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Carroll County creatives, artisans struggle for path forward amid ‘significant financial impact’ of coronavirus

Even before Maryland’s governor closed non-essential businesses statewide, those in Carroll County who earn a living in creative fields were facing lost income from canceled classes, festivals and live performances.

As Marylanders stay home in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus — also known as COVID-19, the disease it causes — before it can overwhelm medical resources, many artists and artisans in Carroll saw sources of income peel away. Nationwide, Americans for the Arts is collecting reports of financial losses and offering resources at www.americansforthearts.org.

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The full picture of the economic impact of the coronavirus is still unclear, but the Times spoke with a few Carroll artists about the emotional and financial effects, as well as keeping perspective.

Shiloh Pottery

Married couple Ken and Marty Hankins, who own Shiloh Pottery Studio in Hampstead, have been teaching and making pottery for almost half a century. They have one part-time paid employee who they had to let go.

“We’re a very small business ... and we’re wondering if we can survive this,” Marty said. “It’s a big deal for us. We’ve been in business 47 years.”

They canceled in-person classes that were supposed to take place in April, but they don’t see moving online as an option. With the weight of pottery items, shipping them costs more than the cost of the item itself, and photographing, listing and packaging items for the internet takes significant time and labor. Their last class was a group of volunteers making bowls for the Empty Bowls fundraiser for The Shepherd’s Staff — an event that ended up being canceled anyway.

Even without the moratorium on gatherings of people, Ken was not sure he would want to be around many people; he’s in his 70s and is categorized as medically vulnerable.

Another challenge is the uncertainty of not knowing when restrictions will lift and it will be safe to gather again. One option might be to offer those who signed up for spring classes to take summer classes. Or they may have to reschedule their April classes for the fall.

“We’re fortunate we don’t depend on the income from the pottery to live on ... but a lot of artists do. We’re retired and have pretty OK retirement income,” Marty said.

They try to keep perspective that “literally the entire world is in the same boat.” And if families are trying to pay bills and buy food, pottery falls “pretty far down on the list.”

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Ken Hankins, who along with his wife Marty owns Shiloh Pottery Studio in Hampstead, helps Jasper Cougnet, 5, of Phoenix, throw a bowl as his mother Jen, right, looks on in May 2015. In response to the coronavirus they had to let go their one part-time paid employee.
Ken Hankins, who along with his wife Marty owns Shiloh Pottery Studio in Hampstead, helps Jasper Cougnet, 5, of Phoenix, throw a bowl as his mother Jen, right, looks on in May 2015. In response to the coronavirus they had to let go their one part-time paid employee.(DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO, Carroll County Times)

Ashby’s Agates

Denise and Brian of Ashby’s Agates are rockhounds, lapidaries and jewelry designers in Westminster. Much of their business involves travel to find and stock stones that they cut and polish themselves.

“We do purchase rough material from other lapidaries when we are away, and often come across material that one can only find in the local little rock shops hidden in our western landscapes,” Denise said.

Asby’s Agates is a side business for them and they feel fortunate to have full-time jobs, but they hope that travel will be more doable in the summer or fall. The shows where they sell are starting to get canceled throughout 2020.

“We started off 2020 with pretty terrific sales at the couple of shows that are now behind us. The funds that we have in the bank now will cover what we have planned for this year. But as for building for 2021, there is the same uncertainty that everyone else is experiencing ... but certainly a minimal concern when other folks are losing their jobs and our society is physically shutting down little by little,” Denise said.

“Any economic downturn hurts an artisan’s business. It goes without saying, really, that when people are faced with the hardships with essential life expenses, no one is going to be focused on an art investment. So that’s a little sad and scary for all of us artisans. We love to share our visions and our creations and I believe I speak for all of us when I say that there is great joy when someone connects with what we’re doing. There is an immense sense of pride and gratitude in sharing one’s art pieces.”

The creative ways artists are sharing their work, like online craft shows and concerts, are a sign of hope for her. But they prefer to stick to phone calls and a Facebook page, “Ashby’s Agates.” They haven’t had the time to create a website for online sales.

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“Our commitment to our business is being out among the community, showing our wares and telling our stories. This, I’m afraid, will suffer this year,” she said.

Union Mills resident Thomas Sterner, who last year sculpted the two green leaf shoots outside the old bank that is being renovated for Westminster’s new city administrative offices, said the coronavirus has had a "significant financial impact."
Union Mills resident Thomas Sterner, who last year sculpted the two green leaf shoots outside the old bank that is being renovated for Westminster’s new city administrative offices, said the coronavirus has had a "significant financial impact."(Dylan Slagle)

Thomas Sterner

Union Mills resident Thomas Sterner, who sculpted the two green leaf shoots outside the old bank that is being renovated for Westminster’s new city administrative offices, was contracted for a new public art sculpture in Frederick.

Artist Thomas Sterner of Union Mills was contracted for a new public art sculpture in Frederick but cannot start working on the piece.
Artist Thomas Sterner of Union Mills was contracted for a new public art sculpture in Frederick but cannot start working on the piece. (Phil Grout/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

“Water Lily Wave” will be his largest public sculpture in size and cost. But although it was reviewed and approved by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Public Art Commission, the Historical Preservation Commission has not been able to meet due to precautions. Sterner cannot begin the piece, and he said in an email that he’s “concerned the delay could be significant. Now would be a perfect time to be working on it.”

“It will still happen, but the amount of delay is unknown and may be significant. I am a full-time artist, and a project like this has a significant financial impact and consumes all of my time (or none of it). I adjust, stay positive, and keep going,” he said.

Players on Air

Their production of the musical “1776” was scheduled for the weekend of March 13, but now local Community Theatre group Players on Air Inc. is out nearly $6,000 that they spent on the production elements of the show.

To tell the story of the first Continental Congress, the group convened almost 25 male actors, a feat in the theatre world. Now, they have no idea if they would be able to reschedule in the future.

The show itself is supposed to go back to Broadway, and the licensing company has told director and producer Laura Wonsala that they cannot guarantee that Players on Air will be able to acquire the rights for a rescheduled local performance.

“All of the time and hard work we put into our production is up in the air right now,” she said in an email. “Many people are asking for refunds for tickets they purchased. We are trying to tell them that we will honor their tickets if we can reschedule or for another production in the future. The licensing company said they will refund our money, but that doesn’t even come close to what we put out for our production.”

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