Arist Naomie Kremer at Modernism, where her exhibit is currently on view.
Arist Naomie Kremer at Modernism, where her exhibit is currently on view.

Our Pandemic Year: Artists faced a choice — pivot or perish

Part Three of OUR PANDEMIC YEAR, a week-long series examining how the Covid pandemic has changed our local Jewish world.

Debra Schaffner has spent much of the past year working on her first feature-length documentary. “Curse of the Mutant Heirloom” explores how women, including herself, deal with the knowledge that they carry the BRCA gene mutation, which results in increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer and is more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews.

The pandemic prevented Schaffner from filming outside of her Oakland home, so she decided to lean more heavily on animation and miniatures to tell the women’s stories. She built a small robot version of her late mother (“It looks quite a lot like her”) and fashioned a tabletop-size model of a kitchen, inspired by the one in her childhood home in New Jersey, out of wood, tiles and handmade wallpaper.

Despite making progress on the film, which is still a couple of years away from completion, Schaffner said she has struggled in other ways during quarantine. The commercial film editing work she used to do to pay the bills quickly dried up. Socially, she has missed going to screenings and being among her Bay Area documentarian community. Her dog Filbert has been doing a lot of emotional “heavy lifting.”

“I’m definitely not in as dire a situation as some [artists] are, but it’s really not fun,” she said of life during Covid.

For Schaffner, as for so many Bay Area artists, the pandemic has brought with it numerous personal and professional challenges, from lost gigs (and therefore lost income) to feeling lost creatively. But it has also opened up new opportunities for collaborating, teaching and performing online, and it has allowed many to reach wider audiences than they normally might thanks to the internet.

Oakland filmmaker Debra Schaffner has been using animation and miniatures to tell stories for her documentary in progress.
Oakland filmmaker Debra Schaffner has been using animation and miniatures to tell stories for her documentary in progress.

For example, Schaffner, a 2021 filmmaker in residence at the Jewish Film Institute, has conducted audio interviews with the subjects and potential subjects of her film via Zoom. “It’s enabled me to reach a larger range of women and stories without having to invest in going to all these different locations to film,” she said.

As for Jewish cultural institutions and programs, the theme of the past year has been pivot (to the virtual space) or perish. J. spoke with several artists from different fields, as well as representatives of cultural institutions, about how they have managed to continue to create and celebrate art during the past 12 months.

On March 12, 2020, a few days before shelter-in-place orders went into effect across the Bay Area, a new show by Berkeley-based artist Naomie Kremer of her traditional and “hybrid” paintings (canvases onto which video is projected) opened at Modernism in San Francisco. The gallery soon closed and didn’t reopen until July, and then by appointment only.

“I was very happy with the show, and then for 3½ months it was in limbo,” Kremer said. “It was very, very odd.”

The Israeli-born artist filmed a virtual tour of the exhibit inside the gallery, which was posted online, and in the end she was able to sell several pieces; the “hybrids” start at $16,000 and are a hit with private collectors, she said. “In the midst of the pandemic, you couldn’t go out, and the home was the center of people’s lives, so it was a good time to acquire art,” she explained.

A LABA East Bay fellow, Kremer said she has been incredibly productive during the past year, mostly because there have been “very few distractions and nowhere to go.” She created a video installation on the Austrian-Jewish composer Alma Mahler for the biennial Manifesta exhibition, held last summer in Marseilles, France, and produced new charcoal and ink drawings for an exhibition currently on view at Modernism through April 24. She is also in the conceptual stage of a new video project for children based on the Book of Genesis.

“Art is a very internal process, so it doesn’t hurt to be totally internally focused” while sheltering at home, she said.

Performing artists arguably have had a tougher time during the pandemic, as theaters and most other large venues closed when Covid struck; they have yet to reopen.

Last March, hip-hop artist Dan Wolf was in the middle of a run of “Tell Tale Hearts,” a show he staged with the Bay Area Theatre Cypher, a freestyle rap collective, at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. (It was one of the last live shows this reporter saw before the world shut down, and it was a good one to go out on.)

“We tried to pivot online as hard as we could, as quickly as possible,” Wolf said, with performances moving to Facebook and the livestreaming platform Twitch. One silver lining of the pivot: Wolf was able to recruit artists living in other parts of the country — New York, Chicago and Arizona — to participate in the show. “We brought in other acts and it became a little bit looser, which was pretty cool,” he said.

Now Wolf, 45, is working on a series of longform music videos about the role of the merchant in society, taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and the infamous character Shylock. The first video premiered on YouTube last month.

”We figured out a cool remote process that involves sending a camera person to be with the performer in an outdoor space,” he said. “Hopefully next year we’ll figure out how to put it on stage.”

Like Wolf, musician and composer Josh Horowitz — one-third of the klezmer trio Veretski Pass — has had a busy year despite not being able to be on stage.

Veretski Pass composer Josh Horowitz and musician Cookie Segelstein have been making ends meet in Berkeley. (Photo/Courtesy Dana Davis)
Veretski Pass composer Josh Horowitz and musician Cookie Segelstein have been making ends meet in Berkeley. (Photo/Courtesy Dana Davis)

“It’s not a vast departure from my normal lifestyle because I’m pretty much a hermit anyway,” Horowitz, 60, told J., describing the small home office in North Berkeley where he composes, teaches and performs as a duo these days with his wife, musician Cookie Segelstein. “We can’t perform live [in person] and we can’t record, but we’re still able to work on our projects.”

Those projects include orchestrations for a San Francisco Symphony video series, to be filmed at Davies Hall in May, and an online, donation-based lecture series called “The Promiscuous World of Jewish Music,” which features scholars and performers of Jewish music from around the world. The couple also have been giving workshops and private lessons in music theory and practice to students in the U.S., as well as in Sweden, Germany, Italy and Israel.

Segelstein, 62, said one of the most stressful parts of the past year was figuring out how to apply for unemployment benefits. In addition to losing gigs, her small business teaching computer skills to seniors basically shut down. She has been receiving $750 a week, along with income from teaching violin and viola, and that is “kind of enough,” she said.

In order to escape from it all, she has been making regular trips to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, where she indulges her hobby of nature photography. “I come up here and take pictures of ducks,” she said. “I feel like I’m working harder for way less money right now, and me coming up to the refuge once a week is really necessary. I need to be in a place where I’m not talking or telling someone how to do something.”

For Jewish cultural institutions, the past year has been rather grim, with staff firings or furloughs and smaller audiences for mostly online programming. But there have been some bright spots.

Although the Jewish Film Institute could not hold its 40th anniversary bash last summer, executive director Lexi Leban said the organization has had success with online screenings and drive-in movie experiences at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco’s Marina district. She also noted that JFI has made an effort to add sign-language interpretation and closed captioning to its streaming content. “We’ve been able to serve folks in the disability community in a better way, and we are going to make more improvements in that area as 2021 unfolds,” Leban said.

At the JCC of San Francisco, which according to Arts & Ideas director Stephanie Singer laid off about 40 percent of its staff, the focus has been on partnering with other institutions — including Sixth & I in Washington, D.C., and the Marcus JCC of Atlanta — as a way to weather the storm. “Some JCCs have eliminated their arts programs and others are doing minimal programming, but we were able to accomplish a lot by pooling resources and working together in ways that we hadn’t prior to the pandemic,” Singer said.

Sarah Wolfman-Robichaud, the director of public programs at JCC East Bay, said the pandemic has been brutal for programs that are dependent on ticket sales. The JCC decided to use a donation-based ticketing system for its online talks and concerts. “At the moment it’s working for us, because we feel like we’re still able to give back to the community,” she said. “Who knows? We might keep the model going forward.”

2020 was supposed to be a banner year for poet Jake Marmer, another LABA East Bay fellow. He released a new book of “science fiction-y-immigrant-diaspora” poetry called “Cosmic Diaspora” and planned to go on a multicity book tour. Instead, he has been stuck with his kids, ages 7 and 10, in campus housing at Stanford where his wife is a Ph.D. student in comparative literature.

Poet Jake Marmer (right) recites his poetry at LABA's DRUNK event at the JCC East Bay in Berkeley, Nov. 23, 2019, accompanied by guitarist John Schott. (Photo/Pete Rosos)
Poet Jake Marmer (right) recites his poetry, accompanied by guitarist John Schott, at LABA’s DRUNK event at the JCC East Bay in Berkeley, Nov. 23, 2019. (Photo/Pete Rosos)

“It’s been hell,” he admitted, saying he longs to once again sit alone in a coffee shop or library for hours and just think and write. “I need space to do poetry, and I have young children at home, so it’s not a situation where I can really create.”

When he is not teaching online (his day job is at the Bronfman Fellowship as education and programming director), Marmer, who is in his 40s, has explored other home-based artistic outlets, such as word collages that he assembles from magazine clippings. “It was kind of nice to try something that I’m not particularly good at,” he joked. He has also collaborated on a journal-like writing project with his wife, Shoshana Olidort.

Marmer said he worries about the pandemic’s less-acknowledged consequences, such as the “narrowing of cultural output” and the fact that “people are getting used to not going out to see art,” which he finds “dangerous.”

“People find themselves when they go to a concert or a reading,” he said. “They go to understand something that’s quintessential about themselves. It’s a much more multidimensional and powerful and life-changing experience when you do it in a live setting with others. If you can’t do that, then how do you know who you are and where you find yourself? You’re not going to find those answers on a Zoom call.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.