’re figuring it out. As an actor, as a director, I’m intrigued by what other kind of engaging art can we make with video or social media or whatever that is not theater but is theater-adjacent. How can you be more savvy in terms of concentrating on social media and creating virtual experiences for yourself and for audiences?


But my first love is the theater, and I cannot wait, and it pains me to even see recorded theater. I look at it and, as beautiful as it is, part of my heart cries. We’re supposed to breathe the same air as our audiences and our fellow actors. After this I can’t wait to get back into a rehearsal.

I want to dive head-first into something that’s going to kick my butt. I’m already slated to do, in January and February, [Anna Deavere Smith’s] “Fires in the Mirror" at the Lyric [Stage]. That’s kind of keeping me going. I’m just living in the hope that come January we’ll be able to gather and do theater for real.’’


The illustrator

Alexis DeLeon, 25, is an up-and-coming digital illustrator in Brookline. As a child, she wanted to be a character on the hit animation “Totally Spies.” So she drew a Filipino girl as a spy. Her style developed out of fan art, drawing women of color into a world of anime, fantasy, and romance that often overlooks them. Now she does commissions and has had a few art shows. On Instagram, she’s cultivated a following of 10,000 and growing. She spoke by phone earlier this week.

Alexis DeLeonAlexis DeLeon

There is definitely a level of anxiety. I started off with scrolling through the news and trying to get as much information as possible but also panicking, thinking of what I can do to help, but also feeling useless. Now, I’m at this stage where I do the best I can and help others by staying home and being responsible. I take it day by day.


I have two jobs. I work at a restaurant but I am not working there right now. I also work at a nursing home as a front desk ambassador. They are strict about people coming in and they clean everything. I do feel adequately protected but there is always a worry I have whenever I come in.

For me, the act of doing art is really therapeutic. Losing myself in the details of painting lets me be free of the anxieties of the world.

I’m painting this table of Filipino food because it was Mother’s Day and I would really like to eat my mom’s food. It always reminds me of community and that’s something we can’t have right now. I daydream about the food I can eat one day without worry. On the table, there is halo-halo, sinigang, lumpia, and a bunch of photos of family in the background.

Before coronavirus, I said I was going to say yes to everything. If someone asked for a commission, I would say yes. If someone said, “Do you want to do this gallery show?,” I would say yes. I was very scared to put my art in the real world. But I feel now, more than ever, there is value to seeing art in person. I overthought a lot of my art and felt a lot of pressure to do things I thought people would like on social media. This is not the purpose of art.

I was obsessed with my art being the best. Now, I am like, art can just be and that is enough.


The painter

Lavaughan Jenkins, 44, is a recipient of the 2019 Foster Prize, awarded biannually to four emerging Boston-area artists and curated by the Institute of Contemporary Art. Jenkins’s works — three-dimensional figures composed entirely of oil paint — are a form of his own invention, a kind of portraiture that breaks from the tradition’s European roots. We reached him by phone in his Boston studio.

Lavaughan JenkinsLavaughan Jenkins

I have to say, with everything that’s been going on, my sleep schedule has really been a mess. I usually spend the day painting but lately I don’t fall asleep until morning — like 7 a.m. — and sleep until around noon. A lot of my work is about being in social spaces — I call my work portraits, but they’re not of specific people. They’re more like memories or feelings I get being out in the world — so this has been pretty hard.

Honestly, it took a little bit for me to understand that things were on pause. I was in New York at Volta [an art fair] in early March. I was talking to galleries, I had a bunch of shows lined up, and I started thinking, well, I’ll just use this to lock in a little better and come out of it really ready for everything coming my way. When I got home, I started 20 new paintings right away.

And then I started getting the e-mails — this show is postponed, that one’s canceled, this lecture is canceled. Usually I paint every day, but I ended up in a place where I wasn’t really even painting at all. Now I make myself do it a couple of times a week, because I don’t really have the emotional energy.

I got lucky — I sold a bunch of work before this happened. But there haven’t been many new requests. I think I’ve sold two pieces since this happened, which is great, all things considered.

If there’s anything I want to pull into my work from this time it’s social distancing. My figures are usually solitary, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about crowds and social space and the distancing we’re now so familiar with. But I definitely won’t be making mask portraits. [laughs]

A friend of mine, Matt Murphy, he’s an artist here in Boston and he’s put together a weekly Zoom lecture series, which has been really great. Afterward, we all talk about life and how everyone’s doing, mentally and emotionally. And it’s been really tough on a lot of people. It really shows you that when you’re in isolation it’s too easy to make it all about yourself and what you’re going through, but hearing from other people makes you understand how huge and serious it is.


The composer

John Harbison, 81, has created three operas, six symphonies, a ballet, and numerous chamber works and songs. His cantata “The Flight Into Egypt” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. He spoke by phone from his home in Cambridge earlier this month.

John HarbisonJohn Harbison

I think every day we’re trying to figure out what the opportunities are. I’ve decided to keep going with whatever I was doing, as much as possible. Every year for the last 10 years, I’ve learned and performed one of the fugues in Bach’s “Art of Fugue” and I’m now up to No. 10. Every piece is a new challenge because I’m not really a pianist. But for me it’s been a very worthwhile commitment. It’s a kind of last-thoughts phase of Bach’s music.

I also feel since there are extra hours I should try a few new things compositionally. I have a new project for children’s choir and piano, I put together a series of solo violin pieces, and I’m trying to write a Sonata for Composer-Pianist, for Jim Primosch. I always like to have more than one thing going because if I can’t do one at a given moment, then I can probably do another.

It is reassuring to see how much activity keeps going on online. We need music. I think the hardest thing I’ve discovered talking to students and other musicians is practicing without the goal being really finite. It’s the hardest thing to motivate if you’re not absolutely walking into a hall and making music. And for the composers, we have to be very patient. We’ve all lost premieres of pieces we’re curious to hear. You were pretty clear on what you heard when you wrote it, but it always turns out some things are different [in performance]. Now, you’re postponing those direct encounters with your own music, and yet you depend on them for clarifying where you’re trying to go next. I guess we should all look back to Berlioz and “The Trojans,” that giant piece of amazing quality that he essentially never heard.

We composers also need the contact of other musicians, eventually, otherwise we become far too isolated in the world of our heads. Teaching composition for a long time, I’ve learned that my job is to try to balance the inner thinking of the composer with the outer experience of the music. Younger composers come with a lot of attention to their inner ear, but they need their outer ear to work with more vigor. It’s the opportunity to put the two together that we don’t get when we’re isolated. You see the premiere date passing, and you think, well… we’ll all be there some day.


The singer-songwriter

Anjimile, 26, is a musician who self-describes as a “queer and trans songmaker” (and uses they/them pronouns). In 2018, their song “1978” was named WBUR’s favorite Massachusetts submission to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. The artist typically makes about half their income from music and half from a part-time job as an after-school music teacher. We reached Anjimile via phone at home in Jamaica Plain.


I’m a white-collar worker, who has the privilege of being able to work from home — I work in my bedroom which is also where I create music. I have a little home studio set up — so once I’m done video editing and recording and doing all that, I usually find that I’m ready to create more, so I’ve been writing more music as a result of being in my creative space way more than I would otherwise.

I’m in touch with the artists I’m usually in touch with, my buds. As a result of this, because shows have moved to a virtual setting, I’ve just been talking to more folks and seeing different gigs than I would otherwise because of how easy it is to just watch an Instagram Live show from your bedroom, and also just being invited to do Instagram stuff from folks I haven’t worked with before.

It’s a mixed bag. My closest buds have other jobs besides performing, so they’re stressed out and swamped from whatever digital format their job has transitioned into. I have some buddies in the scene who I’m not super close with, who are full-time musicians. That would stress me the [expletive] out if that was my entire stream of income.

It’s been easier for me, but only because my income is stable. I can only create in a relaxed emotional state, and for the two weeks when I wasn’t sure if I was going to be paid anymore, I did not write [expletive.] I was like, “I’m gonna have a [expletive] heart attack, I’m not going to make art right now!”

But because my job is fine and I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to eat, I’m able to spend time reading and doing relaxing stuff without that stress over my head. I tend to be inspired by other media like books and television. I’ve been reading a lot of “Lord of the Rings,” and it’s been coming up in some tunes, like, thematically.


The set designer

Cristina Todesco, 49, is a freelancer whose imprint can be seen season after season in productions by SpeakEasy Stage Company, New Repertory Theatre, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and other local troupes. She also does scenic design for Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company, and teaches courses at Boston College and Boston University. She spoke by phone from her home in Dorchester.

Cristina TodescoMark S. Howard

I’ve been making some masks. I have a lot of fabric from different projects I’ve done in the past. I had, miraculously, a lot of quarter-inch plastic bands. I knew right away I could at least busy my hands, which is important to me: to be making things. It actually feels like I have more time to approach some of the projects that I do have scheduled — quote unquote — in the future.

Background research is one of my favorite things to do, and I don’t usually have a lot of time to do that. This is a really great time to just sit with some of the plays and the playwrights. I just hope the projects happen. But even if they don’t happen, I’m really thankful to have the time to sort of learn about the motivations of the playwrights, which I think is really important to the work.

I had two plays this summer at Shakespeare & Company go away. I was going to do “King Lear." I started my research. It’s happening, hopefully, next summer. I’ll tell you, I think of every project as a once-in-a-lifetime event. I really feel that while I’m doing it. That is why I put everything into it. It is this one event that so many people are working toward, and for it to go away is really sad and depressing. Next year the circumstances will be different. We may not get the same team of people involved. It is like a mourning process.

I do have things that are happening [this fall]. I have no contracts written up, but verbally there has been word that they’re happening. But no one can say for sure. I’m slated to do “Angels in America” at New Rep. It is a limbo period.

I’m teaching a class at Boston College this fall, which is really great. It’s actually a sure paycheck for me. My teaching paychecks end in June, and that is all. And then my salary at the schools start up again in September. So losing the summer work is a huge loss. Sometimes I’ve worked in film. Any possibility of that is nonexistent, too. I’m lucky. I have a partner who is still working.

I do think [the shutdown] makes [theater makers] reexamine the essence of what we do. Because the attendance is going to be much smaller [when theaters reopen], I think we have to really pay attention to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It has to be about that essential gift of giving people an experience. It’ll just make us more mindful when we are doing theater again.


Interviews were edited and condensed.