Before COVID-19 virtually shut down New Mexico's art scene, Daniel McCoy Jr. worked in a studio at the Poeh Cultural Center at Pojoaque Pueblo. But since March, the facility's been closed, his studio off-limits. In the shutdown, McCoy's been painting in his south-side home in Santa Fe.
It’s a tight squeeze.
“My teenage son stays with his mom Thursdays through Sundays, so I paint in his room. When he’s here with us, my wife sleeps downstairs and I paint in our room. I usually paint all night,” McCoy says. “I’m kind of driving everybody crazy.”
He has a full-time job as an artist's assistant, a wife with her own career and three kids who all have extracurricular activities. At 44, he’s in what he calls the “pressure-cooker years.”
Over the winter, he says, “I was kind of thinking, ‘This is too much, when is this going to end?’ And then, everything just stopped.”
Everything but art, anyway. In Santa Fe, art never stops. The Western States Art Federation reports that in 2017 about 7,200 Santa Fe residents made their living directly or indirectly through the visual arts.
But as with other industries, the pandemic has woven a path of destruction through the Santa Fe arts economy, says Cyndi Conn, executive director of Creative Santa Fe, a nonprofit think tank. In addition to gallery closures and layoffs in arts-focused businesses like Meow Wolf, "artists who sell their art through traditional means, like gallery and museum shows, have taken a huge hit to their incomes," she says.
Artists who normally show at Santa Fe's popular art markets also will feel the effects of the pandemic shutdown. For instance, the Santa Fe Society of Artists holds a downtown outdoor market for contemporary painters, sculptors, printmakers and photographers on weekends from April through October. Spokeswoman Marianne Hornbuckle says some of the more successful artists earn close to $100,000 in sales during the season.
The effect is even more pronounced at the Santa Fe Indian Market, where artists earn between 25 percent and 90 percent of their annual incomes, says Amanda Crocker, director of public relations and marketing for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, the organization that runs the event. As recently as two years ago, the event generated $118.1 million in economic impact, according to Southwest Planning & Marketing. This year's live market? Gone. The same goes for the International Folk Art Market, which created $13.7 million.
In response, SWAIA announced last week the creation of a virtual juried Indian Market, though its success — like so many things in the COVID era — is uncertain.
"The future of art sales is digital, and we don't want Native artists to get left behind or have to rely on getting all their sales on just one weekend a year," Crocker says. "The shutdown has changed how we will run the market and serve Native artists forever."
Conn also sees opportunities emerging in the shutdown. "I’ve seen so many artists creating virtual sales opportunities, thinking about how they can use their art and creativity to make money for themselves and to give back at this time," she says. "A lot of my friends are buying more art online right now than they ever bought in galleries in the past. In some ways, the shutdown is making art more democratic and accessible."
But in the meantime, artists like McCoy must deal with the adversity. Which means they can rarely take a break in this strange, scary time.
Making art, they say, is a calling that goes beyond money. While they’re worried about the future, they aren’t hopeless. They’re working.
Solitude in a van
McCoy, who grew up in Tulsa, Okla., used to paint commercial billboards. The graphic eye he developed in that job is still obvious in his painting, which has a bright, illustrative style. His sources of inspiration are eclectic. He’s as likely to paint a packet of hot sauce he saw in an Allsup’s parking lot as he is a New Mexico landscape.
McCoy has been selling his paintings at Indian markets since he was a teenager in Tulsa. Back then, he used to stare out the window and wait for his future to arrive. The member of the Muscogee Creek/Citizen Band Potawatomi sells his richly colored canvases at markets, galleries and through word of mouth.
The money he earns prepping and finishing canvases for Western pop artist Billy Schenck accounts for the bulk of his family's income, except for during summer, which is when most Native art markets are held. For many years, McCoy made about a third of the family's annual income at markets, but he's been trying to travel less and has been looking for gallery representation here.
Throughout the year, his sales vary, as do his prices, with 1-foot wood cutout pieces selling for as little as $50, and 8-foot canvases fetching as much as $10,000. Although he made a lucrative sale in December, winter typically is slow. Most of the art markets that he and his wife, artist Topaz Jones, were looking forward to in 2020 have been canceled or indefinitely postponed, so they know they’ll take a hit.
Still, McCoy is upbeat. “I’m sitting on a large bit of inventory," he says. "If it’s two or three years from now when this all blows over, I’ll have artwork to submit again.”
McCoy and Jones have been home-schooling their younger children, but working on the computer is difficult for the 6-year-old, he says. And he’s concerned about his 8-year-old, who is scared to go outside. He and his 13-year-old son have been drawing a graphic novel together. Everybody’s working on something at their place, McCoy says. At the moment, the younger kids are building a time machine.
“They’re going back to 1982 because they think that was a cool year,” he says, laughing. “I’m out here talking to you from my van, because the house is noisy.”
It’s quiet in Eldorado, where artist and educator Sarah Stolar lives with her husband. Stolar, 45, works in an 800-square-foot studio that they built about a year ago. Her mother, the artist Merlene Schain, lives and works in a casita on the property. She has advanced-stage Alzheimer’s, but she still paints every day. Stolar paints daily, too. Right now, it’s what’s giving her life shape and focus.
“Time is at once extremely slow and moving very quickly for me,” she says. “I think every artist has some existentialist qualities, but I’m a little bit obsessed with the rising death count, which is horrifying. The work I’m making is about grief. I was working on it before COVID. It’s cathartic to be able to channel all that I’m feeling into this.”
Stolar's work includes drawings, paintings, videos and performance art exploring the female psychological narrative. Her larger pieces can sell for up to $20,000, but that's rare, although she did sell such a piece to local collectors around the winter holidays.
Her usual sales are more modest, and her steady income comes from serving as chairwoman of the art department at University of New Mexico-Taos. She likens the two-year associate degree program to the culture of Black Mountain College, a famously experimental school that operated in North Carolina from 1933-57.
“I’m lucky to be a salaried employee, but I am worried because the arts are usually the first cuts, and our department is very small,” she says. Since the shutdown, she’s been teaching online and trying to keep students and faculty engaged with Zoom happy hours on Fridays.
“At the beginning, I was really trying my best to stay in high spirits," she says. "Now I feel that it’s a struggle. I think people are Zoomed-out, for lack of a better word.”
Stolar says that as an artist, money is always tight for her, but she knows she’s in a better position than many other creatives. “If we ever see the stimulus checks, we plan on donating them to artists. I have a lot of friends who are really struggling.”
From zero to infinity
Anastasio Wrobel’s family saved all year for a trip to Europe, but they’d been there just one week when, on March 14, they found themselves scrambling for a return flight from London. Instead of taking their dream vacation, they came home for two weeks of quarantine.
“I think I made one drawing during that time,” says Wrobel, 32, who uses they/them/theirs pronouns. Wrobel is a multigenre, interdisciplinary artist who works on paper and usually focuses on themes of transgender liberation.
In the midst of self-isolation, Wrobel was laid off from Artisan, a Santa Fe art supply store where they’d worked part time as the education and events coordinator. Like many others in the same situation, no unemployment compensation has come through. Nor has the much-touted federal stimulus check. Wrobel has some security because they can live with their mother right now, but money worries loom. And last week, Wrobel’s car and eyeglasses both broke.
Tired of being broke and not being able to share art with the community, Wrobel decided to hold Dreaming is Wild, a drive-by art show in their alley in Tierra Contenta. And people showed up, drawn by word of mouth, Instagram buzz and a listing by New Mexico Magazine. Anyone who got out of their car was asked to wear a mask.
“The show was on a sliding scale from zero dollars to infinity dollars. I gave away art,” Wrobel says, "and I made enough to pay for new glasses."
Back to the land?
Not far from Wrobel’s house, McCoy finds a sunny spot outside to look at his paintings in good light. He says he misses his community.
“Everyone I socialize with is in the arts," he says. "It’s why we live here and not in Tulsa. We came here to have our art careers.”
Over the years, however, his children's education became the reason to stay here. The opportunities are much better than in Oklahoma, he says. But with no art markets to go to and home-schooling being the order of the day, his thinking may be changing.
“I have property back home that goes back to before statehood, Indian territory days," he says. "If things don’t pick up soon, we’ll go back to our roots, which is farming, which is weird because that’s what I ran away from. We can always come back here and do shows."
“But,” he sighs, laughter edging into his voice, “my kids all have New Mexican accents now, and they’re scared of tornadoes.”