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Local artists coping, keeping art alive in Tahoe communities

Kayla Anderson
Tahoe Daily Tribune

Governors of both California and Nevada issued orders to close “non-essential businesses” on March 18 to help curb the spread of COVID-19 thus impacting many small businesses and industries in the Tahoe Sierra.

One of the main sectors affected by this is the local arts community. Here are how some local artists are coping despite many art galleries being closed and their events canceled.

Ellen Nunes Fine Art, South Lake Tahoe

Spending most of her life painting and drawing, 14 years ago South Lake Tahoe artist Ellen Nunes tried an experiment of leaving an acrylic ink-soaked piece of paper out in the cold overnight and was amazed with how her art supplies reacted with the natural elements.

Now known for her one-of-a-kind original paintings sold in the shape of Lake Tahoe using the acrylic pouring process, Nunes has been working on expanding her business and is also quite involved with local artist collectives.

When asked how she is coping with closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, “Before this happened, I had a rigorous schedule with shows and deadlines,” Nunes said. “Everything has been canceled now so I can kind of relax.”

Before the coronavirus, she set a goal for herself to get Ellen Nunes Fine Art in more locations around the lake and in early March, she was able to place her work in the Pacific Crest Gallery in South Lake Tahoe and White Buffalo in Truckee.

Ellen Nunes Fine Art has also been featured in the Emanate Gallery in South Lake for the past several years.

She is glad that she reached her goal of expanding her business before the pandemic and is grateful that the Emanate and Pacific Crest galleries can continue to sell her work online.

“I’ve been creating a lot of art to fill the galleries for when they get back in business, it’s been therapeutic for me,” she said. “I’m glad I seeded the soil in early March for that. I’m holding the belief that people will come back to Tahoe and when they do, then my art will be right in their faces.”

Nunes is also doing what she can to support the community by donating a portion of the proceeds from the business to local causes and is working with the Suicide Prevention Network’s Arts for Mental Health Campaign to host a painting class (people can join or participate by sharing their craft through https://spnawareness.org).

“There is so much uncertainty right now that when I feel myself becoming anxious, I grab a few colors that appeal to me in the moment and make a painting,” Nunes said. “I find it relaxing and a great way to express my feelings and help me stay in the present moment. I’m happy to share this simple therapeutic method and you don’t need to be ‘an artist’ just have the desire to try it.”

Piper J Studio, Incline Village

Over on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore, oil landscape artist Monika Piper Johnson recently closed her art gallery, Piper J Studio, which doubles as an art studio and hair salon.

“Most artists don’t fully support themselves on just art alone, so I’ve still been doing hair 3-4 times a week so that I can bring in consistent revenue,” Johnson said.

While it was a major hit to close all her three businesses at once following Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s order, it also allowed Johnson to shift her focus to other parts of her business.

“There are a lot of things that I wanted to do with my art that I never had time for while working, like hosting online classes,” Johnson said. “So, this has forced me to get my act together and finally do it.”

Johnson is thankful that she has a few painting commissions to work on during the pandemic and that her landlords have been able to work with her on deferring payments or trading paintings to go towards rent.

Before the coronavirus, Johnson also taught art classes at Nevada Fine Arts in Reno and was recently supposed to host an artist retreat in Virginia City in mid-April that was canceled.

“I had 16-20 people taking my classes and I didn’t want to lose that,” Johnson said. “When this happened, some of those people were okay with taking a credit but some needed the money, too. I’ve been building the painting classes up steadily because it’s a business model similar to hair by having repeat, steady clients (or students).”

To keep those relationships, Johnson began hosting weekly Zoom classes that have been met with a positive response.

“Everyone really enjoys it,” she said. “They get to connect, and they are not comparing themselves to the rest of the class. They’re getting into their zone and the time flies by.”

She was surprised that people didn’t mind going online in lieu of meeting in person, but it also takes away the hassle of having to schlep around art supplies. She says that her first online art class held April 11 was personally also a big confidence booster.

“It gave me a reason to take a shower, put on makeup,” Johnson said. “I finally had a reason to show up, having somewhere to be at a specific time.”

With everything on her calendar wiped off in one day, the online art classes give her purpose.

Johnson plans on hosting her online art classes through the end of May and anyone interested in joining can find her on Facebook or email her at monikapj@yahoo.com.

Johnson also has been offering discounts on her work and doing curbside viewings by appointment.

“People can come by and look at the paintings when the weather’s nice,” she said, “and then we can work out payment online.”

Rainbows Line Downtown Truckee

Even though at least 130 businesses are closed in Truckee, that didn’t stop Atelier Truckee owner Heather River from spending three days painting rainbows on her fellow merchants’ shop windows to spread color, hope, and love to the community.

“Heather has been selflessly painting rainbows and now they’re literally everywhere around town,” says Atelier Workshop Manager Kelly Wallis. “By what we’re seeing on our social media channels, yes, it’s definitely been boosting morale in the town of Truckee.”

Atelier is a retail-studio space in the downtown area that sells yarn, arts and craft supplies as well as hosts regular ongoing workshops for anyone interested in picking up or honing their new creative hobby.

Following the governor’s order to close, Atelier staff spent 48 hours moving the entire inventory online and shipping out orders on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (or available for curbside pickup on those days from 11a.m. to 2 p.m.).

Wallis says that Atelier has been selling a lot of beginner knitting, embroidery, drawing, and painting kits.

And even though workshops are canceled through June, Atelier Truckee just launched a YouTube channel that features “How To” videos. Atelier also sends out emails on Tuesdays promoting a new product, Thursdays that showcase a local artist, and on Saturdays that include an inspirational video.


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