Everything Slowed Down in 2020 – But Not the Art League of Ocean City

In a year dominated by stress and fear, the Art League of Ocean City managed to find countless ways to serve the community. As many local organizations struggle to stay afloat, the small artisan group is growing and thriving.

Founded in 1963, the Art League of Ocean City has always prioritized the promotion of artistic expression across the Eastern Shore. While the year 2020 has brought an array of changes, the small but mighty groups’ mission remains the same. At a time when businesses are shutting down, activities are scaled back, and positive stories are scarce, the Art League of Ocean City has gone above and beyond, bringing all forms of art to the people who need it most.

Getting Creative

From online classes, brand new exhibits, a virtual film festival, and an original cookbook, the list of accomplishments from the Art League is endless. At the beginning of the pandemic, the team knew it was paramount to use their creativity for good.

“We needed to think outside of the box, and people needed us more than ever,” said Rina Thaler, Executive Director of the Art League of Ocean City. “Our board and staff were very engaged in doing everything possible.”

When the quarantine officially began, and officials announced stay-at-home orders, classes transitioned to a virtual format. Aimed at occupying children stuck at home, instructors worked on drawing and painting in numerous free sessions. The team later added adult courses at nominal fees, helping refine watercolor, drawing, and pottery skills. Not only did this provide an opportunity for people to distract themselves from daily pandemic woes, but it also allowed the Art League to attract audiences never before thought possible.

“We pivoted and adapted to bring so many different offerings online to help the community. People are so grateful,” Thaler said. “The interesting thing is that we are getting people from all over the country. Someone from Santa Barbara, California just signed up for one of our classes. Even better, people who moved away from Ocean City to places including Ohio and New Mexico are coming to classes and connecting back with their old friends.”

Since the pandemic started, different instructors have offered around 200 sessions combined. Attendance is closer to 30 artists, while a typical in-person gathering attracts about 20 people.

More Time, More Art!

Watercolor painting of the Bay Bridge by Patty Mowell. Courtesy of the Art League of Ocean City.

Organizers are also taking note of similar trends in the number of exhibit entries. Each month, new artwork goes on display in different galleries at the Ocean City Center for the Arts. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the team was already working on developing a system to allow online submissions. Of course, such a system eventually became necessary. A usual class of entries contains 100 pieces of art, compared to about 300 creations this year. Usually, monthly exhibits kick off with gatherings in the gallery on the first Friday of the month, but that has transitioned to Facebook premieres. Despite hardships across all sectors of life, people are surely turning to art for relief.

An unprecedented year filled with high emotions is the perfect recipe for magnificent artwork. Some of Thaler’s favorite exhibits were the “VISION” show, which focused on the rise of women over the past 100 years, and “See us,” a partnership with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, depicting the struggle of Black Americans in today’s world. “Art is all about the things happening around us,” Thaler said. “It embodies the world, and that is what these exhibits demonstrated.”

Community Projects

Aside from serving local artisans, the Art League spent 2020 assisting the community. At the beginning of March, when it became clear that hugs with friends, neighbors, or even family members were unsafe, the group started the hugging hearts initiative. A simple coloring page with a message of unity transformed into a widespread local movement, with people from all across the area sending in images of love. The hearts now hang in businesses and even made it to Atlantic General Hospital to support frontline workers. The message has resonated as far as Ellicott City, where people also took notice and sent more colorful hearts to the Art League.

Another impressive Worcester-based plan was the Empty Bowl Project, conducted in coordination with the Diakonia food pantry. Earlier this fall, adults and children were invited to create and embellish ceramic soup bowls. More than 100 of these bowls were then sold online to combat hunger. These projects are just a few examples of the domino effect that art can have on the community. Not only does art benefit the creator through self-satisfaction, but it also fights world issues of the highest degree.

A Year of Cooking and Art

To keep these positive community efforts rolling, the non-profit Art League depends on members of the community for support in fundraising. Simply reflecting on the historic time in which we are living led to the development of a unique fundraising idea.

Since life abruptly changed in March, a top activity for Art League members along with painting and drawing has been cooking and eating at home. Members believe that making their favorite family comfort food recipes has helped them persevere through these challenging times. With great recipes from some of the best illustrators and designers around, why not make a cookbook?

“The cookbook was a totally grassroots effort from our volunteer-based organization,” Thaler explained. “Artists were thinking about how all they did was cook and eat. Bringing back old recipes gave them purpose and meaning.”

When throwing around ideas for the cookbook, artists knew that this could not be any ordinary spiral-bound compilation of recipes. After all, this is a group of talented people! The book had to be visually appealing and filled with artwork from page to page.

Now published, the cookbook entitled, We Made It is available for $29.95 and makes for a perfect holiday gift.

Going Virtual: Sand Castle Home Tour

The largest fundraiser for the Art League is the Sand Castle Home Tour, a 15-year tradition. People usually visit massive eastern shore residences in-person, but this year, through the magic of technology, the tours moved to video. Featuring aerial footage from ten different homes and interviews with architects, designers, and homeowners, the tours presented a different view than what patrons normally witnessed on the ground. The adaptation to a virtual setting even convinced more homeowners to take part since hundreds of people would not be traipsing through their houses. The $30 tour ended up drawing nearly double the amount of people compared to last year, with around 1,800 virtual attendees.

Thaler stressed that these fundraisers are what continue to keep the “doors at the Ocean City Center for the Arts open and free.” Most recently, more than $9,400 poured in through Shore Gives More in honor of Giving Tuesday.

ArtX and Local Films

Miraculously, in coordination with the Town of Ocean City, specifically, Special Events Director Frank Miller, the Art League pulled off ArtX. The family-friendly August festival featured vendors and activities for children. To stay safe, nearly all of the 4,000 visitors had their masks on across the 58-acres of Northside Park. Thaler credits Miller with ensuring the success of the event, yet believes it was a huge victory to host an outdoor art festival this year.

While we may only think of art as including painting and drawing, those are not the only things helping to keep people occupied and happy these days. The Art League hosts the Ocean City Film Festival, which features movies produced in and about the town. Throughout the summer, movies from local filmmakers played at drive-in events at the convention center. In early September, films from the 3rd OC Film Challenge were on display, providing yet another diversion for families.

Earlier this year, William “B.L.” Strang-Moya, Founder and Creative Director of the Ocean City Film Festival, described the uniqueness of the local works. “These movies are the most Ocean City-specific content you can find. All of the filmmakers have different backgrounds, and it is cool to see people produce content of this caliber,” said Strang-Moya. “It’s a new experience, and it’s about being a member of our artist community as we build the culture of Ocean City. The movies are not out of Hollywood, but it is all about supporting the community and experiencing something exclusive to the Town of Ocean City.” Normally, just 50 people would attend in-person screenings, but between the drive-in movies and the use of online platforms, the local films have been viewed by more than 3,000 people.

Art Matters

Painting of the Ocean City Beach by Maggii Sarfaty. Courtesy of the Art League of Ocean City.

This challenging year has helped to shed light on an obvious fact that many people too often forget. Arts of all types are beneficial to self-fulfillment and mental health. This idea is supported by the recent Covid-19 Social Study conducted at the University College of London. What is more fascinating, is that the study revealed roughly 70% of adults aged 18-29 are missing cultural institutions such as arts centers, even though only those aged 60 and older are typically accounted for as frequent visitors. The overwhelming longing for trips to creative institutions such as the Art League of Ocean City is likely one factor for the jump in participation throughout the virtual year.

2020 has taught the world that certain things are completely out of our control. When there is nothing else to manage or fix, people can always fall back on creativity. “Art affects everybody of all ages and transcends every socio-economic level,” Thaler noted. “Whether it’s music, theatre, or the visual arts, it is a way to help clear your head and keep the stress of life away. Art has a universal appeal and helps to bring awareness to important causes. There are so many different things you can do to connect with art.”

Visit Artleagueofoceancity.org for more information or call 410-524-9433

Logan Dubel
Logan Dubel
Logan Dubel is a contributor for OceanCity.com and the host of "This Week in Ocean City." He is a Baltimore County native, Franklin High School graduate, and an undergraduate journalism and media student at the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the OceanCity.com team in June 2020. On the shore, he has also served as a writer at the Art League of Ocean City and the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum. Logan has a strong passion for covering the news and its impact on Marylanders. Since arriving at OceanCity.com, he has covered the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, interviewed newsmakers including former First Lady Yumi Hogan, Mayor Rick Meehan, and members of the City Council, featured local businesses, and covered local events. As a collegiate journalist, Logan also works as a Life and Arts Reporter for The Daily Texan and an anchor/reporter for Texas Student Television. Most recently, he anchored live coverage of the 2022 Midterm Elections and reported from the CMT Music Awards Red Carpet. Have a story idea? Contact logan@oceancity.com.

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