EAST PROVIDENCE – Karen Murphy is a nationally recognized contemporary landscape painter who's work has been featured in publications like American Art Collector Magazine, New England Living and The Bay Magazine.
A resident of the Riverside neighborhood of East Providence, she left the corporate world in 2015 to focus on her art and, since then, has made a good living selling her work, which focuses on coastal scenes and painting in a tonal style.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
The spread of the coronavirus has not only decimated Rhode Island's restaurant industry, it's had a devastating impact on the economic livelihoods of local artists like Murphy who have lost work because of closed studios, galleries and arts festivals
“A lot of our artists here in East Providence have been impacted,” says Melissa Spurr, marketing director for the East Providence Arts Council, and an illustrator who works with acrylics and ink.
“One of our artists, Jennifer Gillooly Cahoon, owns and operates HeARTspot Art Center and Gallery on Pawtucket Avenue, which is a studio for other artists,” she says. “It's been extremely difficult for her because she's been unable to hold classes or show exhibits because of the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, city restaurants like the award-winning Black Duck Tavern on Warren Avenue, are likewise limping along, surviving primarily on take out and patio dining.
Recognizing that art and food go hand-in-hand, the East Providence Arts Council and the City of East Providence have come up with a unique plan to help cash-starved city artists and food businesses get through the pandemic.
It's called the Weekend Getaway promotion, and here’s how it works: Every Thursday for the next 12 weeks, the East Providence Arts Council will offer for sale a complete “weekend getaway” package that includes an original piece of art created by an East Providence artist; a gift certificate to an East Providence restaurant; a pound of coffee from Borealis Coffee Company; a box of pastries from one of East Providence's bakeries; and a small bouquet of wildflowers.
Each weekly package costs $150 and will be sold on a first-come, first-serve basis. In other words, the first buyer who messages the East Providence Arts Council on its Facebook page after the package is listed on Thursdays will be sent a link to PayPal.
Most packages will have a retail value of $250 or more.
The restaurant gift cards for the promotion were purchased from the restaurants by the city, and the baked goods and coffee were purchased from those businesses by the East Providence Arts Council. The wildflowers are grown in Spurr's backyard garden.
One hundred percent of the sale proceeds go to the featured artist who's work is offered in the each week's Weekend Getaway package.
Artists taking part in the promotion include Murphy, Gillooly Cahoon, Gieg, Wendy Anctil, Rachel Brask Studio LLC, Sandra DeSano Pezzullo, Kathy Hodge Studio, John Hunter Housley, Cathren Housley, Paul Morse, and Joanna Elizabeth Read.
Some of the eateries featured include Borealis Coffee Roasters, Avenue N American Kitchen, Ebisu.2, El Mariachi Mexican Restaurant, Black Duck Tavern, Cafe Zara CoffeeHouse, Fork'n Sammich,Townies, Stevie D's Riverside Tavern, Seven Stars Bakery, Taunton Avenue Bakery, Scialo's Riverside, Lucky's Irish Pub, Paquette's Family Restaurant, Italian Corner, and Oxford Tavern.
“We're calling it a weekend getaway because COVID has put an end to most of our vacation plans,” says Spurr, who came up with the idea for the promotion. “We thought this would be a fun way to give folks a delicious dinner with a view and breakfast in bed. People get to have a little fun, and in the process help out our East Providence artists and eateries.”
The first “Japan: The Land of the Dragons” Weekend Getaway offered this week included an original framed artwork by city artist John Gieg; a copy of Gieg’s dragon-themed coloring book; two sets of Gieg’s dragon trading cards; a $25 gift certificate to Ebisu.2; one pound of Borealis coffee; four custard tarts from Taunton Avenue Bakery; a Loof T-shirt; and a small bouquet of wildflowers for the table.
Spurr, who handles communications and marketing for the East Providence Arts Council, says the promotion mutually benefits the artists and restaurants, as well as the city and arts council, which both have a vested interest in promoting the arts in the city and supporting its artists.
The East Providence Arts Council is a not-for-profit organization made up of city residents working together to create a thriving arts community by bringing vibrant art displays created by artists and members of the community to the city’s public spaces. The council sponsors a yearly Arts Festival - The Looff - and various events throughout the year showcasing local artists. The council also works with local businesses who highlight live entertainment and provide art displays that work to promote their business and the various artists they headline.
Spurr was brought in last year to help the organization re-brand itself, which included revamping the council's website, developing a mission statement, and building up its membership. As part of that re-branding effort, the organization also came up with a list of core values, which include acting as a liaison to the mayor and city hall and to bring to their attention the needs of the artistic community.
“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we thought what better time to put our core values into action and help our artists and businesses,” Spurr said.
Spurr said when she pitched the Weekend Getaway promotion to East Providence Arts Council Chairman Rick Lawson, he didn't hesitate to embrace the idea.
Lawson says COVID-19 has put an end to traditional arts festivals this summer, including The Looff, the annual city arts festival that takes places on the second Saturday in August at historic Crescent Park.
“It's tough because we know artists and creatives rely on these festivals for income,” he said.
This year, because of COVID-19, organizers are modifying the festival and calling it Looff on Tour, which is described as a little bit outdoor art festival, a little bit open studio tour. As part of the event – to be held Saturday, Aug. 8 - artists will display their work outside their homes as will local businesses throughout the city. There will be maps so participants can visit all of their favorite artists.
More information on the Looff on Tour can be found at www.eastprovidencearts.org/looff-on-tour/
“We know this isn’t the Looff people have come to expect, but, we think we’re onto something here,” Lawson said. “And we hope people are as excited as we are to prove that artists are resilient, creative, and a force for good.”
Follow Joseph Fitzgerald on Twitter @jofitz7