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story.lead_photo.caption Pilot Arts founder Missy Gipson found joy, and some education, in producing the company’s fully online theatrical experience, “Holidays At Home: A Virtual Variety Show.” Hosts Chad Burris, an Arkansas native, and fellow stage actor Katie Ladner were both working in New York before covid shut down Broadway. (Courtesy Photo/Patti Webb for Pilot Arts)

Whether or not you participate in resolutions, set intentions or relish cracking the spine on that new day planner, the beginning of a new year can still feel like the start of something fresh. It also spurs in many of us conscious reflection on what got us through the previous year and what we'd like to leave behind.

In a year that brought unique and unprecedented challenges, I'm looking back in gratitude on the things that got me from day to day -- and sometimes from hour to hour.

Making the time and effort to keep up book club over Zoom with my three best friends helped me challenge gaps in my own awareness as we read works on the Black experience and bonded over women-led stories ("The Vanishing Half," "Red at the Bone," "The Giver of Stars"). I discovered a plethora of board games for two that brought my partner and I closer together as we flexed our strategy and problem solving skills ("Mansions of Madness," "Villainous," "The Fox in the Forest"). Live-texting with a friend I haven't seen in years while we listened to Taylor Swift's second new album of 2020 ("Evermore") the moment it dropped somehow felt like we were together, sharing a special and intimate hour listening to and analyzing music from an artist we love.

Last week, I shared with you some of the best events, things to do, I got to experience thanks to a tireless and robust community of creators. But it was the moments like these that really, truly got me through the year. What about you, my community? In turning our sights to the new year, how about one last look back at the blessings, no matter how small, that brought us comfort, joy or relief during the dumpster fire of 2020.

Pia Agrawal (Courtesy Photo/Dero Sanford)

Pia Agrawal, Curator of Performing Arts, the Momentary

Something new for me in 2020 was art accessible by phone. Meshell Ndegeocello made elements of her existing performance, "The Gospel of James Baldwin," available on-demand through a toll-free hotline, and Autumn Knight is voicing the 1-800-NOT-ZOOM hotline, where audiences are invited to call in any time to hear poetry, songs or monologues from a group of contributing artists. Most recently, I participated in 600 Highwaymen's "A Thousand Ways," which pairs two strangers together for an intimate conversation over the phone. In the midst of large-scale isolation, it was both poignant and refreshing to have a conversation with someone I don't know; I'm having that experience so rarely these days and miss it more than I realized. I was so moved by "A Thousand Ways" that we are hoping to make it accessible to Northwest Arkansas audiences in early 2021 through the Momentary.

Serena Barnett

Serena Barnett, Director, Rogers Historical Museum

My husband, Todd, and I started taking our dog Quin (a 3-year-old Pembroke Welsh Corgi) out more for longer walks on nice weekend days. One of our favorite places to go is the Lake Atalanta dog park, and then we like to continue on the trail to walk around the lake. We all enjoy being out in nature, but I'm fairly certain Quin is mostly excited to get a chance to meet other dogs and to play in the spring water.

Lieven Bertels (Courtesy Photo/Dero Sanford)

Lieven Bertels, Director, the Momentary

Twenty-twenty was an usual year for so many of us. I felt really inspired by young chef and entrepreneur Elliot Hunt who, despite having opened only just before the pandemic hit, has turned his new restaurant Atlas into a haven of hospitality and great culinary taste. I love to cook myself, but I really appreciate the work and experience of a professional chef and their team. Eating at Atlas has been pure joy and a way to experience some normalcy in our current madness.

One of the most heartwarming moments this year was when singer-songwriter John Fullbright took the stage for the Momentary's first outdoor concert on the Arvest Bank Courtyard since reopening. Both John and the audience were almost in tears at the start, suddenly hit by the realization that we had all missed this so much. Live music and theater is not just about the songs, it is about coming together in a shared social experience. It was uplifting to remember what we are set out to do!

Beth Bobbitt

Beth Bobbitt, Public Relations Director, Crystal Bridges Museum

Like many, I've turned to nature to stay centered. Being close to trees, water and wildlife give you a new perspective, and it's been so important for my overall well-being. Aside from the nourishment of nature, I've found joy and, in some cases, a lot of convenience in new kinds of gatherings like online workshops, happy hours, Facebook Live concerts, drive-in church and birthday car parades.

I've been delighted to see sparks of creativity come from these challenging times. One recent example is the way a local photographer, Emily McArthur, adapted to the holidays in covid times. She offered a live Zoom call with Santa instead of a typical photo session. She sent a questionnaire in advance to help Santa learn about our child, delivered a basket of goodies to our door and provided a professional photo of the call with Santa. Though none of this was in-person, it felt so much more personalized and made me realize that it's not where you gather, but why that's important.

My hope is that we all come away being more intentional about gatherings, and overall have more meaningful connections to each other and our natural surroundings.

Joseph Farmer

Joseph Farmer, Executive Director, Arkansas Public Theatre at the Victory

I love podcasts and have always wanted to do voiceover work, so being part of APT's serial audio drama "Amanda Kill" was a bright spot during the pandemic. Watching Northwest Arkansas Ballet Theatre's virtual production of "The Nutcracker" [also] provided much joy.

[And] getting married during uncertain times definitely brought a much needed sense of security.

Missy Gipson

Missy Gipson, founder of Pilot Arts and local actor, writer, director, choreographer

I have really enjoyed online pop-up live streams from artists like Stephen Kellogg, Todd Snider and Johnnyswim. I also produced a totally online theatrical experience for the first time with Pilot Arts. That was a great opportunity to learn how much I don't know, but get some education along the way.

Hands down, a favorite memory is that the Meals on Wheels program didn't stop for one day during the pandemic. So many things stopped or shut down, but they still served 250 meals per day, and their volunteer drivers still showed up. Pretty incredible act of service for our seniors and homebound neighbors.

Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda, reporter and producer, NPR affiliate KUAF and co-host, RefleXions podcast

For over a decade I've participated in the annual Northwest Arkansas Gridiron Show, a fundraiser in which local journalists write and perform in skits that poke fun at the year's news. This year's version was virtual, and I was so pleased I could share that with my grandma, who was always a big fan and one of our best laughers. It gave me great joy to hear her giggle during a skit featuring recurring characters named Elmer and Aunt Titty. It was a little piece of normal in a very unusual year.

Every time I heard another story of people adapting and finding a way to continue to celebrate life amidst the chaos, I was filled with hope. From getting married outside their grandma's nursing home window so she could participate, to drive-through graduation ceremonies, to the World Health Organization declaring Santa Claus immune to the virus, I was constantly uplifted by demonstrations of the resilience of the human spirit.

Though the show was all online this year, Gridiron pillars and beloved characters Elmer and Letitia Mae Stufflebeam — or, fondly, Aunt Titty — didn’t miss their appearance on the annual journalist-written and performed satire show. KUAF’s Antoinette Grajeda has been part of the show for more than a decade and found even the virtual version to be “a little piece of normal in a very unusual year.” (Courtesy Photo/NWA Gridiron)

Jason Miller

Jason Miller, Executive Director, Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra

Something new we did that brought us joy? My wife and I connected with friends and family for virtual happy hours. It was so nice to utilize technology to connect over so many states. Covid really forced us to use and understand the technology.

For the APO, it was all about the community collaborations. Local arts orgs really came together to show each other support and find creative solutions to creating virtual content.

One memory that brought hope actually came from early in the pandemic when there was a run on all food and toilet paper. I was encouraged to see people standing up for the elderly at the store to make sure they got what they needed or buying groceries for them and delivering to their doorstep. Humanity is a beautiful thing.

Walton Arts Center Director of Programming Jennifer Ross welcomes a small, but enthusiastic socially distanced crowd to singer-songwriter Bonnie Bishop’s Sept. 10 performance — the WAC’s first show since going dark March 13. “That memory brings me hope for a bright future for the performing arts,” Ross says of Bishop’s joy in performing. (Courtesy Photo)
Jennifer Ross

Jennifer Ross, Director of Programming, Walton Arts Center

Sept. 10, 2020 was the date of the first public concert at Walton Arts Center since the theater went dark March 13. Singer-songwriter Bonnie Bishop took the stage and sang her heart out for her small audience. Her sheer joy in performing was contagious and the audience was thrilled to be there. That memory brings me hope for a bright future for the performing arts.

Jules Taylor

Jules Taylor, musician and teaching artist

Kind people and artists give me hope, and we have an abundance of both in Northwest Arkansas. Seeing kind people helping others, as well as the innovative and creative ways artists have found to keep sharing, has been joyful and comforting. Watching online concerts and plays by people who are friends, and, also, those I am just a huge fan of and would rarely get to see (Mary Chapin Carpenter singing in her kitchen). The arts help us make sense of what is happening, as well as provide a deep sense of connection to fellow humans, and kindness lifts us up wherever we are.

Julia Trupp (Courtesy Photo/Jamie Napier)

Julia Trupp, Editor, The Idle Class and local performer, Rodeo Book Club

Like many others, I started working from home in mid-March. Besides impulse-buying new furniture to liven up my home, I got really into cooking this year! Between work meetings and client calls, I'd find some recipes on Pinterest or listed in a Buzzfeed article, assess my cabinets and fridge for requested ingredients (or ask my boyfriend to bring some home from his specialty grocery store job), and then I'd spend some time in the kitchen that evening with some music, my phone and filled counters. I made everything from a London broil and swordfish steaks to pan-fried gyoza dumplings and Tuscan-style chicken dishes. It may not sound like a big deal, but for someone who kept receiving kitchen tools and appliances as holiday gifts and was scared to use them before this year, cooking went from a daunting challenge to a fun opportunity (especially dancing around the kitchen with my sous-chef boyfriend and a glass or two of wine between recipe steps). Some recipes were a little more intensive than others, but it all led to discovering a new way to create -- culinary arts indeed!

“Improv allows us acceptance of ourselves and each other, an emotional outlet, a break from reality, a place to just have fun and laugh,” Julia Trupp says of Rodeo Book Club — a group of actors and improvisers who put on an outdoor Halloween improv show at Gulley Park in Fayetteville after not performing together since February. “That old saying is true — laughter really is the best medicine!” (Courtesy Photo/Rodeo Book Club)

I've been consistently doing improv comedy with various groups since 2013. My current group, Rodeo Book Club, had what we thought would be our last show at the end of February at Backspace in downtown Fayetteville. October rolled around (or we blinked and there it was), and our group's founding member came up with the idea to have a Halloween show at Gulley Park one evening. We had a socially distanced practice a week before the show, feeling a bit rusty since we last performed, but coming together to perform and put on a good show was something we all needed. The show was a blast. We had a small audience (of mostly supportive friends and spouses), and being able to perform and play all together lifted my spirits -- you don't realize something can be a creative or emotional outlet for you until you don't have it anymore, especially in the middle of an isolating pandemic.

For most, if not all of us, in Rodeo Book Club, improv allows us acceptance of ourselves and each other, an emotional outlet, a break from reality, a place to just have fun and laugh. We may not have practiced, let alone seen each other in person, for months, but reuniting to create characters and scenes on stage together in the dark of night in the middle of Gulley Park showed that old saying is true -- laughter really is the best medicine!

STAFF PHOTO ANTHONY REYES Rusty Turner Editor and Publisher for NWA Media

Rusty Turner, Editor, NWADG

Our second grandchild was born in April. Under normal circumstances we would have gone to see him and the rest of the family immediately. But because of the pandemic, we all isolated for weeks before getting together. It was a long wait, but the visit was even more joyful when we finally got together.

There were so many stories of people going out of their way to help others, it's difficult to pick just one. The one that comes to mind is this: A friend of ours is undergoing cancer treatments. The family posted a sign near their front door asking delivery people not to knock or ring the doorbell so our friend could rest. One delivery person whom our friends did not know left a note with a package offering to pray for our friend and the family. They struck up a supportive friendship during this difficult time. It was inspiring to see that people can still connect with compassion despite the pandemic restrictions.

Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANTHONY REYES • @NWATONYR Jocelyn Murphy New features reporter for NWADG taken Thursday, June 4, 2015 at the Springdale office.
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