IN a Pandemic, Creativity is Life

Chef Dana Herbet

Not sure about you, but the first few months of COVID found me simply staring at my laptop most of the day, even when I didn’t have any particular work due, and then staring at my television all evening. Thankfully, the arrival of summer infused some energy and outdoor time into the mix, but the quantity of creative or inspired work that I’ve generated amounts to bupkis (translated: nothing at all).

True creatives sometimes flourish in the worst situations, so we were INterested in learning about some work that was born of COVID times. Whether it was an idea that came about to underpin a career in a flailing industry, or a way to pass an excess of downtime not normally available to a creator, or an escape from stress, Wilmington has had the privilege of seeing some beauty bloom in these dark times.

In July, a call went out for applicants for a cooking show on DETV.

Chef Dana Herbert, winner of season one of Cake Boss: Next Great Baker, said, “When this COVID thing hit, I was looking outside and the streets were barren, with no cars riding by. I realized my wedding business was going to get crushed.”

He added, “God was saying, ‘You do way more than baking. You’re trained in culinary and pastry.’ My virtual cooking programs took off and gained a lot of attention, so it spun into the idea for a television program.”

He approached Ivan Thomas, founder of DETV, who made a number of suggestions on how to bring a show to life.

The Chef Dana Cooking Show Built and Designed by Bath Kitchen and Tile and powered by GE hit the airwaves November 16th. While the studio kitchen was still being built, Herbert said he’s been greenlit to make four seasons of shows.

He said, “It’s been a great project that we are just watching come to life in the middle of this pandemic.”

Expect the show to be a platform regionally for local talent, with whom he will cook. Herbert says there are twelve people he’s working with, each with the potential of having his or her own concept. Content will include healthy eating, cooking for and with kids, Indian, Thai, barbecue, and, of course, baking. 

Herbert concluded, “When God gives you lemons, he shows you how to make lemonade with it. Food was always about love.”

Speaking of baking, in April, videos began to surface from Tricia Confalone, a real estate agent and Delaware Humane Association staffer, who had turned her attention to decorating cookies.

TrishyCatsCookies launched on August 1, and by that time, Confalone had progressed from basic cookie shapes and designs to intricate pieces, like dog portraits and aquarium scenes, and a September “when life gives you lemons” theme that mirrors Dana Herbert’s sentiments about COVID. She is baking regularly for friends and family and looking at how to expand as a cottage industry.

When asked about artistic talents, Confalone said, “I was in the national art honor society in high school, but that was more for socializing. I never felt artistically inclined—that part can be anxiety-inducing for me. When thinking of how to design these cookies, I definitely do better when getting inspiration from others.”

Prior to COVID, she didn’t bake much on her own, other than helping her mother during Christmas cookie season and baking for family. Confalone credits Downtown Dough T.O., a Toronto-based cookie artist, with bringing her along on her decorative journey. She uses Sweet Sugarbelle recipes and Sweet Anne Designs for inspiration – noting that people who do this work refer to themselves as “cookiers.” She also invested in a projector, which allows her to type words and project them onto a cookie for hand tracing. 

She reflected on 6.5 years ago when she made woodland creature cookies for a friend’s shower, saying, “Looking back, I definitely required more icing consistency. It was still fun and everyone loved them, but it was also a lot of hard work. I’d only made three or four other sets of cookies over the next six years.”

She shared one learning experience with potential new cookiers, noting, “Humidity is a huge thing. If I know I’m gonna ice cookies one day, I can’t leave my doors open because the humidity in the air will really affect the icing. It won’t set properly, and seeps into the bags and makes it runnier. I have to cool the house down to 70.”

A well-known fixture downtown and a frequent gallery open for the Art Loop, The Creative Vision Factory (CVF) provides individuals on the behavioral health spectrum opportunities for self-expression, empowerment and recovery through the arts. 

Michael Kalmbach, CVF’s Founding Director, noted that COVID has required the organization to spend a significant amount of money on therapy. 

However, he said, “Making art, creative-wise, has not been affected by COVID at all. Projects get done no matter what. But the odds of which people are doing what they typically do throughout all the challenges has really decreased. Our folks have been navigating a disaster every single day of their adult lives and the pandemic has put a lot of things in large contrast.”

Kalmbach says COVID has shone a light on structural challenges CVF’s members are navigating on any normal day. It’s enough of a challenge to get people connected to programs and services, but now there are added obstacles like Zoom calls and telehealth.

He said, “The system is not designed for a person who is experiencing homelessness and doesn’t have a working cell phone. Despite that, there have been these moments of embracing resilience and brilliance.”

One artist whose work stands out for Kalmbach is Mary Makwach, who creates mirrored mosaic vases.

Makwach was born in South Sudan and grew up in Kenya. She visited the U.S. with a student program in 2016. After two weeks, she was supposed to go back home, but war broke out in South Sudan. The mother of a young daughter, Makwach is disabled with a spinal cord injury and was once a frequent visitor to CVF.

Kalmbach said, “Mary was making a ton of vases ahead of the shutdown. We’ve started bringing materials to her. We know how much pleasure she gets out of the process, and how much it means to her. She is a model of perseverance.”

Makwach said, “I was going there before the lockdown but my daughter’s daycare closed. I wanted to continue making mosaics; I love doing art.”

The downside, she said, “I made eighteen vases. There’s nowhere to sell them because of COVID. I do embroidery, but don’t have any way to sell it. It’s kind of a dilemma: we want to make more, but we don’t have any way to sell things.”

Kalmbach said the vases were supposed to be sold at the 10th Wilmington STiR dinner, and Art Loop opportunities. He’s hoping to sell them as part of an upcoming fundraiser for Brandywine Counseling. 

CVF members are free to pursue a wide array of visual, literary and performing arts. During normal times, workshops, personalized instruction, and open studio time allow each artist to develop and pursue their own creative practice.

The downtime a pandemic creates might be a perfect storm for a writer of any sort, between the excess of free time available to write, the ennui, and the community’s hunger for new experiences.

Wilmington playwright David Robson is perpetually inventing staged works, and winning awards and nominations, such as a Philadelphia Critics’ Best Play Nomination for Playing the Assassin, and a Barrymore Award nomination for Man Measures Man

Robson described his latest activities, “The pandemic has kept me mostly at home, teaching remotely. I’ve been doing revisions on a new one-woman show called The Passion of M. Its subject is a fictional version of Melania Trump.”

It’s a satirical dark comedy positioning Mrs. Trump as newly widowed, reflecting on the arc of her life. Robson said the play was his way of coping with the political environment, and that he wasn’t aiming for easy laughs or caricature. A virtual streaming performance was initially planned with a Los Angeles theatre starting in October but has been postponed until spring.

Robson added, “Meanwhile, I’ve written a first draft of a new play, Comfort and Joy. I’m excited about it because it’s my first ‘coming of age’ story. It’s been rolling around in my head for at least a decade and was inspired by my own youthful introduction sexuality through the pages of an infamous bestseller of the time, The Joy of Sex.” 

In the play, his main character Lily is on the run in 1970s London and breaks into the home of best-selling author Alex Comfort. His book, Joy of Sex, inspired a generation to embrace pleasure, seeking answers to questions about love, intimacy, and identity. When her boyfriend Jack shows up, Lily is compelled to confront issues of selfhood and independence and choose between what’s expected of her and what she really wants out of life.

Although the subject matter of the current first lady may soon shrink in relevance, the topic of sex is evergreen.

Wilmington could potentially look forward to a future reading of a new Robson work by City Theater Company, which performed a virtual reading of After Birth of a Nation in April, a play CTC premiered for Robson in 2017. This fall, Penguin Rep in New York is planning a virtual performance of Robson’s drama Playing the Assassin, which Delaware Theatre Company produced in 2015.

Perhaps everywhere one looks, one can find someone who has taken up an art or a craft or a new medium for their existing art. It can be a way for people to connect with other humans, find a community in which to fit, find someone to help get past an obstacle or have someone to hold one accountable to a deadline or deliverable. Here are a few highlights:

The Club de Madres of the Hispanic American Association tapped their membership to create beautiful masks for healthcare personnel.

DJ Andrew Hugh, who enjoyed a busy summer of DJing in Dewey Beach, has added a new feature to his regular livestreams: a green screen. As DJ sets have transformed from primarily in-person experiences to primarily online, visual elements can make the experience more inviting.

Hugh said, “I’m developing a show on Twitch to entertain people from their homes or cars and offer something they can tune into on a regular basis. I want to keep my local followers engaged, but also, people all over the world are watching. I also want to continually sharpen the skills…as a boxer would say, ‘keep the weight up’.”

Jeni Barton, a former Wilmingtonian who is now Director of Marketing and Communications for the College of Creative Arts at Miami University, and is pursuing her Experience Design MFA, created #QuarantineCreative on Facebook. It’s up to 625 members now and includes visual artists, sculptors, game designers and even DJs. Although members are from all over, a majority of its members still hail from Wilmington.

Barton said, “When the pandemic and stay at home orders started, I wanted to create something where people could post the artwork they were creating while they were at home. To add original artwork to people’s feeds to break up the negative news about the virus. I love to see artists I know in Wilmington connecting with artists I know in Cincinnati and finding inspiration in one another.”

The Delaware Art Museum has received extensive media coverage for its photographic celebration of essential workers, created by Operation Technician Iz Balleto and Teaching Artist and Curator in Residence JaQuanne LeRoy. It reminds the community about how many kinds of workers—bus drivers, grocery cashiers, farmers, dry cleaners, and more—are essential to supporting our communities, beyond first responders.

Do you have a story of something built upon the bones of a pandemic? Let us know.