The pandemic has hammered the art industry’s finances. The effect was felt across the field according to a report by Americans for the Arts. But one Rockford artist couple found ways to keep each other going after their main sources of income temporarily disappeared.
Marcos and Willie Mae Lara found each other on MySpace in 2007, but the outdated social website wasn’t the first time they had crossed paths. They’d bumped into each other at a goth rock concert three years prior.
“We kind of forgot we even met each other before. Until we like went on the first date,” Willie Mae said. “We were like face to face and I was like, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute -- you were the one I was talking to that day.'”
Marcos spent most of his nights making people laugh as a full-time comedian. But when the pandemic stole that from him, the joy he gave others was something he couldn’t find for himself.
“All I knew is that all of a sudden, my industry was shutting down. And I didn't know what was going to be available. I mean, in the past, comedians have not been able to file for unemployment,” he added. “There were artists' organizations that set up of grants. I got one of those grants, which definitely helped out.”
He said he didn’t have the desire to create anything. And not only was he worried about finances, the fear of contracting the virus overwhelmed him. He shared that he lost about 15 pounds because of stress.
His wife said she had to figure how to calm him down. He made bringing groceries into the house a stressor for her. So, she started doing research to ease his mind.
“Look, honey there’s a small percent chance of getting sick from the grocery store and a small percent chance for like going on a walk with your friend. I was like, 'You’ll be OK,'” she encouraged. “'You can do this.'”
Marcos explained that his behavior wasn’t making things easier.
“It probably didn't help that I was hanging out with a lot of middle-aged conspiracy theorists at the time. At the start of the pandemic, the conspiracy theorists all believed that this was going to be the end of humanity,” he said. “That this is going to be the big one. They're going to take us all out.”
Willie Mae found herself out of work, too. She’s a beautician and fashion designer. The salon she worked at temporarily closed due to the coronavirus. She had to figure out how to pivot.
“So, the first two months probably, if not more, I spent making like masks,” she explained. “That really helped too because I didn’t get my unemployment right away."
She shared that the base unemployment pay wasn’t much but the extra pandemic pay helped out tremendously.
But, eventually, she was able to go back to work.
Meanwhile, Marcos became an election judge to help ends meet. His unemployment took longer to kick in because he was a gig worker. The CARES Act made unemployment pay possible for these workers who were not normally eligible to receive such funds.
Besides trying to hold things together financially, the two had to figure out how to entertain one another during the lockdown.
Marcos added that having his wife around helped him make it through this dark time. He said just her presence has a calming effect on him.
Willie Mae remembered how clingy he was.
“Every time I turned around; we were like together. Usually, he was off doing something. But then for while he was just with me in the living room for all the time. Which was kind of nice in a way. But I don’t know, he was just like, ‘We’re going to watch 1,000 episodes of this show together. ‘OK I guess.’”
Marcos said he wasn’t the only one looking for extra affection.
“And she does it too. Because then I'll be downstairs, you know, trying and working on promoting shows and such,” he recalled. “And then she'll message me and be like I'm downstairs and I'm needy and I'm cold and my back hurts.”
Willie Mae stopped designing for others but she continued to make dresses for herself. Her husband turned into her photographer taking pictures as she modeled for her social media sites.
She said they also started doing skits for each other and when they needed time away, they went to different parts of the house.
Marcos said that his unemployment benefits are coming to an end. But he added that things are starting to open up and he’s in a better place emotionally, now.
“God has blessed me with an abundance of time to write and I need to use that,” he said.
In addition to comedy, he pens poetry.
He creates content for his Patreon page and has even made new artistic friends via the internet. He was recently in the New Words Festival at the West Side Show Room and performed at True Colors in Rockford. He also runs a comedy show at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in Loves Park and said he will continue to do things at the Show Room.
Willie Mae is doing more online advertising for her clothing line. She’s said she normally participates in art shows and she’s hoping more of them happen this year.
The Laras said although the pandemic has forced couples to be together more, it’s a perfect time to reassess relationships -- and remember what brought them together in the first place. Willie Mae stated that people should also take this time to focus on themselves and not force their frustrations on their partners. She said there are a lot of things her husband does that she doesn’t like and if she focuses in on that, she may go crazy.
Both said that communication and understanding are the key to a lasting relationship, even -- and maybe especially -- during tough times.
- Yvonne Bose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.