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‘I am still here.… It still is a time for singing’

Voices from the front: Members of the coastal arts community talk about how the pandemic has changed them.


I can’t think of another time in my life more unexpected or unpredictable. When will it end? Who will I be when it’s over? Certainly not the same, of that I’m sure. But the pandemic has not been without bright spots. Nearly every day I see evidence of something good. A rekindled relationship; an inspired new business; new friendships formed at virtual gatherings.

Thinking others must be experiencing the same, I reached out to members of the coastal arts world and asked three questions: What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic? What have you learned? Will your work be different as a result?  Here are their answers, edited for length and clarity.


Betsy Altomare is co-owner with her husband, Keith, of the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City. The theater is closed but offering virtual films through its website. And every day from 6 to 7 p.m., the Altomares sell their popular popcorn to go.

Betsy Altomare is co-owner of Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City.
Betsy Altomare says she has been surprised at the outpouring of love for the Bijou Theatre.

What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic?

Altomare: Probably the reminder that people really love the Bijou Theatre. We decided to do a GoFundMe with the goal to pay off our mortgage, which was only $2,984. We actually raised it in 10 hours.

What have you learned during the pandemic?

Altomare:  Patience, and that viruses don’t discriminate.

Will your work be different as a result of the pandemic?

Altomare: That’s the big one. Very different. We’ve been doing virtual cinema. That’s been fairly popular. Right now, we have nine movies on our website and they are things we would normally play. I think we’re going to continue doing a few titles even once we open our doors. Also, the popcorn.  

Alison Dennis has been the executive director at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology since October 2018. The nonprofit was fortunate to receive a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program that has allowed Sitka to keep its full staff working full hours.

“We’re working remotely from home, both making preparations for the summer, adapting as we learn what will be possible, and also hard at work planning the 2021 schedule now,” Dennis said. “Even before the pandemic, Sitka had been pursuing a number of innovative ways to expand our reach, and we’re excited to share more about what we’ve been working on in the months ahead.”

Alison Dennis is executive director for Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis.
The Sitka Center’s Alison Dennis says she feels both more isolated and more connected than ever.

What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic?

Dennis: The generosity of the Oregon arts community is awe-inspiring. Whether generosity in spirits (well wishes) or financial support (donated money for spring workshops we’ve had to cancel). Instead of requesting full refunds, people are donating part or all of it. We’re really overwhelmed. One of our newest team members put it this way: “The people are reaching out to us to make sure the Sitka team is doing OK. I’ve never worked anywhere where people care so much.”

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I was really moved by that reflection. One of the other biggest surprises is feeling isolated, but also more connected than ever at the same time.

What have you learned during the pandemic?

Dennis: On a practical level, the Oregon Coast is an art and nature destination. It’s important for all of us who are part of coastal tourism and government to collaborate across county lines to determine when and how we welcome people back to the coast. On an art and ecology level, now is the time to listen to nature. Altea Narici, a cellist and vocal artist from Rome, participated in a residence here. Reflecting on her time here the first week of the pandemic, she wrote, “The world is saying I am still here, life is still here, spring is happening now. It still is a time for singing.”

Will your work be different as a result of the pandemic?

Dennis: I bet it will. At one level, Sitka is very much a place-based organization. We’re a place people come to get off the grid, connect with nature, reflect, and create. At another level, Sitka’s real work is the inspiration people take with them into their lives after spending time in this place. The pandemic is bringing communities together across geography in new ways. I’m excited to see how Sitka’s community of art- and nature-inspired people will connect, share, find inspiration in one another’s work through the pandemic, but also beyond.

David Dillon is a board member and past president for the Hoffman Center for the Arts in Manzanita, where he serves as building manager and audio-visual specialist and leads the film program.

David Dillon of Manzanita’s Hoffman Center notes that he wears pants for Zoom meetings, even though he doesn’t have to.

What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic?

Dillon: That Zoom meetings can be effective ways to do business … although you miss the opportunity to interact casually before and afterward with friends who attended the same meeting. Plus, you don’t have to wear pants… but I always do.

What have you learned during the pandemic?

Dillon: How quickly a community can adapt to new safety requirements, but how impatient some of the citizenry can become. Also, how little regard for, or knowledge of, science and the scientific method some people have demonstrated. This is not just a local problem. Finally, how fragile a tourist-based economy is for the workers in our service industries.

Will your work be different as a result of the pandemic?

Dillon: Manzanita’s Hoffman Center for the Arts had to shut down classes and events in the building, so the writing groups have gone cyber. The horticultural program conducted a well-received online workshop and has another one scheduled. I find that interesting, as so much of the pleasure of garden work involves putting your hands in dirt. Our movie program is planning to show online, following the lead and models of several other film groups around the state and country.

Tom Webb is the director of the Visual Arts Center in Newport. The center is closed, but exhibits are available online. The center also is soliciting submissions for a three-month Oregon Coast Online Art Show to begin May 29.

Tom Webb of the Newport Visual Arts Center says the pandemic has reinforced the importance of gallery shows for artists.

What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic?

Webb: We put together this Oregon Coast art show we are planning and it was really nice to learn about different artists up and down the coast I wasn’t familiar with. Right now, we have over 50 submissions. The deadline is Monday. I think we’re going to have upward of 100 artists.

What have you learned during the pandemic?

Webb: How important it is for artists to have live gallery exhibitions. Corvallis-based painter Greg Pfarr, who is in our big Runyan Gallery, has had some really prominent shows, but this is the largest in scale he’s ever had. He understands the situation, but he’s clearly frustrated no one can see his work in person. I did move everything online and put some of his paintings in the entry-foyer window so people can see them when they walk by.

Will your work be different as a result of the pandemic?

Webb: I think clearly we’ll have more capacity to do things, to have an online presence, whether it is videos of the exhibits or online interviews with the artists. Hopefully, there will be a heightened appreciation for the personal experience of viewing artwork in a gallery setting.

Monica Setziol-Phillips is an artist and woodcarver based out of Sheridan in Yamhill County, but well known on the coast for her art installations, shows, and classes. Since the start of the pandemic, Setziol-Phillips has not felt particularly creative, but did find herself doing tons of outdoor work on the 20 acres she shares with her actor husband, JP Phillips.

Setziol-Phillips says weaving is a process of adding to the medium to create art, in contract to woodcarving, a process of taking away.
Artist Monica Setziol-Phillips says she has learned to be patient with herself when her creativity is at low ebb.

What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic?

Setziol-Phillips: How willing people are to help, especially with doing shopping for us. I’m healthy, but my husband is a high-risk person, so I didn’t want to go into a store with lots of other people even if I wear protective wear. I go for quick visits, one or two things, but I don’t feel good about lengthy visits.

What have you learned during the pandemic?

Setziol-Phillips: I think the main lesson I learned, which relates back to creativity, is that I had to learn to be patient with myself. That’s my main thing I gained. I kept trying to get back to work and trying to get back to work and it just wasn’t there. I was causing myself stress by feeling “Why am I not doing it? I should be extra creative.” I think I’ve learned a greater appreciation of time and a greater appreciation of how interconnected we are. That’s become very apparent and I really value that.

Will your work be different as a result of the pandemic?

Setziol-Phillips: I don’t think it will be ever be quite the same. I’ve had this idea and now it’s really come to the front. I want to do a small series of pieces called remnants — of wood, things used in construction. That idea really intrigues me.

Also, I have this vision of cracked earth. The patterns of cracked earth – I really want to do something with that. Not only with climate change, but kind of the whole structure has a crack because of the virus. Those cracks have appeared and we hopefully can do something about that. My husband is African-American. When you think more African-American and Hispanics are dying, that’s one of the cracks.

This is a quote I wrote down years ago, attributed to 17th-century theologian John Owen, that seems to me to fit the times: “The times are changed, and in them changed are we.”


This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.