How the arts in Rappahannock are surviving the pandemic

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Students at the 4-H Center in Front Royal pose for a photo with their God's Eyes, which they made themselves with yarn and sticks. 

The annual Rappahannock County Arts Tour may have been cancelled this year due to COVID-19, but leave it to artists, musicians and makers to overcome pandemic problems with creative solutions. 

When the pandemic began, the Rappahannock Association for Arts and Community got together to figure out how to support the county’s many artisans and craftspeople. The cancellation of gigs and shows hit artists hard, said RAAC President Matthew Black, not only financially but also creatively.

“As an artist, a critical piece of the artistic cycle is … to have somebody experience your work,” Black said. “There’s the hope that when someone sees an image or listens to a piece of music, some experience will come back to life and that person will, in a way, be a partner in creating something new.”

“From that perspective,” Black continued, “what the pandemic has taken away [from artists] is a slice of that creative process … so they miss that relationship.”

Over the past few months, RAAC board members have put their heads together to come up with several new ideas to help artists cope. They launched a virtual exhibit on their website where more than 30 local painters, potters, photographers, and multimedia artists have shared their work since May. 

Black said that the virtual tour has brought roughly six times more traffic to RAAC’s website than before the pandemic. “Hopefully that means they’ll put Rappahannock on their list of places to visit,” he said. “A lot of people come here because of the art, and my view is that tourism seems to be one way of promoting the county’s economic vitality.”


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In 2020 RAAC also awarded $9,000 in Artist Relief Fund grants, launched a “Virtual Tip Jar” for people to tune into at-home music concerts, started a newsletter titled “Art in the Time of Covid,” and continued to award Claudia Mitchell Arts grants to local artists and art organizations.

“RAAC’s mission in this time has been to find creative responses to the pandemic and not to give up,” Black said. “I think hopefully we’ve been able to tap into that impulse to share and create. I think the artistic spirit is alive and well in Rappahannock County.”

Despite the challenges of life in a pandemic, local artists have come together in new and evocative ways.

Ukulele in the park 

Collaborating with the Headwaters Foundation and what would later become the Rappahannock Kids Coalition, RAAC facilitated art classes and music lessons for kids this past summer attending camp at the county park. 

At first, local musician Wendi Sirat was nervous to teach children ukulele lessons this summer. “I was like, oh my gosh, it’s a pandemic, is this safe? How do I do this? We’ve got to be at least six feet apart … How do we do this?” she said. 

But Sirat didn’t let her nerves stop her. She went to the park and scoped out where she could set up her microphone and amplifier and distance her students ten feet apart. And when her students arrived, she remained flexible. “I learned that I had to back up and get really basic with kids,” she said.

“I just assumed plucking would be easy, and for adults it is, but for kids I had to back it up even more. [Kids] want to have fun with it. They don’t just want to learn songs, they want to play games, they want to do the limbo while some kids are strumming and other kids are holding the bar.”

Sirat taught the kids simple songs so they could feel accomplished right away. “I wanted them to have quick success so they would get excited about it,” she explained. 

Two of her students liked playing the ukulele so much that they continued lessons with Sirat until October, thanks to a Claudia Mitchell Fund grant from RAAC.

CCLC Arts and Crafts

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A student at the 4-H Center in Front Royal makes flower prints in a crafts class over the summer. 

Janet Kerig, an artist who specializes in natural dyes, has taught arts and crafts camp for years at Hearthstone School in Sperryville, but this year it was cancelled. “I was initially relieved because of my fears of the coronavirus,” Kerig wrote in a newsletter. “But I love working with children and this cancellation made for a big hole in my life.”

A Claudia Mitchell Arts Fund grant made it possible for Kerig to start a new tradition at the Child Care & Learning Center. Under the cover of a pavilion, Kerig led children in all kinds of activities, from making felt balls and beaded jewelry to flying silk parachutes and watercolor painting. 

When it became apparent that the fall arts tour would not be happening this year, Kerig decided to continue her classes with the Rappahannock County Public Schools’ Wonderful Wednesday program at the 4-H Center near Front Royal.

“Working with children is refreshing,” Kerig said. “To have the little children say, ‘you’re the best art teacher I’ve ever had!’ and for the children to be ecstatic about what they’re making and to watch them make things with their hands is an uplifting activity.”

‘An Unexpected Turn of Events’

The year 2020 was no match for the 1000 Faces Mask Theater, a performing group that has presented plays every year for more than 25 years. “A lot of people [told me to] just put it on next year,” said Artistic Director Peggy Schadler. 

“But unfortunately the play was about the election. The theme was that an oak tree was running for president. To [present] a play about the election post-election seemed like the worst timing. So that’s where I got determined,” Schadler said.

It all came together when Schadler’s daughter suggested that they make a video of the performance. “We approached some friends of friends who are videographers in Georgia and they came up and got tested for Covid,” Schadler said. 

In a normal year, Schadler would work with about 36 musicians, dancers and performers to produce a single play. But this year, they reduced the cast to 10 people and shot the play entirely outside. For the three minute video, Schadler said, they filmed for close to 13 hours over the course of three days. “The videographer had a vision,” she added. “It was an interesting process.”

The film, titled “An Unexpected Turn of Events,” can be viewed on the 1000 Faces website at 1000facesmasktheater.com.


Attention Rappahannock musicians

Are you a musician in the county looking to share your work with others? Rappahannock Radio and RAAC are creating a compilation of local music. Want to be part of the playlist? Submit your digital recordings to Kiaya Abernathy at Kiaya@Rappahannockradio.com by Jan. 15 and stay tuned for a late January release of the playlist available on Rappahannock Radio and RAAC's Soundcloud channel.

Submission guidelines:

  • Limit of two submissions per artist

  • Songs must be nine minutes or less

  • No offensive language

  • Please include track and artist information (artist image is optional)