Art in the Time of Covid: Epsilon Spires
In the latter half of 2021, as arts and culture organizations continued to struggle through the changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Council and Vermont Humanities launched our Cultural Recovery Grant program to deliver a total of $1.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to 146 Vermont nonprofits. One of those nonprofits was Epsilon Spires, a new gallery and venue housed in a dramatic, former Baptist church on Brattleboro’s Main Street.
In 2019, a group of artists and scientists transformed the old church into a community space dedicated to “illuminating the relationships between creative arts, natural sciences and sustainability using multimedia platforms.” Just a year later, the pandemic forced Epsilon Spires, like so many others, to reimagine their work. They explored virtual programming including interactive film screenings, but they found their stride in the summer of 2020, when they were able to return to in-person programming by turning their parking lot into an outdoor cinema.
For Epsilon Spires Director Jamie Mohr, leading her organization through the pandemic has followed a creative process similar to that of the artists she works with. As Jamie puts it, “the initial idea usually (hopefully) transforms in exciting new directions on the journey to fruition.”
Jamie shared her thoughts on art in the time of Covid.
How has the pandemic challenged your creative practice and/or business?
When we first had to close our doors, we switched to offering virtual programming, including film screenings with additional interactive elements to help people feel connected, such as director’s Q&As and discussions on Zoom. Attendance for the virtual events quickly waned as everyone became more fatigued of Zoom interactions. When the summertime came, we innovated by transforming our parking lot into The Backlot Cinema, a socially-distanced theater often pairing the film experience with local culinary artists. Imagine a picnic under the stars while enjoying international and rarely-seen films.
We would never have reimagined this previously neglected space as a potential venue had it not been for necessity, and in doing so I believe we inspired others to consider how underused public spaces can be activated. The unique environment and atmosphere of The Backlot Cinema serves to guide my curation of films and offers a very special, unforgettable summertime experience, transporting the audience to locations around the world from a humble parking lot in Southern Vermont. Each screening ends with a special communal ceremony of lighting sparklers to evoke a shared sense of playfulness and joy.
How have you found strength or support since the pandemic began?
I think an often misunderstood, yet important aspect of art, creativity, and the drive for innovation is that they stem from the problem-solving skills necessary for survival. External limitations and boundaries, if they don’t crush the actualization of ideas, can sometimes provide both fuel and provocation for thinking in new ways. In their creative process, artists often have to cultivate their own parameters and limitations to work within themselves so they can better focus on actualizing the interior. The initial idea usually (hopefully) transforms in exciting new directions on the journey to fruition past the physical/technical/financial limitations of the outside world… Wait, what are we talking about again? Just kidding.
The ongoing pressures of the pandemic have been daunting and oppressive for everyone in all aspects of life. How do any of us continue to keep going when we can’t really plan for the future? For me, to cope I have thrown myself into the work, expanding upon our provocative and original programming and continuously learning how to logistically approach each obstacle to safely offer art experiences that engage the community. We could not have done any of this successfully without crucial relief support from the Vermont Arts Council, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, Thompson Trust and the Vermont Community Foundation. Support from these organizations allowed us to not only persevere through the crisis but also to prepare more sustainable strategies for growth in the future.
What are your plans or hopes for the future?
We are currently expanding to offer an international artist and composer residency in support of the creation of new works at an idyllic historic site, the Green River Bridge Inn in Guilford, Vermont. This site will also serve as a satellite for additional Epsilon Spires programming such as thematic pop-up dinners created by culinary artists, creative workshops and retreats, author’s talks, and more.
What are some ways people can support your work right now?
People can make a donation to invest in future events. We are also starting a membership program to offer benefits to our dedicated patrons, and of course, people can support our work by showing up! Following your curiosity to connect with others through time-based art, music, and performance in a historic venue is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. People sometimes take things for granted, but the best encouragement for our efforts is to visit and enjoy the unique cultural experiences we have worked so hard to bring to Vermont.
As an interdisciplinary venue, you really have to physically be there so that all of your senses can be engaged and present in the moment. For example, I’m always mesmerized by how audiences become completely transported through time during each of our silent film screenings with live, pipe organ soundtracks. Different musicians perform for each film on our 1906 Estey pipe organ (which was manufactured here in Brattleboro, and is the largest still-active Estey in the world). As the music sonically reverberates the entire sanctuary, each audience member is on the edge of their seat enraptured, sometimes laughing wholeheartedly at jokes from a century ago or gasping in shock at a revelation, such as during a recent New Year’s Day screening of the 1921 Swedish film, The Phantom Carriage, when the villain bragged that he was not only infected with consumption, but he actively coughed in people’s faces, “hoping it will finish them off.”
The success of these events testifies to the power of art and its ability to build connections between people even beyond the barriers of time.