Kelly Smith Cassidy interviews Shelley Zentner.

Local artists launch live streaming interview series
Earlier this month, sculptor Kelly Smith Cassidy pondered via Zoom conference from her South Lake Tahoe home whether or not her 2020 Burning Man project would make it out to the playa this year. She’d been selected by the organization to receive an honorarium to help finance her piece, a 15-foot tall sculpture in the shape of her head with no face and a hollow interior to allow her to reveal her inner thoughts written on its walls.

“There were 750 letters of intent for Burning Man sculptures, and 70 got chosen—and I got lucky enough to have one of mine chosen,” she said. “And just before I got on this call I noticed that Burning Man Project on their Facebook page said ‘Burning Man’s canceled.’ And then they took it off right away. We might be the very first honoraria artists in Burning Man history to have a whole year to work on our pieces.

It was just a few days before the official announcement came that the annual festival in the Nevada desert would, in fact, be canceled this year as a result of the novel coronavirus—a disappointment for people like Smith Cassidy and many other artists who were already experiencing professional and personal fallout as a result of the virus and stay-at-home orders.

Despite finding amusement in the plethora of jokes and memes about artists being well-practiced at self-isolation and social distancing prior to the pandemic, Smith Cassidy said she’d been feeling the strain of not having access to the usual outlets through which artists connect. Not one to sit idly, she decided to turn to the internet—as so many of us have been these days—to find a solution. She called her friend, Shelley Zentner, a painter and fellow Tahoe resident, via Facebook video.

“I just had this kismet feeling like I needed to talk to her. I hit the Facebook instant video messaging to Shelley, and she picked up. And I’m just like, ‘I need to tell you some stuff. I’m having this heightened sense of wanting to connect with this community through the virtual environment. How do we do this? How do we support each other?’ And I noticed while we were having this conversation—I’m like, ‘This is cool. I think people would, like, really enjoy listening to us just shoot the shit about art. And we were discussing some pretty deep stuff about how we were feeling amid this whole environment. And I thought, ‘You know, other people could really benefit from what we’re talking about here.’ And we’re both professional, full-time artists. And I thought it’d be really cool if we continued this conversation.” Kelly Smith Cassidy

Zentner agreed. Both women had been feeling frustration with their local arts organizations and a lack of action when it came to creating opportunities for artists to connect in new ways amid the pandemic.

“I’d been feeling the same—that sense of, ‘OK, now in a global pandemic, we know that we’re connected even though we’re isolated in our homes,” Zentner said. “And I think that, you know, with having the internet and all of the technology that we’ve got now, there’s really no excuse why artists can’t just be more self-sufficient like that. I’ve always kind of done pop up shows and self-curated. And I’ve had some gallery involvement but not that much, because I get frustrated with galleries, too. And even though it’s really hard work to go it alone and be an independent artist like that and have a career … to negotiate all of your own sales, it does give you that control.”

The idea for a Facebook group called The Circle was born from that initial call. Artists would interview one another about life and art in quarantine over live streaming video—with one artist choosing another as an interviewee and that person becoming the next interviewer of an artist of their choosing. So far, the group has done three of these interviews, beginning with Smith Cassidy interviewing Zentner. The plan is to complete 10 interviews, the last of which will be an interview of Smith Cassidy before the circle begins again.

“And I just got the idea a couple of days ago that it would be great if I did an offshoot on just Burning Man artists, on just the honoraria artists,” Smith Cassidy said.

According to Zentner and Smith Cassidy, the Circle has also yielded other ideas for keeping artists connected—and chances for fun, including challenges that invite group members to take virtual tours of museums and art spaces around the globe in search of particular works of art.

“Lots of ideas have happened from this, like a mentorship program … within the group, so that the artists that are involved can mentor other artists or budding artists or people that just want to get involved more in artwork, from hobby to career and so forth,” Smith Cassidy said.
They’ve also launched a non-digital effort to keep people connected in the form of a postcard campaign, where—like with interviewees in The Circle—postcard recipients become the next senders.

“We’ve been thinking again about how lovely it is to get something through the mail, and we don’t do that very much anymore—and we rely so much on the technology,” Zentner said. “And it’s all so quick, instant gratification, whereas if you mail somebody something that you’ve made with your hands and they have to wait or just surprise somebody … and you can see the evidence of their hands on it—it’s those reminders that we are still here, even though we can’t see each other, maybe, or touch each other. There are other ways of touching each other, of being in each others’ lives and sharing that creativity.”

Learn more about the Facebook group The Circle: Conversations with Artists from Around the World here.

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