EASTHAMPTON — Artist studios may not meet the criteria for “essential businesses,” but for many artists, they are essential to making a living.
Lisa Hersey is a self-employed bookbinder who operates her business, Antler Editions, out of a studio at Cottage Street Studios, where she also works with another artist in the building as an employee. Both businesses were shuttered this week after Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all nonessential businesses to cease in-person operations.
“I have no income, except for my very small unemployment check that I’m getting right now,” Hersey said Thursday.
Hersey may be cut off from her studio, but in that sense she’s not alone in this city of artists. Eastworks, the mixed-use converted mill building at 116 Pleasant St., also shuttered all commercial spaces, including artist studios. Residents who live in the building can remain in their apartments.
Eastworks management learned Wednesday from the Department of Public Health that private, nonresidential studios in the building would have to close.
“I get it,” said Shae Blaisdell, who manages the property. “But it still hurts.”
Eastworks required all businesses that serve the public in the building to close by noon Tuesday, in keeping with Gov. Baker’s order, she said. Restaurants are considered essential businesses under the order, but the one restaurant in Eastworks, Riff’s Joint, closed before it went into effect.
Eastworks is also home to Ora Care Hemp, a hemp cultivation and processing business that grows hemp and other plants at Eastworks in its Misty Valley Farm operation in the building’s basement. Bri Eichstaedt, the city’s health agent, said she is in the process of determining whether or not hemp processing or cultivating is essential under the order.
By the time Blaisdell delivered the news to the studio tenants Wednesday, “Most had already gotten their stuff,” she said, adding that many of the tenants with studios in Eastworks already had started working from home.
Two of those tenants are photographer Ben Brody and his wife, fiber artist Becca Brody, who share a studio. Ben said they moved out what they needed to from their studio more than a week ago.
“We were definitely prepared to evacuate the Eastworks space,” he said.
While he prefers working in the studio to working in his home, he supports the decision, he added: “It was the right call.”
In addition to informing Eastworks management of the order’s effect, Eichstaedt said she also informed the owners of Cottage Street Studios, at 1 Cottage St., that the building’s private studio spaces can’t be open under the order.
“They’re technically businesses,” she said.
For Hersey, the bookbinder, working from home isn’t possible as she uses heavy equipment, including a 1,000-pound board shear and a 500-pound book press, that can’t be readily moved to her residence in Holyoke.
Before the shutdown, Hersey said, she had been practicing social distancing while going to work at her studio. She said she understands the safety reasons for the order, but noted, “I also need to pay my bills that aren’t stopping.” But if closing her business and others means life can get back to normal at some point soon, she’s supportive of it. “Which is a hard thing to say,” she said.
Eichstaedt began looking into the status of commercial studio spaces after studio tenants inquired about whether they would be able to stay open under the governor’s order. She said she has gotten confirmation from the state that these spaces are nonessential businesses.
“I get that it’s inconvenient,” she said, adding that the city is not in a position to grant exceptions to state law.
Blaisdell also has changed the times that the unlocked entrance to Eastworks is open — formerly from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., now from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — to reduce access to the building while much of it is unoccupied.
Although she said she doesn’t have the luxury to tell tenants not to worry about rent, Blaisdell said, “I’m not chasing people and I’m not evicting people.”
Social distancing hasn’t stopped the residents of Eastworks from engaging in celebration elsewhere in the building. On Sunday, residents gathered in the hallway and sang “Happy Birthday” and the iconic Beatles song “Let It Be” to celebrate resident Beth McElhiney’s 56th birthday. McElhiney is a master silversmith and vintage clothing dealer who lives on the fourth floor with about 50 other people.
“These kinds of things happen spontaneously on a fairly regular basis,” said Eastworks resident and illustrator Bob Marstall.
The singalong for McElhiney was organized by resident and Grammy-award winning musician Jon Carroll and his wife, Meredith Carroll, an interior designer.
Jon likened the fourth floor of Eastworks, where the residential units are located, to “a wonderful college dorm.” The original plan was to host a dance party in a common area where people would keep their distance, but some residents didn’t like that idea. So, the singalong was decided on instead, with Jon planning to play two songs.
It was only right before he got into position to play “Happy Birthday” that Jon decided to follow it up with “Let It Be,” he said: “I’ve always been a believer in instinct.”
“It was just a really lovely moment,” said Meredith.
And it was captured on video by fellow resident Dawn Siebel, an artist who paints portraits of endangered animals.
“I’m incredibly lucky to live in this building during this time,” said Siebel, who noted that many artists are already accustomed to some amount of social isolation. “We are used to being at home in our grubby clothes all the time,” she said. “It’s not news to me.”
Eastworks owner Will Bundy and his wife, Paula Bundy, also have an apartment in Eastworks, although they are currently staying in their house in Plainfield. They also feel very lucky to be a part of the Eastworks community, he said: “It’s a great neighborhood.”
Before the pandemic, residents of the building went to each other’s apartments to hang out on a regular basis, said Marstall. Now, in keeping with social distancing guidelines to stop the spread of the virus, social gatherings have moved to the hallway.
“We stand out in the hall regularly,” Marstall said. “But we keep six to eight feet distance.”
He said that almost every evening people talk to one another from their doorways. McElhiney said they chat about everything from how the pandemic has affected local businesses to how to cope with stress and anxiety.
“I think it’s probably one of the best places to be,” McElhiney said. “We’re always checking on each other.”
Sometimes, she even takes her pet hamster, Blu, out into the hallway to roll around in a ball.
“She makes everybody laugh,” McElhiney said.
Bera Dunau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.