Even a pandemic can have a silver lining

TRI-COUNTY — When the coronavirus pandemic started last year, a group of artists in Alpine could no longer safely meet in their shared studio. For one of those artists, Richard Curtin, the experience was isolating.

“I moved my easel and paints from a group studio in Alpine to the guest room of my home,” he said, reflecting on those early days. It was “just me and the easel and the paints.”

Then, Curtin had an idea: Why not paint together virtually? He talked to some of the other painters, and they agreed to give it a try.

They started doing two-hour portrait challenges. They called themselves the Quarantine Painters. “Painting with this group for almost a year has pushed me and made me a better artist,” Curtin said. “The friendship and respect for each other is the same, maybe greater. The Quarantine Painters group makes me feel lucky.”

For people in the tri-county — like those across the country — the pandemic has upended the patterns of daily life. Restaurants, bars, cinemas, barbers, gyms and nail salons closed. Churches, libraries and schools went virtual. Businesses went bankrupt and millions lost jobs. Cruise boats docked. A trip to the grocery store became an event. “Zoom” became a verb for social interactions.

At press time, more than 535,000 Americans and counting have died. More than 29 million have been infected. Big Bend residents went from not knowing anyone with COVID-19 to mourning friends and relatives. But amidst all this suffering, there were glimmers of joy. As people were forced into isolation, they found ways to stay connected and grow as people.

Like Curtin, Fort Davis resident Genie Mitchell is feeling lucky. Because of the pandemic, she says she’s reconnected with friends in Houston and learned valuable lessons about life.

“The most rewarding and helpful lesson I have learned is that it is not necessary for me to be productive all the time,” Mitchell said. “I have allowed myself to be still and calm and not feel guilty. I think it is called being present in the moment. It is a gift.’’

Down the road from Genie Mitchell lives yoga teacher Maggie McCollum, who also knows how to be present in the moment. Twice a week for the past year, she’s gathered with friends and yoga students on the lawn of the Jeff Davis County Courthouse to practice yoga and reconnect.

“We have listened to the birds, observed the smallest of insects, marveled at the clouds through the trees, shared our concerns, laughed at ourselves and created a community,” she said. “We even managed to do a little yoga.”

Some of McCollum’s students thanked her for keeping up the lessons. McCollum, who found community in the get-togethers, felt thankful as well.

“I feel a deep sense of gratitude for their loyalty, friendship and faithfulness,” she said of those yoga classes. “It has been a joy.”

Also feeling joyful is Kassandra Hernandez, who works at the Marfa Clinic. When nail salons closed, Hernandez learned how to do her own nails. She found satisfaction in it.

“I learned how to do the dip nail polish,” Hernandez explains. “I bought a kit and taught myself with a YouTube video. It’s a hard nail polish, so it stays on your nails for a month.”

“Whenever we have a girls’ night, I do it for my close friends,” Hernandez added. “Every time I go to see my mom, she says, ‘Bring the dip!’ And she doesn’t mean the guacamole.”

Sometimes, finding joy in the pandemic just meant reading a good book. April Armstrong, a Fort Davis resident, joined a Facebook group dedicated to reading Shakespeare. She read all his works. It’s “something I wouldn’t have gotten through on my own,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, Michael Wallens, the reverend at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Marfa, has learned how to use technology to bring his church together. He’s also said he’s learned more about life and what matters to him.

“What are the things I really need to be okay? How can I be creative to really access those things?” he said. “The answers to those questions were within. I learned to cherish the stillness.”

Going forward, Wallens hopes residents will carry through lessons from the pandemic. He hopes people learn to take better care of one another, including the elderly, essential workers and migrants. He cites 1 Corinthians 12, which he says embodies those lessons. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”