• Jeff Schober

Eyes on creativity during a quarantine

Artists and musicians across WNY adapt to new realities

June 30, 2020: Artist Mary Kunz Goldman looks over her sketch pad while drawing a Buffalo landmark. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

Isolation can trigger feelings of despair and crippling loneliness. When Covid-19 exploded in March, and social distancing became the norm, people across the globe experienced its effects. Yet for some, isolation has provided an opportunity.

How many people have begun a new project, like painting a room, or building a fence? While quarantining is hard, being forced to stay home can inspire creativity. In 1606, while a plague raged through England, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra — three of his most powerful tragedies. Could we be in the midst of a similar artistic output?

Since social distancing became a way of life, creative people across the world and in Western New York have found themselves approaching their crafts differently, largely driven by circumstances. Artists, musicians, and actors have discovered new ways to express themselves and connect with their audience.

Here’s the bright side of quarantine: somewhere, right now, someone is creating art that may influence and shape new ways of thinking in years to come.

Kenmore multi-media artist Ralph Sirianni in his studio. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

Chainsaw art

Ralph Sirianni, a nationally renowned artist from Kenmore, has survived myriad challenges that include serving as a Marine during the Vietnam War, addiction, and the death of his son, Gabriel, in 2017. Having overcome obstacles, he recognizes the unique challenges of a global pandemic — and the opportunity that comes with it.

“I’ve been retired for five years,” Sirianni said. “So I was used to having free time. However, with quarantine, there are fewer distractions. Before, I could go to Barnes and Noble and sit for hours, just looking at books. I could spend all day there. A lot of that was no longer available.”

"GET UP, DAMMIT!" is a painting from "A Brush with Bare Knuckles" series. Using pastel, ink, and colored pencil, Sirianni asked two of his sons to model the fighters. His oldest, Raphael, is standing, while Gabe is lying down. Sirianni drew his own face as the man squatting beside the downed fighter, symbolic of his attempts to help Gabe.

Sirianni, 71, worked at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center. As an artist, he has mastered several different mediums, including pastels, oil painting, and pen and ink. He has been commissioned to create murals and sculptures across the country, has taught fellow artists, and provided courtroom sketches for several high-profile criminal cases in Western New York. (See his work at Recently, he began using a chainsaw to carve and shape wood into art.

“I got into that for the first time in the past year,” he said. “My best friend owns a tree business. He bought me a chainsaw and said he’d give me all the wood I wanted.”

The new medium has been a welcome challenge, and Sirianni has added to his repertoire of skills. He has incorporated the new medium into a long-standing project.

This oil painting, the title piece in "A Brush with Bare Knuckles" series, commemorates the last bare knuckle boxing match between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain on July 8, 1889 in Richburg, Mississippi. The fight lasted 75 rounds and spanned 2 hours and 16 minutes.

Always fascinated by boxing and martial arts, Sirianni developed a series entitled “A Brush with Bare Knuckles” — an homage to the bare knuckle fighters of yesteryear. He has employed various techniques, including wood burning, oils, acrylics, and watercolor. At one point, he attached a huge canvas to an old mattress, propped it up in his garage, and punched the canvas with paint, creating the effect of motion to represent a fighter’s power.

An art show featuring Sirianni’s work had been scheduled for the end of May. He was understandably disappointed when it cancelled.

“Quarantine allowed me to concentrate more on art,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a blessing, but I appreciate the time, because I’ve been able to create more work. It’s forced me to push the envelope more and go into areas that I wasn’t thinking of doing before, like chainsaw art.”

Using his most recent medium, Sirianni carves the rough outline of a bare knuckle fighter. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

50 songs, 50 days

Robert Ernie Insana, a 67-year-old Amherst musician and actor, was performing music before a live audience just hours before Western New York shut down in March. As he adjusted to the pandemic’s reality, he considered new ways to share his songs.

“I had just written some original music, and I saw people who make their living exclusively as musicians doing live concerts online,” Insana said. “I thought maybe this was a chance to get my music out there.”

Although he did not stream live, he posted an original song to social media each day, and fans could watch at their leisure. Sometimes, he used pre-recorded tracks. For others, he sent digital files to a keyboard player, who added parts and returned the song so it could be performed.

“I recorded on my phone, and I was shocked at the quality of the sound and video. I didn’t know if it would work, but people said it sounded great and looked great. I thought it would be cool to do just one song a day.”

Insana did not post his songs at a specific time, so there was no regular schedule. His one-song format allowed him to explain the backstory, and even practice different takes before publishing his favorite. After two weeks, he was almost out of new material.

“This went on for 16 days, then someone suggested I should perform some covers,” he said. “I live alone, so this was a way to be social. I began looking forward to it, and viewers told me they were looking forward to it too. It was a way to help people through these times. It was great because we all got something out of it.”

After his original songs, he performed music from a wide menu of well-known artists like Paul Simon, Barenaked Ladies, James Taylor and Harry Chapin. He did not solicit donations.

On June 1, Insana completed 50 days in a row, and then decided it was time for a break.

“I was concerned about overkill,” he reflected. “After 50 days, there were more than 1000 comments from people all over the world.”

Insana has been performing music since he was 13. His current band, All or Nothin’, began as a Tom Petty tribute band. While he was in his thirties, Insana took up acting, and has since performed all over Western New York. He has appeared in commercials, movies, and even entertained on cruise ships.

As for his daily Facebook song?

“I’ll take some time off,” he said. “Maybe as things start loosening up, I’ll do duets with people. Maybe I’ll post some shows I’ve done with my band. I’ve got other forms of income, but I feel for those musicians who need this to make a living. As an artist, being creative is part of who we are. We’ve all had to figure out new ways of doing things.”

Trading one ink for another

“The pandemic frayed everyone’s nerves,” said Mary Kunz Goldman, a former Buffalo News writer who turned to drawing a few years ago after accepting a buyout from her employer. “I was nervous and distressed by this, so I went for a couple weeks and didn’t draw.”

After more than 20 years as a columnist and classical music critic, Goldman, 58, discovered drawing through a group called the Urban Sketchers Buffalo. She attended a meeting at Forest Lawn Cemetery, soon realizing how much fun it was to draw buildings and landscapes.

Mary Kunz Goldman sketches the Lexington Co-op. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

She has portrayed iconic buildings like Buffalo’s City Hall, area churches, and was even commissioned by former Mayor Jimmy Griffin’s daughter, Maureen, to draw the downtown ballpark.

“It’s nice to draw city landmarks,” she said. “I’m proud of Buffalo and like to show off the city, but I also like to draw things that other artists aren’t drawing.”

Those include houses along Hertel and Parkside Avenues, a garage on Route 198 where city vehicles are stored, doors, statues, and ice cream shops around the Buffalo Zoo, and a local dry cleaning business near her neighborhood.

Goldman sketches in ink, rather than pencil, because she is too finicky when she uses pencil.

“I’d fret too much and erase. Having been a journalist for so long, it makes me draw a certain way. I want to draw everything I see — every fire hydrant and telephone pole. In journalism, you want to get as close to exact as you can. Using ink, sometimes I’ll just flip the sketchbook and start a new page if it’s not working out.”

From her home near Delaware Park, it took Goldman a few weeks to adjust to social distancing. Once she felt comfortable leaving the house, she walked the neighborhood, and quickly resumed drawing things she observed.

Goldman sketched Buffalo's iconic City Hall, then posted the template on social media, encouraging people to print and color it. Many samples are colored and posted on her Facebook page.

Goldman assembled her sketches into a line of notecards, which are sold at Vidler’s 5 & 10 in East Aurora, and Neo Gift Studio on Elmwood Avenue. On her Facebook account, she posted a black and white sketch of Buffalo’s City Hall, and encouraged people to download and color it. People sent their finished results back; several are shared on Goldman’s account.

“That was something for people who were stuck at home,” she said. “That free coloring page became a big thing.”

“When this is all over…”

Chris Webb, who manages nationally touring musicians, has dealt with the effects of the pandemic on his clients’ ability to perform.

“The music business came to a stop, especially for guys that tour nationally and internationally,” he said. “When will things open up? When this began, we started rescheduling for July. Now we’re rescheduling for 2021, but no one even knows if that’s going to work. Things are in a complete holding pattern.”

Before Covid, Chris Webb, left, posed with musicians Carmen Nickerson and Willy Porter. Photo courtesy of Chris Webb

Webb, 46, works from his home in Orchard Park, where he manages four artists — Willy Porter and Greg Koch from Milwaukee, Harmonious Wail from Madison, Wisconsin, and Tony Furtado from Portland, Oregon. A native of St. Louis, he moved to Western New York twelve years ago to raise a family with his wife, Michelle, who is originally from Amherst.

“Being an artist manager, I’m the hub for a musician’s activities,” Webb explained. “We have booking agents, publicists, radio promotion and social media people. They report to me and I coordinate with the artist.”

Because musicians are not able to play live before an audience — a staple for any performer — many have taken up live streaming: set up a camera, invite fans to tune in, and perform from home. Donations are accepted.

“Performers thrive off audience interaction,” Webb said, “so there was trepidation about playing into a phone or a webcam. There’s no audience feedback. Without a sound engineer, is it going to be the level of quality that they are used to? The response was great at the beginning.”

Patrons were generous with attention and donations, and musicians were able to replace some of the income they would have earned from touring. But by early June, twelve weeks into the pandemic, the numbers of viewers and donations were steadily falling, according to Webb.

“Three months in, we saw that a couple streams a week was good to keep food on the table, but it’s not a sustainable lifestyle.”

From his home office in Orchard Park, Chris Webb regularly live streams his clients. Harmonious Wail, left, and Willy Porter, right, have performed online concerts for fans. Photo courtesy of Chris Webb

Webb knows that part of his responsibility is to monitor when the industry can become operational again. His clients rely on him.

“Can venues survive at a reduced capacity?” he asked. “If an artist has a tour scheduled up and down the East Coast, but only two of the five venues are open, how do we handle that? I’m interested in when people can get back out there safely, and what the inflection point is where musicians can survive by touring or streaming or a combination of both.”

Because musicians have spent more time at home, they have dealt with details of everyday life that are often slotted between road trips. There is time to paint the bedroom, or hire a roofer, for instance. They have also used free time to work on their craft.

“While it’s been tough, one of the huge positives is that when this is all over, we should be hearing a lot of great new music,” Webb predicted.

© 2020 by Jeff Schober


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