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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

Northwoods Artists During The Pandemic

Image by Jim Skibo

The Northwoods has long been known for its active art community. Jim Skibo visited two local artists to learn how the COVID-19 restrictions have changed their art and the way it is sold.

Christine Alfery’s sweatshirt and jeans are spattered with paint that matches the color pallet on the large paintings adorning the walls of her home and studio. As she walks past each painting, she tells its story.

“This one over here is one of the large ones I just finished. “Spirits in the Sky,” I called it. It wasn’t going to have this. None of it. Let me show you how it started to show you how much it changed.”

Image courtesy of Christine Alfery

Alfery is an abstract conceptual expressionist living and working in Lac du Flambeau (https://christinealfery.com/). She will research and write about a concept for weeks and months before she puts paint to canvas.

That is the beauty of abstract expressionism, you let something emerge. It talks to you. It says, OK, I want to be. You develop it. I come through towards the end. I believe that art needs to have the artist come through.”

One way her art has changed during the pandemic is the way she sells it.

Last year I spent the whole year going to large exhibitions in Chicago, New York and the Hamptons. Down in Miami. Because that is the old traditional way to go about selling your art.

They all closed down and I remember thinking to myself, Oh gosh, who am I going to paint for? What am I going to do?”

Image by Jim Skibo

What she did was to become much more active online.

At the end of last year and beginning of this year I started to go online and tell stories behind my work. Why I did what I did. Why I painted the way I painted. I started creating videos of my work and talking about it like people were standing right there like they do when they come to visit the studio” (https://christinealfery.com/pages/videos).

The transition to online discussions and sales has resulted in her biggest sales year ever, but this has come with come consternation.

“But it was hard for me. I can’t tell you how many blogs I wrote about selling my work online and whether I was compromising my creativity.”

But if you gauge her online work from the responses she gets to her blog posts, it has been a resounding success.

Amy Higgason, a potter from Lake Tomahawk, works in a small brightly colored studio about the size of a one stall garage (https://www.pigeonroadpottery.com/). Just outside is a well-maintained flower garden now in its final bloom of the season. She also had to make a number of changes as a result of the pandemic.

Image by Jim Skibo

“What has changed is my revenue stream. I am a self-supporting artist, and this is my only income. Almost all of my shows this year have been canceled.”

Higgason makes functional but highly decorative pottery and most of her sales are made by attending shows.

“It is mostly functional work, meaning everything that I make can be used. It has some function but yet is highly decorative, full of carvings and impressions and stamping of my own design. Each piece is one of a kind.

Image by Jim Skibo

Like Alfery, much of Higgason’s pottery sales since the start of the pandemic has been online.

“I had done this a little bit before, but now it has been the biggest way that I have sold pieces this year. Because I am selling online that has altered what I make. I am tending toward smaller pieces that are easier to ship. I joke that if it will fit into a 12 by 12 by 12 box then it is good.”

Image courtesy of Amy Higgason

Higgason has also been kept afloat during this time through the generosity of loyal customers. She gets a little emotional telling this part of the story.

“I have been able to make up for lost shows through the kindness of loyal customers and friends. A lot of people have given me commissions. I just fulfilled a nine-piece dinner plate order. During the Northwoods Art Tour I had a costumer from Rhinelander who came and told me that she specifically came to support me. She knows how hard it would be for artists like myself. She did her Christmas shopping and it was one of the largest sales I have ever had.

Higgason and Alfery are just two of the many artists who live up and are finding ways to make it during the pandemic. To support local artists, you can participate in the upcoming Northwoods Arts Tour (http://northwoodsarttour.com/) on October 9th, 10th, and 11th.

Image by Jim Skibo

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.
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