Personal commissions are turning out to be a vital source of both income and hope for local artists — and their customers are drawing strength from their works in return.
MICHIGAN — We’ve all been turning to media to keep our minds active and our souls connected while stuck in quarantine, and for many art has become a wellspring of humanity, reflection and optimism amidst fear and uncertainty.
But, artists are some of those among us whose livelihoods are most threatened by the COVID-19 outbreak.
We touched base with Michigan artists from the UP to Ypsi to find out how they’re connecting with their customer base and adapting to the quarantine economy by focusing on personal commissions.
Read on to meet a handful of the artists in our state delivering handmade happiness to customers on lockdown, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to commission one of their uplifting pieces for your own home as well.
Fialka “Feeby” Cote — Traditional, digital and laser artist | Honor
Busy with her artwork as well as 13 special needs rescue cats at home, Cote said she works in every medium she can get her hands on.
“I like to put my designs on useful things so people can justify their enjoyment of them. Mostly I draw creatures inspired by happy bubbly feelings, but lately I’m exploring putting my own bodily pain out there so others know it’s okay and they’re not struggling alone,” said Cote, who has severe asthma.
Cote had plans to “launch a tiny little empire” this year, but the conventions where she planned to connect with customers were canceled. Unable to file for unemployment, she said her anxiety is pretty high, but commissions have helped fill in the gaps for her and her husband.
“Commissions can be hit and miss, as with any freelancing work,” she said. “Sometimes you just don’t have enough work to make a dent — or sometimes you have too many, or in my case lately, you’re too ill to take some of them on.
“Other times you need $20 to get some groceries and your husband is stressed out about a bill and then someone contacts you and you feel that surge of relief knowing you’ll be able to contribute … I’ve found, somehow, the right commissions seem to find me at the right time, and I’m super thankful for it.”
Joanna Farben — Oil painter | Ypsilanti
Alongside oil paintings, Farben sells drawings made from ink, pastel, colored pencil, and watercolor, as well as collages and mixed-media pieces. They also write and make music, occasionally performing on stage.
While their part-time service jobs and weekend gigs have ceased during lockdown, Farben says they’re relying on commissions for the second time in their life.
“I usually take commissions, as it helped me very much to support myself while I was traveling through Europe in my twenties … It has always been one of my sources of income, since I was 18 years old. During COVID-19, it has been the only way I can buy groceries at all,” they said.
In the current circumstances, Farben enjoys connecting with customers who want smaller, inexpensive artworks while the aged collectors they usually sell to in person quarantine at home.
“Lately I’ve been doing smaller black-and-white sketches, starting at $50,” Farben said. “I love people and painting the best version of everyone, the potential of their best self.
“Mainly, this work has promoted itself word-of-mouth. Once one person is happy with their family portrait, they hang it prominently and show all of their friends and visitors. Some even post on their social media without me asking them to! I don’t think the buyer realizes how much their happiness is free advertisement for me.”
David Sargent — Professional photographer | Charlevoix
“I’ve been serving people’s photographic needs in various ways for at least the last six years,” Sargent said. “I typically provide a range of services including senior photos, wedding photography, couple’s, families, events, and even real estate photography.”
Just days after he and his wife and two young children moved into their new home in Charlevoix, they went into lockdown.
“While on lockdown, I’ve only taken to going short distances to get outdoors to be active and engaged with my art form,” Sargent said. “I recently walked down a nearby trail and photographed midsections of various trees focusing on textures, patterns and light shaping. The trip resulted in six images I liked enough to publish as a series, and an Instagram follower of mine really loved them.
“This was a black-and-white series that was really cohesive as a group, so this Instagram follower turned into a client when she pulled out an antique farm window that she had in storage for when the perfect project would come along.
“This was that project: She intends to repurpose this aged black window frame that has six framed spaces into a collage-style picture frame. These spaces each had a 12″x16″ opening, and she’s going to attempt to attach each image behind the glass of each space to make the whole piece a bold statement in her home.”
Sargent said social media has been the driving factor for new client relationships during the COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan, and he’s grateful to clients who are coming to him to “help make their lives and homes a little happier in these weird times.”
Joanna Walitalo — Pyrographer | Pelkie
In partnership with her husband James, Joanna creates art by burning designs into locally sourced scrap wood.
“Our goal is to share the beautiful natural resources of our area through highly realistic and scientifically accurate illustrations for people to enjoy who are not fortunate enough to see them in real life on a daily basis, as well as fostering care for the environment through recycling/repurposing scrap wood in the process,” she said.
A PhD student in forest science at Michigan Technological University, Walitalo said their family lost 90% of their income when she lost her part-time job at the university and the small art stores where they sold their stock closed.
“We are still receiving a few commissioned artwork orders each week, which is what we are surviving off of at the moment,” Walitalo said.
With a two-week fulfillment process and a “no obligation” purchase policy, Walitalo and her husband have a “100% satisfaction rate” and lots of repeat customers.
You can find Walitalo’s work on her Facebook page.
Denise Cassidy Wood — Professional acrylic artist | Northville
Working mainly on canvas, Wood’s focus is on “bold, vibrant macro images of flowers.” She also takes images of her work and designs handbags, totes and accessories.
When her events, workshops and galleries shut down amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan, Wood said her business came to a “screeching halt.” Canceled orders left her in debt and the stress of the crisis zapped her creativity.
But when she reached out to her client base, she found that they needed her art as much as she needed their support.
“My artwork is vibrant and happy,” Wood said. “One couple stated that being home more gave them the push that they needed to have something uplifting on their walls.”
Though Wood has been producing commissions for years, she said they’re definitely having a greater impact now.
“I feel an intense gratitude and I believe it is showing in my work,” she said. “Maybe it is just a change in perspective, but it seems like the colors are a bit brighter and the depth and details are more intense.”
You can find Wood’s work on her personal website and on Facebook and Instagram @denisecassidywoodart.