What’s bringing you joy right now? Even beginning to answer that question might feel like a big ask for many, but amid the daily churn of information and fear surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, Washingtonians have found creative ways to stay grounded. From an unexpected friendship across species to a cluster of clay llamas to finding a way to remotely produce a song featuring multiple collaborators, people across Washington have found ways to stay connected to their artistic communities, their jobs and their routines — or to find beauty in the changes themselves.
Here are some of their stories.
Dwight: Man meets horse
Normally, Dwight Phillips swims daily for exercise, but since Washington’s stay-home order took effect, he’s been taking long walks near his home on Woodinville’s Crystal Lake, bringing along a carrot or apple. The snack isn’t for him, but for a friend he visits regularly, keeping meet-ups outside.
In many ways, Phillips’ routine is a lot like the ones many of us have adopted since uneasy March gave way to cooped-up April, as we wave hello to loved ones through closed windows and from behind masks. But something is different about Phillips’ friend: Duley is a new acquaintance — a rarity in a city under lockdown — and he is a horse.
Phillips wasn’t a horse enthusiast to begin with, but on one of his daily jaunts, after walking down a wooded trail near his home, he passed a white fence on a dead-end street, and realized he’d stumbled upon a pasture, where a beautiful, calm horse was standing.
At first, Phillips just admired the horse. And he came back regularly, taking “a welcome diversion” from work and the news to go on his usual walk to visit Duley and feed him an apple or a carrot.
Now, it’s become something of a routine for both of them. When Phillips arrives to see his new horse friend, “he looks up and starts walking towards me,” Phillips said. Duley recognizes this human neighbor as “the guy that brings him a carrot.”
Through Duley’s caretaker, Tracey Redd, Phillips learned that his new friend has a famous past. Duley, now in his early 20s, was once a competitive dressage horse, and his father, Abdullah, was a noted show jumping competitor and the 1984 Olympic jumping champion.
On Easter, Phillips’ son and two granddaughters came over unexpectedly, and the three took a family walk to see the horse; the girls each got to feed Duley a carrot, said Phillips.
If he hadn’t been staying home, Phillips wouldn’t have had his chance meeting with Duley. It wouldn’t have happened had he not been forced to slow down. It was something precious that had come out of challenging circumstances, and one he hopes to hold onto: “We’ve become buddies and so I’ll have to keep up my friendship with Duley,” he said.
Will he keep going over when the pandemic has passed? “I know I will,” Phillips said.
Liz: A coffee table’s worth of ceramic llamas
In early March, first-grade student teacher Liz Jimmerson-Alaeddinoglu came down with COVID-like symptoms, but she didn’t meet the threshold for testing. Jimmerson-Alaeddinoglu recovered within 10 days. Yet, she still doesn’t know if she had COVID-19, and the timing of Washington’s stay-home order meant that she wasn’t able to return to student-teaching in person.
She misses being in her llama-themed classroom. The fuzzy mammals are incorporated into classroom puns and the class charter, as Jimmerson-Alaeddinoglu said, is “a really fun way that the kids have helped establish a community in our class.”
Jimmerson-Alaeddinoglu also loves ceramics, and happened to have some clay on hand. So she started hand-molding a llama as a tribute to her classroom.
“I wanted to make one just sort of on a whim,” she said. “It was a funny little way to pass a tiny bit of time. And then the idea just came to me that it would be fun to make a llama for every day that I wasn’t able to see my students as a way to be mindful of them and their situations and how this situation is impacting them.”
At the time she was interviewed, 47 llamas crowded the teacher’s coffee table. There were a few more by the time she was photographed. She plans to keep making the llamas until “whenever we’re able to leave the house and maybe get back to some normalcy in education.”
Jimmerson-Alaeddinoglu normally throws on the wheel but has shifted to hand-building because it was all she had access to when her usual ceramics studio closed in compliance with social distancing measures.
“It’s a really interesting time to see how people are pushed by situations and are able to push themselves to change and find new ways to create,” she said, adding that it “might be a nice thing to do with the kids as an art form that they may not have access to in other ways.”
But that wouldn’t be until teaching returns to the classroom. In the meantime, Jimmerson-Alaeddinoglu is still student-teaching and completing her own coursework virtually.
“I miss seeing my kids and I think getting to have one-on-one or small-group work with them is really meaningful for me and for them,” she said. “It’s a reminder of why I teach and why I think it’s so important and why I’m dedicated to it. You know, they really ground me in my why.”
“Throughout all of this it’s been really important to me to make sure that I’m keeping my students centered in my work … I feel tired and I have these emotional swings and I’m dealing with it, but then I think, ‘Oh my gosh, how much harder is it for a 6-year-old to do this?’ … It helps me focus and do the best work that I can,” she said.
Larry: Full-time family
Before the stay-home order, Larry Huang didn’t typically see his daughters, 4-year-old Amelia (Lia) and 1-year-old Adeline (Addy), during the day because he was out of the house before they woke up and home just before dinner and bath time.
That changed when the coronavirus outbreak hit. Huang, who works in health care administration, suddenly found himself working remotely. “At first it was really hard to do that every single day when there’s so much stuff at work … and, you know, as you can imagine, in the background, just hearing screaming, crying, laughing, little feet just running all over the house,” he said.
But then something shifted: “I realized, because of the quarantine, they’re actually my stress relievers.” Huang found himself looking forward to Addy’s noisy 8:30 a.m. wake-up call. Between emails, he caught snippets of the kids’ interactions throughout the day, and realized that the two girls, who until recently had little in common, were starting to get along in a new way.
Before, Lia had wanted nothing to do with her sister. “She would always complain to me … ‘Addy bent my paper, she’s pulling on my dress, she’s following me around,’” he said.
Now they are playing hide-and-seek. “Lia would go off and run under the covers or run under a blanket and the baby would follow, walking kind of clumsily, and then play peekaboo under the covers,” he said. “They do that all day long.”
Huang’s wife, Janine, noticed the newfound solidarity, too, reporting that Addy has been going into her sister’s room each morning with a huge grin on her face.
“It’s just really fun watching them starting to grow together, and I think I couldn’t have really done that if I wasn’t at home listening and tuning in to what they’re doing,” Larry Huang said.
It was one aspect of social distancing that seemed worth maintaining. “I’m hoping that even after all this is over, I can kind of keep some of that and be able to really tune into their morning routines and kind of check in with them throughout the day,” he said.
Zag: “From the Chest”
For Amr “Zag” Awwad, in-person performance and collaboration are daily essentials. The hip-hop artist, spoken word poet and DJ moved to Seattle from Zagazig, Egypt, at 15 to live with his grandparents and pursue hip-hop. Since then, he has participated in programming with youth recording nonprofit Totem Star, attended Roosevelt High School and The Evergreen State College, competed in poetry slams and, most recently, completed an internship with Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture.
For someone so immersed in the city’s arts scene, being away from it under Washington’s stay-home order has been challenging.
“I’m constantly just either working or collaborating with my other friends from Totem Star on Zoom or online … sending them stuff and sending me back stuff just trying to work collaboratively during this time,” said Awwad, who has been spending a lot of time in his home studio, and trying to decide whether to return to Egypt to be with his family.
A few weeks ago, Awwad released a new song called “From the Chest,” produced in a more roundabout way than usual. “Me and a couple friends of mine did it all independently,” he said. “Everyone recorded their verse, everyone recorded their part and kind of meshed it all together.” Creating the song layer by layer using the digital audio program Logic Pro X, Awwad and a friend co-produced the beat, Awwad came up with the melody, another friend added vocals and so on.
It wasn’t a seamless transition. “It definitely has its own vibe to it,” said Awwad, who missed the intricacies and in-the-moment feedback that comes from being physically together. But for now, this will have to do. “I still want to make music … this is not gonna stop me from making music with other people and my friends,” he said.
But he also feels pressure to produce or be creative during the stay-home order, and is concerned about artists pushing themselves to the point of burnout. While he’s still making music and performing, he said, “I don’t tell myself, you know, you’re going to work on this beat right now. … Sometimes I feel a sudden burst of creativity … but I don’t put pressure on myself to make any art. Because if I put pressure, then it’s not coming from the heart.”
Awwad has also performed in online poetry slams, and although Zoom is no substitute for his normally busy live-performance schedule, he says he’s gotten a lot out of the online writing circle that preceded one of the slams.
“It was cool seeing people from New York and California and Washington and the Midwest … people are way more connected and in ways that wouldn’t have happened before,” he said.
And something else gives Awwad hope: the notion that the pandemic may wake people up to pressing social issues that have been there all along, but perhaps not as visible to some.
“There are a lot of issues that I feel like this coronavirus exposed about the system that we’re living in and how it’s not viable for most Americans,” he said. “I believe that people will start to wake up, hopefully, and demand better treatment or demand a better standard of living for everyone.”