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Rooms Of Their Own: Working, Playing, And Creating During A Pandemic

A woman sits and reads a book
Shanta Lee Gander
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For VPR
Middlebury educator, dancer, choreographer and coach Christal Brown sits for a portrait last month. She's one of 10 people photographer and writer Shanta Lee Gander met in "rooms of their own."

Over the course of six months in 2020, the idea of home went from one of refuge to what was required of all of us in order to navigate COVID-19.

With fall on the horizon – colder weather and a return inside, the addition of an upcoming flu season, and schools reopening, at least partially – it seemed like an ideal time to explore how Vermonters were creating “rooms of their own” within this current reality.

The title of this piece is a nod to Virginia Woolf’s extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, in which the argument is made for women to have space of their own in order to create within the literary realm. I have always been struck by this concept: What does a room of one’s own mean, for example, for someone who resides outside of the traditional realm of “home”? Within a pandemic, how does needing to bring everything home – how we play, our leisure activities, and our work – impact us? How do the dynamics work with a partner, children and fluffy family members?   

More from Brave Little State: How's Everybody Doing?

One individual I was not able to include for this photo essay expressed that for her husband, it meant that he had some time in between meetings to spend moments in their garden now that he was not in the car all the time. For some of my friends, it meant having once-autonomous,  college-aged children back home again. 

This photo essay opens a window into the realities of how Vermonters are navigating now-ness with COVID-19 in our lives. I sought individuals across town and county lines, across class, race, age, education, professions, and other diversities. People who were not eligible were those who were already working full-time from home prior to COVID-19. My sincere thanks to all these individuals, the many friends, and acquaintances who worked to help me.

Molly Storm, gymnast, Brattleboro, Windham County
“At first I was a little skeptical, because it is not the same as the equipment at the gym”

Two photos, one of a young girl standing on steps, another through a window of a girl using a gymnastics bar in a living room
Credit Shanta Lee Gander / For VPR
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For VPR

It’s been four years since Molly started doing gymnastics — she’s 10 now.  

“I didn’t know what it was at first, I’ve always loved beams and doing round offs,” she said.

The arrival of COVID-19 forced Molly’s household to get creative during the quarantine. Her parents took her to the nearby cemetery so she’d have room to practice, then moved a mat into their backyard once the snow melted.

"At first I was a little skeptical, because it is not the same as the equipment at the gym," Molly said. Her living room isn't exactly the same as Brattleboro Recreation and Parks. But:

“I also thought it was fun to work out anytime from home," she said.

David Rocchio, founder and president of Stowe's Story Lab, Stowe, Lamoille County

“We are social animals, and interconnections are vital to the human experience”

A man sitting at a dining room table in a Zoom meeting on his computer
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For VPR

David Rocchio, Founder and President of Stowe Story Labs, spends his days working primarily from home with his dog, Dexter. And he misses in-person interactions: with the creatives Stowe Story Labs brings together to work on a story, with friends in their homes, being able to sit with strangers in a movie theater. 

Rocchio also noted the ways the pandemic has impacted those close to him.

“A best friend has COVID-19 right now, and is in hospital, and no one can see him,” Rocchio said. “My sister lives in a city hit hard by the virus, and she is alone. I feel great empathy for those alone through this crisis. We are social animals, and interconnections are vital to the human experience.”

A man at a dining room table with a dog at his feet
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Miriam Bernardo, acclaimed musician, East Montpelier, Washington County

“I see my loved ones and neighbors digging deep. Sometimes the earth is hard clay. Sometimes it is fertile loam. It depends on the day, just like the weather”
A person standing in the doorway of a blue house
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For acclaimed musician Miriam Bernardo, the pandemic is bringing her inside literally and physically. 

“I feel myself going deep inside, and needing to spiritually work through what it means to be an artist in a time of 'no big hype,'” Bernardo said. “To keep limited contact with bandmates and delve into a realm of virtual contact, suffice to say it is hard. To create in a time of uncertainty and be OK with that, means it is time to break out the metaphorical tools I've been sharpening all my life.”

Specifically, for Bernardo, this dive within means: “To be still and listen, wash away any aspect of what I should be doing and try to understand the real healing that needs to happen.” 

A woman sitting at a table
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Asked how this moment is impacting those around her, Bernardo expressed the highly subjective nature of the impact for everyone. 

“Everyone has a personal story, everyone has their way of dealing,” she said. “I see it as a day-to-day experience. Some days are wretched and overwhelming. Some days are hopeful.”

Bernardo added: “As Vermonters, we are susceptible to the weather and how it guides our emotional layers. I see my loved ones and neighbors digging deep. Sometimes the earth is hard clay. Sometimes it is fertile loam. It depends on the day, just like the weather.”

More from VPR: 'Between Abject Fear And Inexplicable Optimism': Vt. Poets On The Pandemic

Jerry Ann Jacobs, licensed and independent clinical social worker, Brattleboro, Windham County
“Home has always been my comfort zone, where I relax and focus on my needs. Home is now also where I work hard”

Jerry Ann Jacobs is a licensed and independent clinical social worker (LICSW) and says this shift to working from home is a lot like being in a private practice, which didn’t appeal to her pre-pandemic.

A woman on her computer in a window
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For VPR

“Home has always been my comfort zone, where I relax and focus on my needs,” Jacobs said.
“Home is now also where I work hard, and put others' needs first.” 

The part Jacobs misses most is the separation between these spheres.

“I miss the interactions with clients in a neutral setting,” she said.

Desmond Peeples, content manager, artist, and publisher, Hardwick, Caledonia County
“… grateful to have had something to take inside at all”
A person sits in a chair with a dog at their feet
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While COVID-19 has forced a number of individuals like Desmond Peeples to take everything inside, they are ”grateful to have had something to take inside at all.”

A red and blue parrot
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Peeples is a content manager at the Vermont Arts Council and oversees the Arts Council’s website and social media content. They also engage with artists — via Zoom calls, over the phone, and online — across the state to craft written profiles. 

They share their living and working space with their dog Zuma and Gogi, a housemate’s parrot. Peeples said they hoped Zuma was forgiving of this busy schedule, and wasn’t “getting annoyed… by now.”

Christal Brown, educator, dancer, choreographer, and coach, Middlebury, Addison County
“As an artist, I have leaned into my mental faculty of imagination and my natural tendency towards entrepreneurship”

Christal Brown is an educator, dancer, choreographer, and coach who is a native of Kinston, North Carolina, and whose path of self-discovery has been influenced by Bill T. Jones, Andrea E. Woods, and many other trailblazers. 

Brown said being an artist is what is helping her navigate this moment of now. 

“I have leaned into my mental faculty of imagination and my natural tendency towards entrepreneurship,” she said. "Dance is built around space, time, and energy. By clarifying and taking a deeper ownership of my space, I have been able to organize my time, which has focused my energy on visions of possibility.”

A woman dances with a window behind her
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For Brown, COVID-19’s impact on students, clients, colleagues, neighbors, and friends is along a continuum. 

“The best result has been clarity and expansion of purpose,” she said.  “The lesser response has been a heightened desire for control, anxiety due to digesting massive amounts of information, and a loss of personal agency.”

Tracy Donahue, teacher of yoga and meditation, Brattleboro, Windham County
“Even though I never considered teaching online before, I figured if I was flexible and learned a few new things…”

Tracy Donahue originally did not see herself teaching yoga online. However:

“COVID-19 times require flexibility,” she said. “ I figured if I was flexible and learned a few new things…”

Donahue is enjoying this exploration with her students, and with her dog, Erasmo, who joined her for an online session the day I visited.

“We make our personal space more sacred with our mindful practice,” she said. “And we enjoy our pets participating.”

A woman stretches on a yoga mat with a dog lying next to her
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Ashley Creighton, social emotional learning coach, Johnson, Lamoille County
“As an educator, I am so worried for the children who have been living in a heightened state of stress because of their home environment and the impact that has on their ability to learn”
A mom and her son at their kitchen table with a laptop
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For VPR

As a social emotional learning coach, Ashley Creightonworks with six K-8 schools in the Northeast Kingdom on most days of the week. But on Wednesdays, she works from home, because her son Thatcher’s kindergarten is closed that day.  

“Having to work remotely, in addition to helping my 5-year-old navigate technology while engaging in learning, is not my favorite,’ Creighton said. “I think we managed pretty well, but I much prefer to work outside of my home, and I know he prefers having a teacher other than his Mama.”

Creighton said she often thinks about kids who don’t have a parent or adult able to help with learning at home.

“As an educator, I am so worried for the children who have been living in a heightened state of stress because of their home environment, and the impact that has on their ability to learn,” she said.

More from VPR: Look Through A Photographer's Lens: Bennington County During COVID-19

Sarah Lang, project manager, Brattleboro, Windham County
“I sometimes feel like this pandemic isn’t impacting some of my friends and family the way I think it should be”

Sarah Lang is project manager of the Southern Vermont Economy (SVEP) at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, and her partner Jonathan Saccoccio is a self-employed architect of his firm JA Saccoccio Workshop. Both work from home throughout the week with their dog, Millie. 

Lang recognizes the comfort they are experiencing isn’t applicable to everyone during COVID-19.

“I feel grateful, and I recognize my privilege that I have a comfortable home, internet, and can work from home full-time,” she said.

A couple and their dog next to a staircase
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Lang does wonder how the pandemic is affecting her in the long run. 

“My biggest worry is that this experience will change me; change my personality and how I walk through life. I sometimes feel like this pandemic isn’t impacting some of my friends and family the way I think it should be, because it’s been hard on me mentally,” she said. “However, I have to constantly remind myself that we are all having our own experiences on the spectrum of anxieties in this pandemic. Some people are more comfortable moving back towards normal than I am, but I shouldn’t judge them for that. I just need to do what I need to do to feel safe.” 

Tara Ariel Goreau, large-scale muralist in professional transition, Concord, Essex County
“I have been wanting to buy land in the Northeast Kingdom, and when the pandemic hit, there was a land grab”

Before the pandemic, Tara Ariel Goreau was living in Burlington and had a studio as a large-scale muralist within Chittenden County. Then things shifted.

“I had an art camp set-up, and there were other jobs in the works,” Goreau said. “The pandemic kiboshed the art camps, and everyone became uncertain about spending money, especially on art.”

A person painting the side of a small building
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They felt conflicted, however, when they were presented with an opportunity to do a mural this summer as a part of a fundraiser connected to a service organization. While art is necessary, Goreau said, it’s also a luxury.  

“I felt guilty trying to charge money for what I do,” they said.

Goreau had already been rethinking whether they wanted to be a muralist — and whether it brings in enough money — when the pandemic hit. They had been in the preliminary stages of starting a rock-climbing gym with a friend in St. Johnsbury, then everything shut down in the spring. Now, Goreau says, the thought of being in a gym, or exercising around other people, is “terrifying.”

COVID-19 did spur Goreau to purchase land in the Northeast Kingdom.

“I have been wanting to buy land in the Northeast Kingdom, and when the pandemic hit, there was a land grab,” they said. “People were just coming up here from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York to purchase land.  I had my eye on this land and suddenly, there were five offers on it.”

Along with buying that land and re-thinking their career opportunities , Goreau said the pandemic has had a huge impact on their mental health.

“I feel kind of caged in, though I am out in this beautiful field,” they said. “I cannot go to Canada, I cannot go to a bar, I cannot do all the things I took for granted.  There are not as many options, and it is easy to feel trapped.”

A person with trees in the background
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Goreau said they worried about others who struggled with their mental health, too. But:

“At the same time, there are good things happening. More people are learning self-sustainability due to all of this.”

See more of Shanta Lee Gander's work at her website.

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