Labor and Local Artists

Balancing Productivity and Creativity Amidst a Pandemic

It’s now routine to open one’s laptop, log onto Zoom, and discuss a new project or the nuances of calculus. However, earlier this year, universities, companies, and organizations all scrambled to move their work online, adapting to new labor inhibitions created by the COVID-19 pandemic. To maintain normalcy was to maintain work schedules, support one’s family, or strive towards one’s degree. Work is influential in American culture. In the wake of the pandemic, some people’s lives became consumed by work more than ever, while others suddenly had the luxury of increased time to pursue creative outlets. 

Katie Moynihan was taking a gap year when the pandemic started. In her increased free time, she picked up the guitar that was collecting dust in her closet. “Over quarantine, I thought, ‘My time is now.’ After not practicing ever for four years, I was practicing every day,” she said. She turned to guitar to create structure in her day. “I am so grateful for that creative outlet. Without it, I was just sitting around watching TV. [Playing guitar] allowed me to lose track of time,” she continued. As a singer, Moynihan loves to learn songs she can sing along to and grow her musicianship. 

Alvalyn Dixon-Gardner used her creativity to fill an empty space. After being accepted to Tufts, Dixon-Gardner turned to college YouTubers to understand the school. While doing so, she noticed the lack of YouTubers—specifically Black YouTubers—at Tufts. As someone who was always interested in filmmaking, she used quarantine to start her YouTube channel, “Just Avalyn.” Her channel addresses topics ranging from natural hair care to navigating a predominantly white institution as a Black woman. Dixon-Gardner’s YouTube channel allows her to insert her voice into important conversations, but it also allows her to relax. “[Making videos] allows me to just decompress…Sometimes just sitting here with my laptop, and just focusing on editing a video allows me to disassociate from stress,” she said. 

Since school has started again, both Moynihan and Dixon-Gardner have had to balance their creative pursuits with their coursework. Moynihan used her gap year to better her relationship with work and creativity. “During my gap year, I reorganized my priorities about how important work is, what the value of work is, and understanding [that] in a capitalist society we are often advertised as products even though we are just people. I want the distinction that I am doing work because I like to,” she said. For her, that means integrating guitar into her time at Tufts. She takes weekly guitar lessons in tandem with her classes to create a balance between academics and music. 

Dixon-Gardner has also struggled to juggle school and YouTube. Like Moynihan, she incorporated her creative outlet into her schedule. She is currently taking a film class to improve her camera skills. In addition, she creates weekly schedules revolving around her schoolwork to make time for filming, editing, and uploading her videos. “Sometimes you have to make a sacrifice and your work has to take over. But I do think having that creativity is still significant…You can’t just get rid of it completely,” she said. 

For some Tufts students, the boundary between work and craft is blurred. Georgia Kay started an earring business in 2019, and when the pandemic hit, their business moved from Wren Hall and Tufts’ Craft Center to their parents’ house. As the line between home and school blurred, so did the line between creativity and commodification as they invested more time into their business. “Capitalizing on your creative outlet, it’s like, so weird. I have been asking myself, does it not feel like work because I like it? And are we supposed to not enjoy work? Is it supposed to be hard?” they said. 

Despite dealing with the dissonance of creativity and productivity, Kay is happy to embody the autonomy that comes with having their own business. “Two summers ago… I worked at this restaurant, and my bosses were really homophobic and really transphobic. I had to kind of be totally closeted to work there to not… be harassed or even fired. After that I kind of was just like: what if I worked for myself?” they said. Kay supports themself with the income that comes from selling earrings. “I actually can’t believe that I’m supporting myself with my art,” they added. 

Campbell Simmons also owns an earring shop. She started making earrings in January and started selling her products in June, during the pandemic. “I needed something that was creative, artistic, and physical that would keep me out of my head and keep me out of all these different, annoying emotions… I really relied on it in May and June,” she said. 

Now, making earrings holds her accountable for taking breaks during a strenuous semester. “There’s something about putting each bead there and feeling the wire bend around. Thursday evenings, I really like to light my special candle, watch ‘New Girl’ [and make earrings,]” she said. 

Making and selling earrings is feasible for Simmons because she found a way to navigate classes, her jobs, and her business. She is strategic about how much she posts on her shop so that she doesn’t get an unmanageable amount of orders. But she also acknowledged that earring-making is not her only form of income. “It’s not an income that I rely on. And I think for some people, even at Tufts, that is very much the case. Creators rely on their craft to [make money] and I feel like that would add a big stress for me, but because it’s something so extracurricular for me it doesn’t,” she said. 

Eve Abraha found herself working more when the pandemic hit. “I lost my main job, which was like 15 to 20 hours a week. I was going to be homeless, and I was applying [for] several jobs. In my critical education policy class [we] always do check-ins. I was talking about how I was stressed…[and] one of the ladies was like, I have a non-profit, and I would love it if you could work for me,” she said. Until June, Abraha delivered meals to families experiencing food insecurity. After working at the non-profit, Abraha started delivering meals on her own once a week. “I told myself, if I had the option to be able to order Grubhub or DoorDash, or anything while I still have some form of food in my fridge, that’s money that I’m going to reserve to make meals [for homeless individuals,]” she continued. 

Abraha now balances working multiple jobs to support herself with spending time making meals for those struggling with food insecurity. “I’m not gonna say I’m [going] to be homeless [as] easily as they are, but  I can see how I’m much closer than most people because I’ve [got] such limited resources. That [means] that I need to work even more to make tangible change,” she said. 

Despite doing more work, Abraha views her initiative as creative. “I crafted something I’m passionate about, but also is productive for the community and is progressing the world. I think to me, that’s the art,” she continued. Abraha is now coordinating turning her social justice work into a grassroots organization where other community members can get involved to help mitigate homelessness and food insecurity.

The relationship between work and creativity is different for everyone. This pandemic will not end soon, but how people approach their time while navigating new norms is a conversation that will persist. Whether it’s bending wire to create art that dangles from an ear, strumming the chords to a classic song, or packing meals for delivery, students use their free time with intention. Creative expression can be a form of escape, a mode for paying the bills, or even a way to help others.