For artists, the pandemic has stolen opportunities and created economic uncertainty, but North Preston artist Letitia Fraser is more determined than ever to share her community’s storiesT
hroughout her life, Letitia Fraser has wanted to give a voice to her community through creative expression.
Her mother and eldest uncle are artists. Destined to carry on the tradition, Fraser went to NSCAD University to hone her skills. Soon after her studies began, she realized she wanted to focus her vision and artistry on the Black Nova Scotian experience.
The decision came from “being at NSCAD, being in the working world [with] people not knowing anything about our community, and myself learning later in my life—I was probably in my earlier 20s when I found out about African Nova Scotian history,” she says. “It was a way for me to expose people to us and our culture from my lens and educate myself on our history and where we come from.”
As a figurative artist, Fraser is interested in faces and expressions, and what they say about people. The North Preston artist sees this visual arts genre as a way for African Nova Scotians to be seen and heard.
“It starts with something I value in my community; some of my previous work focused on seniors,” she says. “It’s just picking out things, like how valuable they are in the community because a lot of our history is oral… Talking to them and seeing how valuable they are just as individuals helps in trying to shine a light on them. They were incredibly valuable to me in carrying on my culture but also just knowing where we came from.”
Under normal circumstances, visual artists like Fraser would showcase their work in person with public exhibitions. But the pandemic has created big economic hurdles for artists, with many galleries, markets, festivals, and other money-making opportunities cancelled, postponed, or severely limited. Before the pandemic, Fraser got a grant from Arts Nova Scotia that will help her offset the losses for the remainder of the year and supplement her income.
Many other artists are in the same boat, according to Visual Arts Nova Scotia (VANS) executive director Becky Welter-Nolan. “There many artists in rural communities especially that rely on tourism revenues,” she says. “People visiting in their area to sell their work and compounding all of this that there is a lot of economic uncertainty generally which makes it more difficult to sell art.”
Those lost opportunities have prompted some visual artists to focus more on online sales and promotion. Fraser relies on Instagram and her website to virtually recreate a physical experience people would have viewing in an art gallery.
While this way of adapting has resulted in successful flash sales on social media platforms and artists’ websites, it also highlights a digital barrier.
“If you don’t have that infrastructure in place, it becomes challenging to sell your work, especially if your audience is not attached to it personally, if they normally see your work in the context of the gallery that they’re familiar with,” Welter-Nolan says. “They may not necessarily follow your work in particular, so I think what you are seeing is a siloing of art audiences. So if you are familiar with an artist’s work already, you may be able to support them. If you aren’t, then that artist who may be not as familiar with digital marketing is being hidden in the algorithms.”
VANS is trying to bridge that gap, turning workshop series into webinars that cover social media and online marketing. Additionally, there was a webinar on shipping, which has emerged as another barrier of getting work on the market because some of it is fragile, delicate, and large, which means more delivery costs. VANS is also teaming up with local podcast producers, plus helping artists who are struggling financially through a community-supported emergency fund.
Welter-Nolan says visual arts need a lot more support to survive and thrive locally. “This pandemic is very much illustrating that arts organizations and artists in this region have been severely underfunded for so long that this crisis is making it untenable for us to survive,” she says. “We have been working at the margins without funding increases for so long that it has become near impossible for us to continue doing the near important work that we’re doing. There is not enough effort or even recognition from the government about the impact, value, and importance that the arts have on our culture.”
Part of the problem is that government tends to fixate on the economic impact of the arts. Welter-Nolan feels the societal impact is equally important, especially with the diverse and unique perspectives that have emerged from recent events, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the Nova Scotia mass shooting.
“Artists in these times of isolation are trying to make sense of the enormity of these circumstances and their impact, and they’re trying to imagine a better future,” Welter-Nolan says. “Nova Scotians have a particular culture that they are attached and connected to this place. The arts… need to be adequately supported so we can make sense of these massive experiences to see things in a new way and bring our communities together.”
Fraser is preparing a show slated for January or February, focusing on community and preservation of traditions in the North Preston community. Despite pandemic uncertainty, she hopes it can be an in-person experience at a gallery but has plans to adapt online if necessary. Most important to her is that the work prompt others to craft visual stories of their communities.
“I hope that it inspires more African Nova Scotian artists to show what their life is like; it doesn’t have to be a representation of their lives like my work or traditions, it can be something new,” she says. “Also, people who come from away to see we are here— it’s not just lighthouses and lobster. There’s a lot of communities here. We have our traditions and this is what they are like.”