And now, a lesson in coping with stress from the artists behind Leon Gallery

Art can soothe us in these tense times. But what does art mean in this moment?

Leon art gallery’s executive director Eric Nord stands in his City Park West space. April 15, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Leon art gallery’s executive director Eric Nord stands in his City Park West space. April 15, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Social distancing has been required to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus, meaning many of us had been coping with the related stresses in isolation. And then came traumatizing images of a Black man dying under the knee of a white police officer that sparked an anguished national conversation about racism.

“Without anything else in the mix, just the political divisions in the country, political divisions (that) have been there a couple of years, and that was stressful enough to begin with,” said Leon art gallery’s executive director, Eric Nord. “It’s pretty amazing what we’re going through as a planet. There are moments when it just gets overwhelming. It really does.”

Nord, who is also an artist, said he sometimes feels stuck when he faces a canvas.

“I don’t want to feel like I’m wasting my time,” Nord said. “There’s so much at stake in the world. There’s this pressure to do something that matters, to balance out all the chaos. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.”

Leon’s artistic director, Eric Dallimore, is also an artist. Dallimore’s work includes sculptures such as “An Endless Thing With No End in Sight: The Louisiana Pipeline,” a 100-foot-long structure built in his native New Orleans out of natural materials and biodegradable plastic as a kind of counterpoint to and commentary on a disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 in which the oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, killing 11 workers and spilling 4 million barrels of oil.

More recently, Dallimore has joined protests in Denver against racism and police brutality, and has grown increasingly concerned at the Trump administration’s stances on race.

Three years ago, he was ready to give up art.

He moved back to New Orleans from Denver and was on the verge of starting a masters in political science at Louisiana State University. Instead, he returned to Denver, and he and Nord transformed Leon, originally founded as a commercial gallery, into a nonprofit that supports artists as well as groups dedicated to addressing homelessness and other issues. There are still times, Dallimore said, when he questions whether art and activism can affect change.

“I’ve had to recognize that when I can make change, it is at a local level,” Dallimore said. “But it’s hard, because you want to make global change.”

Dallimore and Nord have outlets for their stress besides their art. Nord, a musician as well as a visual artist, keeps the gallery’s baby grand piano in his apartment. The instrument, donated by an art collector who is a concert pianist, was too big for Leon. When the gallery holds small concerts, audiences start with a reception in the gallery before walking over to Nord’s apartment nearby.

Nord sits down at the piano to improvise or play a song several times a day. He describes those moments as meditative.

“It’s very important for my personal well-being to be able to play the piano,” he said.

Nord has been intentional about calling relatives. He has had several family Zoom gatherings since the coronavirus arrived and regularly telephones his mother and a sister in Arizona and another sister and stepsister in Georgia. His stepsister — “she’s got multiple PhDs” — works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and updates the family on pandemic best practices, Nord said.

In Denver, he has a family of artists. On Wednesday, Nord Zoomed into a meeting about a possible federal government commission. Nord wanted details he could use to help artists apply for the commission.

“It does feel comforting and fulfilling to know that the steps I’m taking could help other people,” he said. “What we’re doing here is actually the most therapeutic thing I could do. It gets me outside of myself. It gets me thinking about the collective, the community.”

Artists who have exhibited at Leon have rallied to help it financially, endorsing its grant applications and proposing a fundraising auction.

“It’s nice to have that affirmation from the community itself. Sometimes it takes us by surprise,” Nord said. “It gives us additional energy to move forward.”

Dallimore, who practices yoga and meditates, said his mother is a role model. He said she is a giving person who he sometimes has to remind to rest and take care of herself.

“You’ve got to make sure you yourself are strong before you take care of others,” Dallimore said.

Nord said he takes his own advice when it comes to making art. He counsel to other artists who tell him they question the meaning of art in a troubled world might be boiled down to: “Just do it.”

“Art isn’t the product. Art is the process,” Nord  said. “The process of creation begets creation. It re-energizes you. It’s important to be disciplined in that and not going with the path of least resistance and just saying, ‘I don’t feel like it today.'”

We’ll be following Leon throughout the pandemic.

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