VOLCANO, Hawaii — With COVID-19 shutting down the economy around the country, most states have guidelines defining who is providing an essential service.
That list varies from state to state, though there are some universals: medical personnel, police, firemen and grocers are pretty much universally on the list. And artists, art galleries, creative writers and theater companies are pretty much universally not on the list.
This shutting down of the arts takes a heavier economic toll on some communities than on others. Some places attract artists, and art has become a major part of their economies.
That’s particularly true here in Volcano, just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Volcano has four art galleries that have been shut down by the pandemic restrictions. Dozens of artists make their homes and their livelihoods there.
Among them is Ira Ono, who runs one of the galleries, Volcano Garden Arts. Ono also has a one-unit vacation rental which has been shut down, like all vacation rentals on the island, because of an executive order by Mayor Harry Kim.
His one business that remains partially open is the Café Ono, located at the shuttered gallery, which is serving takeout only from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., though restaurant sales are slow.
“It’s vexing on every level,” he admits.
Nine of his employees were laid off and the restaurant is running on a skeleton crew, “a very devoted group of people who have been with me for years.”
But his laid-off employees aren’t the only ones suffering. His gallery features over a hundred artists from around the state, who are mostly paid on commission when their works sell.
One of Ono’s sources of income before the pandemic: cruise ship passengers. A local tour company bused them up to dine at the restaurant and browse the gallery.
Ono says that neither he nor any of his staff have gotten sick, despite possible exposure via cruise passengers or other tourists. In fact, Volcano hasn’t had a known COVID-19 case.
Ono’s applying for small business loans, but hasn’t gotten one yet.
But he has one source of optimism.
Last year, when the volcanic eruption closed Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Ono said, “I could not have sales in the gallery for four months, and we survived. We made it through, and I have to think that we’ll make it through again.”
Two of Volcano’s other galleries are run by the nonprofit Volcano Art Center, whose main gallery is housed in the original Volcano House building near the park.
The art center also houses a smaller gallery in its Niaulani Visitor’s Center in Volcano Village. Both are now temporarily closed. The art center’s galleries feature the works of about 250 local artists, including one major show a month featuring one or two artists. March’s show, for instance, featured the native bird-inspired pottery of Emily Herb and the native bird prints of Margaret Barnaby.
The gift shop and gallery in the current Volcano House is also closed.
But it isn’t just income from sales that has been cut.
Many local artists gave workshops at the art center, which have been suspended. So have other community events and classes that the center hosted, such as yoga sessions. The art center is working on plans to start some workshops online. Fortunately, it already has an online store where much of the galleries’ contents can be purchased.
All events, classes and exhibitions up until April 30 have been postponed, says Volcano Art Center spokeswoman Emily Catey Weiss.
She carefully avoids the word “canceled,” which could have implications for the grants that the center has obtained to fund its activities. The April Gallery exhibit, for instance, has been postponed to a later date, and Barnaby’s and Herb’s exhibition will be carried over into April.
Because of their lifestyles, some of the artists may have had fewer problems adjusting to the new reality.
“Actually, my situation has not changed that much,” says Barnaby. “My studio is located at my house. I work alone.”
Even with the gallery closed, she says sales are “going pretty well,” thanks to the Art Center’s online store.
Herb also works at her home studio. She’s using the enforced hiatus to build up her depleted stock.
“It will affect us further down the road,” she says. “I got pretty good checks in February and March.”
Some artists are having a harder time, simply because of the medium they work in.
Glassblowers like Michael and Misato Mortara, who run the 2400 Fahrenheit Studio just outside Volcano, must import their high-quality raw art glass from Germany or New Zealand, then heat it with imported propane to create their exquisite blown-glass and cut glass works.
“It costs a lot of money to run the furnace, so we can’t afford to run it if we can’t sell anything,” says Misato Mortara.
They’ve gotten in a little money from previously commissioned pieces earlier this month, but not enough to keep the kiln running.
So they’re doing “a lot of cold working,” cutting and polishing pieces they’ve already blown, while they attempt to ride out the economic storm. They’re also experimenting with other media, such as furniture made from wood and glass-like epoxy.
They’ve applied for small business loans, and may apply for unemployment as well. They also have an online sales site. But in this economy, few people can afford art-quality glass.
Visual artists aren’t the only ones affected by the lockdown.
Volcano is one of the few communities its size that hosts its own theater company: the Kilauea Drama and Entertainment Network, headquartered in the historic KMC Theater in Kilauea Military Camp in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
For the past 27 years, the company has staged an annual summer musical. This year’s production was scheduled for July 10 to July 26. But the musical and other productions have been canceled for the year.
The KMC Theater, like the rest of the park, is in lockdown.
“As long as I’m just sitting here anyway, looking into grants is a good thing to do,” said Suzi Bond, KDEN’s executive director.
Others involved with the troupe have found a different pastime.
“A whole bunch of our costumer-seamstressy types are into making masks,” Bond notes. The company is donating some of its spare cloth from costuming for the face masks.
Volcano is also home to many amateur and professional writers. Until the stay-at-home order, several of them met once a week at Volcano Garden Arts to share works in progress with each other. They’ve just published their first collaborative anthology, entitled “Out of our Minds: Voices from the Mist.”
But the group’s scheduled reading to roll out the book was cancelled because of the virus. With bookstores and coffee houses closed, there’s nowhere to perform readings to market the book.
But the artists do have one thing going for them: their mindset.
“Artists are (usually) problem solvers who like to find creative ways around roadblocks, like to have the ‘norm’ shaken up, like to have our minds opened to the infinite possibilities around us,” says Volcano sculptor Liz Miller.
“I, for one, like the unknown. It busts my routines, humbles me, and ultimately energizes me.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?