KT Taylor grew up in rural Idaho, gay and lonely, feeling like "no one like me exists anywhere within a 100-mile radius." Then Taylor went to college in Virginia, and found a kindred community in Minneapolis.
But when the pandemic hit, Taylor (who uses they/them pronouns) suddenly felt isolated. A little like a small-town teenager.
So they made art. Inspired by gay newsletters of decades past, the 24-year-old put out a call for letters, illustrating seven of them to create a zine: "Not Alone, Never Was: a Penpal Zine 4 Rural Queers."
"Hello, my friend," one begins.
"I wanted to give people the experience of having something arrive in their mailbox," Taylor said. "Something they could read through, feel the pages ... almost this talisman that's a physical piece connecting them across distance."
By mail and via Zoom, artists have been reaching out across the distances created by the pandemic, offering a balm for one of its most menacing side effects — loneliness.
This fall, Springboard for the Arts put out a call for projects combating social isolation, especially within communities that were at risk of it even before the pandemic. The nonprofit has been funding, in $500 chunks, a huge range of efforts, including hand-delivered art kits, online coloring classes and a parking-lot concert series for seniors. Taylor's zine, too.
It's part of a broader effort to connect with people, especially seniors, as concerns about COVID keep folks hunkered down at home. Experts say the arts can play a powerful role during a time that has highlighted the long-studied mental and physical benefits of participating in the arts.
A British study published in November found that people who engaged regularly with the arts during the pandemic — by writing, reading, crafting or watching performing arts — reported lower rates of depression and anxiety.
About 22% increased their participation in the arts during lockdown, while 16% decreased their engagement, according to the COVID-19 Social Study, a massive effort to track the social and psychological effects of the pandemic.
"Younger adults were more likely to have increased their arts engagement during lockdown, whereas older adults engaged less," the study found.
'It's not just entertainment'
While access to the arts decreased as many cultural institutions closed their doors, the pandemic has also opened new pathways, with more theaters, orchestras and museums making plays, concerts and collections available online.
Children's Theatre Company offers kids classes online. The Minneapolis Institute of Art's family days have gone virtual. Giving Voice Chorus, for people living with Alzheimer's, has been rehearsing via Zoom.
"We now expect everything to be online," said Beth Bienvenu, director of accessibility for the National Endowment for the Arts. "So that's opening up so many more opportunities for people who have difficulty leaving their homes even before the pandemic ... people who, for different reasons, don't want to be out in public or can't be seated for three hours to watch a show."
Those opportunities aren't available to folks without access to the internet, she noted. But across the country, artists and organizations are finding creative ways to overcome that barrier, offering phone access to Zoom lessons and mailing printed packets to prisons.
The Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts in Winona has moved one-on-one lessons to Zoom. It shifted an adaptive dance class online. It beefed up its intergenerational postcard exchanges.
Inspired by that work, Jamie Schwaba, the conservatory's managing director, launched her own monthlong series of projects, nabbing a Springboard grant for materials.
She bought supplies for dozens of people to create "happy notes," tucking them into friends' windshields and Little Free Libraries, and to paint rocks, dropping them off in parks and gardens.
The pandemic has "given us a whole new perspective on the important role that the arts can play — and how much we do need the arts during times like these," Schwaba said. "It's not just entertainment."
Before the pandemic, the conservatory, which is part of St. Mary's University, had planned in-person events with the library in Caledonia, a town south of Winona known as the Wild Turkey Capital of Minnesota. Instead, they made the story times, oil pastel classes and postcard workshops virtual.
From June through December, 4,500 people participated in more than 40 programs.
"We only have like 2,700 people in Caledonia," said Caledonia Public Library director Stephanie Eggert. "We're just amazed with how it took off."
Some seniors don't have internet access or "just aren't computer-savvy," she noted. So she'd put the videos on a jump drive, dropping them off at their homes. She delivered art kits to parents' homes, too, knowing that many were already scrambling with child care. She also drops off bags of books, picking titles she knows her regulars would like.
"We have quite a few elders in the community who don't do technology," Eggert said. "I didn't want to leave those people out."
Residents tell her that the classes, postcard exchanges and art kits have made a huge difference during a difficult time. She told the story of a young boy who, before the virtual event began, wanted to take a minute just to talk.
These days, loneliness isn't relegated to the elderly.
"The kids, they're lonely," she said.
For some, it's survival
Springboard for the Arts' call focused on higher-risk groups, including people in care facilities, essential workers and families lacking access to broadband.
Nearly a third of the 89 projects the nonprofit funded were proposed by rural artists and nearly half by artists of color.
Artists were charged "with identifying a socially isolated community they had some connection to and imagining what they would do to bring people together, to offer a moment of joy or reflection," said Jun-Li Wang, Springboard's associate director for programs.
Unlike streamed events that anyone, anywhere can access, most of these projects are tailored for a small, specific audience, she noted.
Springboard funds projects like these partly to demonstrate how artists can help solve complex social questions, such as inequal access to the arts.
"Yes, artists can, on a small scale, address nursing home residents who are isolated, caregivers who are stressed," Wang said. "But what we're saying is that those artists can ask different questions, so that we come to a day that some of these things just don't happen. ... Artists should be in the mix of solving those huge problems."
A few years back, Ann Lopour, of Rochester, tagged along with a friend to an Elder Network support group for caregivers.
"I thought she needed help," said Lopour, 74, whose husband has Parkinson's disease. "I found I needed that class as much as she did, maybe more."
That class led to others. In the months before the pandemic, Lopour got dinner with friends, visited her children in Arizona and California, volunteered at the local animal shelter and at the jail. A retired nurse, she could see what was coming: "I knew this was going to be a long haul."
So early on, she installed and figured out Zoom. When the Elder Network partnered with the Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts offered a virtual class titled "Intentional Doodling," she was ready.
She's a quilter, not a drawer, but thought, "What the heck, I'll try it."
The instructor's drawings were intricate, delicate and a little intimidating. But she assured her pupils: It all starts with a single line. Making line after line, dot after dot, Lopour feels her shoulders relax and her mind zone out.
"When you're done," Lopour said, "you feel like you've taken a deep breath."
Since that class, a group of doodlers, including a 12-year-old girl and "a gal from South Dakota," has continued to meet weekly via Zoom.
It's an important ritual for Lopour, who has struggled with clinical depression for five decades. Three years ago, because of complex health issues, doctors recommended she stop taking antidepressants. Since then, she's managed her depression with the help of mindfulness and art courses.
"So this is survival," Lopour said. "I have to do this creative stuff for survival."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna