Multidisciplinary artist Josephine Clarke, who moved to Port Hawkesbury three years ago and just moved to Isle Madame, credits the artsUNITE initiative by the Ontario-based group Artscape for helping her grow as an artist despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

PORT HAWKESBURY: A local artist said a national group’s online project has helped her grow as an artist, even during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Multidisciplinary artist Josephine Clarke, who moved to the Strait area from British Columbia three years ago and now calls Isle Madame home, is currently participating in the artsUNITE Unmute: Virtual Artist Residency.

“They started a residency with nine artists from across the country, all from different backgrounds, and all from different mediums,” Clarke explained. “It’s all done digitally, and we hosted weekly work shares, but we also got retraining and free workshops.”

The Ontario-based group Artscape said it developed artsUNITE / UNITÉ des arts last year as a free, comprehensive and centralized online wayfinding platform to provide Canadian artists and creative entrepreneurs with support to face the pandemic. It was launched nationally on March 8.

Artscape said the platform is curated by a collaborative network of arts organizations from across the country.

“During the pandemic it became clear how precarious opportunities can be for artists,” Clarke recalled. “When the pandemic started, a lot of artists saw so many opportunities just gone overnight; shows weren’t happening, events weren’t happening. I think there was a big shift in mindset among arts advocacy organizations that artists need more support.”

Describing herself as a visual artist and craftsperson, Clarke said this is a great way for rural artists to get the help they need.

“It served to get artists in touch with the resources they need, because during the pandemic it became very clear there weren’t enough way-finding services for artists,” she noted. “ArtsUNITE is a place where artists can go to find resources on finding funding, finding jobs, finding mental health supports, finding opportunities, finding opportunities to network with other artists. It’s kind of a one-stop shop place to find all the things you’d have to scour the internet for.”

As a result of her work with artsUNITE, her focus as an artist has also moved into other avenues.

“My work has changed a lot,” she pointed out. “I’m not necessarily making wearables as much anymore. I’ve moved more into contemporary work and sculpture, and installation. Whereas before, I was making things that were meant to be worn, I’m making things that are meant to be experienced.”

Because of the residency, Clarke said she has been able to access funding.

“It’s actually helped me grow my business and expand my audience, and get out there,” she noted. “It’s really helped my business grow, that’s why I’m moving to a new studio.”

Contacted as she prepared to move to Janvrin’s Island, Clarke said he will be able to undertake a new body of work, thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

“I’ll have the space all to myself, so it’ll be exciting, a bit of a change from where I’ve been. I’m kind of excited to have this change and go off on my own,” she said. “My work is getting bigger in scale so I’m excited to have a bigger space.”

Looking back a year, Clarke recalled the first months of the pandemic were very scary.

“Last year I had dates booked well into October, for shows all season, and all of that went up in smoke overnight,” she recounted. “I just remember thinking, ‘what am I going to do?’”

As the pandemic went on, Clarke said she was able to access more resources online, and take advantage of more learning opportunities. She also noticed that she didn’t have to travel to show her works, but was able to reach more people online.

“Suddenly, there was online training, suddenly organizations were shifting to accommodate making work available digitally. I started to focus more on making digital content and videos, and teaching online classes,” she recalled. “In spite of the pandemic causing a lot of setbacks, I think it’s also brought forth a lot of changes that were needed, that we just didn’t realize we needed.”

Now a resident of the region for the past three years, Clarke said she’s existed on both sides of the pandemic.

“I feel like in some ways it’s actually become a competitive advantage, in a way, in that I’m away from most of the scares about COVID. I’m out here, it’s easy for me to social distance, my life doesn’t have to be around a lot of crowds. Also, you see a renewed interest in rural areas in the midst of pandemic,” she stated. “I think people are starting to realize, with all the changes to how we work in the pandemic, living in a rural area actually holds a lot of advantages.”

Clarke added she has exhibits coming up this year, one in April at The Convent in Sydney, another in May at the Cape Breton Centre for Craft, and a show in June at the Corridor Gallery in Halifax.