DANTE ENAGE, 48, called one of his artworks “Keep Calm and Carry On” to remind himself of the deadly coronavirus disease (Covid-19).

The painting, done in acrylic, features a woman wearing a mask and with eyes closed while sprouting on her head were dark thoughts—from hunger to death and isolation, but hovering on them were a bee and a butterfly, which symbolize a “nurturing life.”

“Like everyone else, the pandemic brought fear and anxiety to me. I worry a lot of getting sick, of losing an income,” said Enage, a renowned visual artist based in Tacloban City.

“However, I keep on painting to translate my worries into the canvas,” added Enage.

He aptly named his series of artworks “Pandemic Paintings” after making them during the start of Covid-19 in the country in March 2020.

Enage playfully named each of the paintings as “Wake Me Up When We Can Travel Again,” “Wander,” “This Too Shall Pass,” “Shield,” “Lifeline,” “Insomnia and Vivid Dream,” “Abril Otso (Lockdown Journal),” and “Bright Side.”

Along with Kolor Banwa (Kolor Han Banwa Nga Waraynon), a collective group of Tacloban visual artists, Enage also found time to hold an exhibit as “a message of hope” to the medical frontliners.

“For artists, I think the pandemic has dealt both advantages and disadvantages. The arts have been helpful to keeping us entertained and provided a bit of an ‘escape’ out of our homes,” said Dr. Christian Gloria, a U.S.-based Filipino mental health expert.

“I hope that a positive side effect of the pandemic and our household restrictions enabled all of us more time to participate in the arts as viewers, performers, or both,” added Gloria, who is working as an associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

According to him, it is part of the artists’ resilience to think of creative ways to cope with challenges and find new ways to generate business.

“This is the constant struggles of artists, even before the pandemic. It has been a struggle for income security. But they always have to be innovative,” Gloria said.

Enage and his fellow Kolor Banwa artists admitted that the pandemic hit them hard.

Before the pandemic, Enage and his group could organize 10 exhibits in a year, excluding their regular shows like during February as arts month and June for the city fiesta.

During the normal days, Enage could easily sell 10 paintings at P20,000 each.

“Today, because of the pandemic, a big part of our income has been lost. We try to cover up the losses with commissioned works,” Enage said.

As exhibit venues were closed, Enage and his group managed to avail the Covid Adjustment Measures Program (Camp) of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Department of Tourism (DOT).

Karen Tiopes, tourism director in Eastern Visayas, said that aside from the DOLE-DOT cash assistance program to the artists, they also featured local performers from the different parts of the region during the Regional Travel Fair.

After hurdling some documentary requirements, Enage and active members of the community-based Kolor Banwa art group received P5,000 financial aid.

They applied on December 22, 2020, and it took some two months for them to receive their cash aid due to some problems with the computer system.

“The cash aid was just one-shot. But we are thankful because at least we’re able to receive it. We have to find ways with whatever resources available to us,” Enage said.

Enage used the money to buy art materials.

Two other art groups who availed the assistance were the Island of Samar and Leyte Artists, Inc. and Ormoc City Visual Artist Association.

“I keep on painting so I could have more pieces to show to my clients,” added Enage, who now spends much time on his Facebook to promote his artworks as the malls in the city have yet to reopen for their art exhibits.

“Artists are used to isolation. The artists can adapt in the moment of crisis. They can easily find an outlet for their ideas,” Enage said.

While Enage understood that “most people prioritize food over paintings,” he continued to stick on his paintbrush, saying that his artworks “are also food for the soul.”

In the nearby town of Palo, the DOLE assistance also enabled 22-year-old Connie Frances Fumar to pursue his painting works.

“While other think of negative thoughts in this pandemic, I choose the positive one, so I will enjoy what I am doing,” said Fumar.

“I am afraid that I will lose my focus if I turn to negative feelings,” added Fumar, who is self-supporting his college studies after her mother’s job as an overseas Filipino worker was affected by the pandemic.

After a local journalist wrote about Fumar’s talent in a national newspaper, the young painter slowly gained clients, including top government officials.

“It’s my first time to avail assistance from the Philippine government. I thought that I was alone in this struggle to paint during the pandemic,” said Fumar.

He also used the P30,000 cash aid to buy art materials.

“I am now on my fifth painting, and I am not stopping,” said Fumar, after receiving financial assistance in October 2021.

“I become more productive during this pandemic. The lockdowns allow me to spend more time in front of the canvas instead of going somewhere else,” added Gershon Destora, a 24-year-old painter in Maasin City.

The lack of exhibit venues also pushed Destora to “maximize” the social media in selling his artworks.

“Amidst the dull and dark moments, the local artists brought colors and helped brighten our lives in the pandemic,” said Tacloban Vice Mayor Jerry Yaokasin.

“The pandemic provided the creative space and time for many of our artists. It was also a way for them to cope with the challenging situation,” he added.

Leyte provincial board member and art patron Anna Tuazon also maintained that “local artists are part of the country’s creative economy, which the government continues to support, cognizant of the creative economy’s contribution to the attainment of sustainable development goals in a more integrated way.”

However, Tuazon stressed that “one just needs to diligently and proactively choose to be part of the solution in aligning with government and private sector to work on and be the change they want to see in the community.”

Meanwhile, Gloria lauded the artists for their contribution to improving the public's mental health.

“Art provides us with the spaces to relieve stress, to express ourselves, to socialize and relate with others. There is plenty and growing evidence to show the relationships between the creative arts and our mental health,” Gloria said.

As the artists in the region have looked forward to normal times, they also hoped that the local government units would establish their respective art galleries and art councils.

“We should get all the support, the kind of support while we are still alive,” said Dulce Cuna-Anacion, a visual artist and retired professor at UP Visayas Tacloban College.

Anacion added that having a museum “will give stature” to the local artists.

“Consider the artists as part of the society. Artists take care of the souls of the society,” said Cuna-Anacion, citing the lack of government-initiated art gallery in Tacloban

(This story is supported by a grant from the Philippine Press Institute.)