When mass layoffs ensue, creativity sparks for Philadelphia residents

Residents all over Philadelphia have been using much of their newfound free time to create art - many for the first time.

Frank Chappell making colors for a new painting.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, South Philly resident Cassie Jones worked as a part-time manager at Painting With a Twist in Center City, a popular destination for parties and girls nights out where patrons can learn to paint while sipping wine. She also had a part-time job as a special events coordinator for Warehouse on Watts, an event space in West Poplar.

In March, she was furloughed from both jobs. But unlike most furloughed workers, she has no plans to go back once the pandemic is over. 

“I’ve actually made more money now outside of my normal jobs,” she said, “and I get to stay home with my dogs who are so happy.”

That’s because ever since Jones was let go from her jobs, she made a point to try to make ends meet financially by working on her art. Jones, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, has been making facemasks, digital drawings, decorative eggs, patch art and sticker art. She’s been selling a lot of it on her Etsy page, but not all of it. 

“I don’t want to say that everything I do is for sale,” she said. “A lot of the stuff is to encourage other people to make stuff themselves.”

The Etsy page isn’t new. She’s always used it to sell homemade crafts in her free time, but she’s doing it a lot more now. Sales have actually increased, despite the pandemic. 

Cassie Jones’s popular Jawn patch.

“My jawn patch is popular,” she said, referring to a patch design she created emblazoned with the quintessential form of Philly patois in vintage Phillies typeface. “I’ve probably sold 20 of them over the last two weeks. Usually my Etsy page just sits there, and I only sell a couple of things a month.”

As it turns out, Jones is not unique. Residents all over Philadelphia have been using much of their newfound free time to create art – many for the first time.

“I have been productive,” said Fishtown resident Rachel Taylor, who, after being laid off from her administrative position at a real estate company, decided to write her first novel. “I decided to put no less than four hours a day towards it.”

Her novel is about a Philadelphia-based journalist who discovers somebody from her past while researching and reporting on the city’s opioid crisis. She’s 12 chapters in. 

“I’m already so far ahead with this that I would love to have it done by the fall,” said Taylor, whose only other published work is a 141-page novella entitled Nothing Left to Lose. “If [getting laid off] hadn’t happened – I have no idea how long it would take me.”

Taylor’s seen lots of people take up new skills with their newfound free time, including her husband, who’s teaching himself how to play the guitar, and her brother.

“My brother built a bar,” she said. “He’s never done any carpentry work in his entire life and he built a bar.”

Hoagie the Pig by Beth Heaney.

Beth Heaney, who resides in the Italian Market, is writing and illustrating a children’s book after being furloughed from her sales job at the National Museum of American Jewish History. The book is called Animal Guides of Philadelphia, and it consists of animal “mascots” she created to represent certain Philadelphia neighborhoods, including a pig for Hog Island (she named the pig “Hoagie”) or an eagle for Center City (the eagle was chosen in honor of the Wanamaker Eagle inside Macy’s).

“I suddenly have all of this time I’m able to devote to it,” Heaney said. “It is very therapeutic for me. All of the projects stem from the fact that they take your mind off things. It’s like meditation, almost.”

Frank Chappell’s “Has Permission?”

Artist Frank Chappell, who had previously been a bartender at both 12 Steps Down and Tattooed Mom, started a T-shirt business with his roommate to help out with rent.

“The whole being unemployed thing put a scare on me,” he said. “Some sort of outlet beside sitting inside and watching TV.”

Chappell had been an artist and muralist his whole life, but he’d experienced a year-long period prior to the pandemic where he just wasn’t creating. Now that he’s stuck inside his house, it’s forced him to be productive.

“When you’re allowed to go outside, you feel like you’re obligated to go to social gatherings and stuff,” he said. “You don’t think about locking yourself in your house to create something.”

Kensington resident Kaley Maltz, who was laid off in March from her job at Stephen Starr’s The Love restaurant in Rittenhouse, started making pressed flower art shortly before the pandemic. She posted pictures of her creations on Instagram, and friends started offering her money.

“It’s something I always wanted to do and put it off for several years,” she said. “I started to realize that people were into it.”

Pressed flower art made by Kaley Maltz

So she started spending more time making them and selling them to make up for lost income (she filed for unemployment, but hasn’t received anything yet). Depending on the size, her pieces sell for between $25 and $60. She also makes them because, well, she’d be pretty bored otherwise.

“Nobody ever thinks they’re going to do art full-time right away, and I don’t even know if that’s my goal,” she said. “But I have nothing else to do.”

Center City resident Anne Kullaf, who’s been a self-employed artist and art teacher for 20 years, has recently been forced to move her art classes from event spaces in the Philadelphia area and beyond (she’s organized workshops as far as Canada, France and Italy) to the video conferencing computer application Zoom. In the process, she said, she noticed an increasing number of students who wanted to use their newfound free time to learn how to paint. 

“I’m seeing a lot more people who simply have more time and maybe they always wanted to take a class and never had time,” she said. “I think there will be more demand for it as time goes on.”

Kullaf prefers virtual teaching because it saves her time and money on transportation and renting spaces. It’s also more accessible for students this way. Since the pandemic started, she’s had pupils join her classes from as far away as Florida and South Dakota. When the pandemic ends, she plans to stick with the virtual classes and scale back her in-person ones.

“None of us really know what the new normal is going to be or how long it’s going to take us to get there,” she said. “I’m just taking it one step at a time, but I’ve definitely discovered that this is something I’ll keep as part of my mix.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Beth Heaney had been laid off from her job. She had in fact been furloughed.