Art of survival: Persevering through the COVID-19 shutdown

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Local artist Laura Willingham Walker displays one of her many paintings. (contributed)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The ripple effects of COVID-19 closures have impacted just about everyone, and local artists are no exception. Many artists rely on arts and craft shows and festivals to showcase their talents, sell their art and build relationships. Most of these events were canceled in the spring, and now, the pandemic is threatening fall shows.

“I normally do 18-25 art festivals a year,” Cullman artist Laura Willingham Walker said. “I have had 22 cancellations thus far, and I couldn’t have done them all. Sometimes you apply for two or three shows because you never know which ones you will make it into. The shows I do are juried shows because my price points tend to be higher for my originals.”

Walker explained that a typical craft show is not ideal for her because people do not typically go to a craft show with the expectation of spending more than $100 for a painting.

“My shows are highly specific and focused on art. I travel the Southeast, but I don’t travel more than five hours away just because of my family. I don’t want to be further away at this point in time. They are well researched shows. I like to do well established shows that have been going on at least a decade with a high reputation and very art focused,” said Walker.

Some of the shows in Alabama that fit Walker’s preferred criteria are Huntsville’s Panoply Arts Festival, Northport’s Kentuck and the Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival. She was accepted into those shows for the first time this year.

“Those are some of the highest quality shows in Alabama,” she said. “Then they all started cancelling.”

Walker said she considers herself fortunate because the shows she was scheduled to attend refunded her booth fees.

“The booth fees for the shows I do are typically $200-$500,” she said. “Then you pay up to $50 just to apply for each show. Most of the shows kept the application fee, which is fine because they have to cover their expenses up to that point. I am just fortunate that they have refunded the booth fees. Not all shows have done that.”

Another high quality show is the Monte Sano Art Festival scheduled for Sept. 13 at Monte Sano State Park. So far, the show is still expected to be held and Walker remains hopeful. This coming weekend, Sept. 6,  Walker is scheduled to participate in an Artist Meet and Greet at the Huntsville Botanical Gardens from 3-4:30 p.m.

Walker said she considers herself lucky because her husband continued to work throughout the shutdowns. She chose not to file for unemployment.

“I just felt like there were other artists that needed that more- artists that are the main breadwinner and needed it more than I did,” she said. “Instead, I just decided to pivot. I started looking for anything where people were going to be.”

Walker’s mother, Pam Willingham, is also an artist, and she had some unique challenges due to the COVID-19 shutdowns. Willingham is the owner of Shop Around the Corner in Cullman. Her business serves as a gallery for her talent but also as a unique after school opportunity for kids.

Said Willingham, “Most of my income is from our extended day program. We pick up students from the city schools and bring them to the art shop and we have art for 30 minutes and we help them with their homework. The parents pick them up at 5:30. Of course, when the schools closed, my business closed.”

Willingham said she is always careful to save enough to cover bills and other expenses through the normal summer months, but this year was anything but normal. She never expected more than five and a half months of summer. She said she was able to apply for help to pay her employees for six weeks and keep her business open. She tackled the pandemic month by month.

“I had a half-off sale in my gallery to get us through the next month,” she said. “Each month has just been a challenge coming up with ways to get through.”

Willingham said she started doing a few commission pieces, sharing, “People began coming out of the woodwork to help. A few parents of the children I keep came by to purchase some things. Somehow, we made it through.”

She said she nearly depleted her savings to keep her shop open.

“We cut it pretty close, but God is good,” she said.

Willingham had some extra stress as two central units had to be replaced at the shop and one of her after school transport buses had to be replaced.

She said, “We have been back to school for two weeks now and we are almost full so I am doing OK.”

In the event schools close again due to the virus, Willingham said, “We’ll just have to do it all again. I’m just trying to get as much money saved up as I can. I am also talking to a web designer so I can have more of my art business online in case this happens again.”

Shop Around the Corner was closed completely for two months due to shutdown orders. Once re-opened, Willingham was able to offer a few weekly art classes that also helped sustain the business.

“The people of Cullman have so much empathy and have been so supportive,” she said.

Walker took a break for a couple of months and when more was learned about COVID-19 and how to handle and best avoid it, she said she felt safe doing outdoor shows again.

“I started looking for craft shows,” she said. “As I explained, those are normally not going to be good for me, but it was such a weird year, I just wanted to find where there were going to be people.”

She has participated in a handful of craft shows and trade days and is happy to report they were profitable.

Walker continued to do custom work as well, saying, “Not all artists like to do custom work, but I love doing custom portraits and murals and such. So, I have been very fortunate that income has continued for me.”

She has also begun working on pieces with a little lower price point knowing the pandemic has been tough on so many financially and she would be relying on more craft shows. She has pieces available in Leldon’s in the Warehouse District in Cullman. She is also looking forward to St. Bernard’s Blues and BBQ Festival.

“You just have to be flexible and creative,” Walker explained. “Our work tends to be cyclical with our shows in the spring and fall, but you still have to be creative because you still have to have income. Some are so used to doing their shows, but this year, you have to try something different!”

The Cullman community has also been very supportive of Walker.

“I know of several people who have purchased their first pieces to support me,” she said. “It’s very important as we get towards Christmas to think of all our locally owned artists and businesses. Think creatively on how you can support and shop local. We all know Wal-Mart is going to be fine. For gifts and such, it’s nice to think outside of the big box store.”

To see Walker’s artwork, visit www.cullmanlaurasart.com and look for links to her social media and Etsy. Shop Around the Corner is located at 908 Second Ave. NW in Cullman.

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Christy Perry

christy@cullmantribune.com