PORTLAND, Maine — In the early days of the pandemic the Bangor Daily News spoke with three artists struggling to stay creative and make their livings as the coronavirus reshaped their entire lives.
A photographer, quarantining away from her family, turned to innovative self portraits. A tattooist hunkered down in his basement, completing paintings he’d never had the time to finish. An entertainer braved barely reopened pubs, singing and playing bagpipes for his fans.
Nine months into the worldwide epidemic, active cases of COVID-19 are on pace to set records in December. Vaccines are on the way but Maine is getting fewer doses than predicted. The federal government has pledged more stimulus money but the touted $600 won’t even cover one month’s rent.
Through everything, these three Maine creatives are still at it, trying to stay healthy and productive while paying the bills — somehow.
In April, photographer Lauryn Hottinger quarantined, completely alone, for a total of 32 days. It was the safest thing to do, given her family situation.
She spent part of her time in isolation coming up with innovative self portraits. Normally, Hottinger makes her living as a concert, portrait and wedding photographer. She also shoots lush photos for several glossy Maine magazines.
When she finally got out of lockdown, she found most of that work gone.
“I lost 13 weddings altogether,” Hottinger said. “But I did gain some small, COVID-type weddings — all with less than 50 people.”
The concert photography never came back at all.
“Losing the concerts was the biggest emotional loss for me,” she said. “They’re my emotional bread-and-butter, if not my wallet’s.”
Hottinger’s summer magazine shooting schedule picked up. It kept her too busy to continue shooting self portraits. Instead, in her free time, she’s made lots of outdoor pictures of her family — the people she missed the most during her isolation — on 35mm film.
The winter is looking like another slow season for Hottinger.
“I’ll have a little magazine work but this winter will be a lot of sitting by the fire, reading and drinking tea,” she said.
Portland tattooist Chris Dingwell is a self-described workaholic who, in 2019, made national headlines with a life-sized portrait of the hated Star Wars character Jar-Jar Binks he’d etched across one Mainer’s back.
The coronavirus forced him to shutter his studio in March and he used the time to focus on several personal painting projects. Dingwell hoped to sell the work for needed cash.
“It worked out OK. I made a bunch and sold a handful,” he said.
The money from artwork helped but was no replacement for his regular income. He was forced to sell a motorcycle and used credit cards to make ends meet.
“I took on a huge pile of debt,” Dingwell said. “It’s possibly insurmountable.”
He reopened his tattoo shop in mid July when restrictions were eased. Since then, business has been steady.
“There’s plenty of people who want to get tattooed and have the money for it,” Dingwell said.
The only problem is, he can’t yet work full time. His 11-year-old daughter attends the fifth grade on Peaks Island, where her mother lives. The school operates five days a week but only for half days. When she’s with Dingwell, he can’t put in a full shift.
“Being a tattooer, I can only work in person,” he said. “I can’t work remotely.”
Until school goes back to normal, Dingwell is trying to cram as many clients into his schedule as time will allow. It’s not easy but he’s grateful to have the work.
“I’m just trying to pay off some of that debt,” he said.
Celtic pub singer and bagpiper Travis Cote lost all his gigs in the spring when venues closed down. After that, Cote performed a series of online shows before venturing back out into the pubs in June, when restrictions were eased.
But with the latest spike in coronavirus cases, his gigs are gone again.
Cote played his final Saturday night show at Ryan’s Corner House Irish Pub in Kennebunk just before Thanksgiving. The extended mild streak of fall weather allowed him to play outdoors on the patio much later than he expected.
Since then, he’s performed a few online shows, live from his living room, but it’s not quite the same. He doesn’t get paid and, so far, he hasn’t asked for Paypal donations.
“I might break down and do that but I have a day job, too,” Cote said, “And I don’t want to take money away from musicians who might need it more than I do.”
In the spring, the pandemic shut down bar and restaurant operations on March 16 — the night before St. Patrick’s Day. Normally, the holiday would have been a gigantic, money-making day of multiple gigs for Cote. At the time, canceling everything felt like a gut punch, he said. Cote’s been looking forward to an even bigger Paddy’s Day in 2021 but as the day creeps closer, with no pandemic end in sight, he’s getting worried.
“I guess we’ll have to see how the vaccine works out,” Cote said. “But whenever this ends up being over — that party — it’s going to be huge.”