Nonessential to whom? Valley residents reflect on the importance of their work

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  • Jean-Pierre Pasche, owner of Big Red Frame and Elusie Gallery in Easthampton, opens a delivery in a special area he has dubbed the “Decontamination Gallery,” where he disinfects items delivered to or shipped from the business. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • New tools of the trade for Jean-Pierre Pasche of Big Red Frame in Easthampton. He has taken special precautions to handle all materials safely. Though his business is dubbed “nonessential” by the state at the moment, he says “It’s essential for me — it’s my livelihood.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jean-Pierre Pasche, owner of Big Red Frame and Elusie Gallery in Easthampton, opens a delivery in a special area he has dubbed the “Decontamination Gallery,” where he disinfects items delivered to or shipped from the business. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Josh Suchoza, who opened Black Labyrinth Tattoo Syndicate in Easthampton in 2017, closd the shop last month because of safety concerns about COVID-19.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Josh Suchoza, who closed his Easthampton tattoo shop last month because of safety concerns about COVID-19, says he understands why some businesses are deemed “nonessential,” even if they’re essential for keeping people employed.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Northampton metal sculptor Piper Foreso, seen outside her home with some of her work, including a bird feeder she’s holding, says three canceled exhibits this spring will likely cost her 60% of her income. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Florence artist Piper Foreso stands beside some of her metal and glass sculptures outside her home while holding one of her bird feeders. She says three canceled exhibits this spring will likely cost her 60% of her income.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Piper Foreso in her Cottage Street studio in Easthampton a few years ago. She says she understands the distinction being made between “essential” and “nonessential” workers but says the creation, display and sale of art has important economic and aesthetic values, too. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/27/2020 6:32:09 PM

Jean-Pierre Pasche says he has nothing but admiration for the people who, in the midst of a pandemic, are continuing to serve on the front lines to provide essential services to Americans: hospital workers, grocery store employees and others in food distribution, police and firefighters and more.

But Pasche, who runs Big Red Frame, a custom framing shop in Easthampton, also takes issue with the idea that his business, in the eyes of the state, is considered nonessential.

“I beg to differ,” he wrote in a recent electronic newsletter sent to customers and others. “It is extremely essential, to me. It is my livelihood, it has been for almost 30 years, nineteen of them here in Easthampton.”

Across the Valley and across the country, millions of people are now grappling with unemployment, tightened economic circumstances and anxiety, as the COVID-19 outbreak has shuttered schools, businesses and organizations of all kinds. And in a society where most of us derive at least some of our identity and self-worth from our work, defining people as “essential” or “nonessential” is tricky business.

After all, most of us would like to believe our work is essential, or at least important, to others in some way. But according to state restrictions posted last month, only businesses involved with fields such as food production and supply, public safety, health care, transportation, communications and others such as “critcal” manufacturing, are deemed essential right now. Left out are a wide range of people — hairdressers, booksellers, staff from museum and arts venues, house painters, musicians — who desperately need the income to provide for their families and themselves.

During a recent phone call, speaking of Gov. Charlie Baker, Pasche said, “I understand what he meant when he referred to essential workers. And I’m very thankful for what’s being done in hospitals, for example, to try to keep the rest of us safe. But it’s just a little strange to think that after 27 years in the [framing] business, what I do isn’t considered that important.”

Pasche says he’s still working in his shop. But his orders are down about 80%, and he had to lay off his assistant, Rachel Ciecko, at least temporarily, when Baker ordered nonessential businesses to close last month.

Pasche also operates the Elusie Gallery at his shop, a regular showcase for work by regional artists, but he has had to cancel all his spring shows, and his summer and fall exhibit schedule is up in the air. That means more lost income both for artists and himself, he notes, as well as a continued dearth of art on view when many people might enjoy that, especially as a break from the parade of bleak news stories and the claustrophobia induced by “sheltering in place.”

“I think art is essential,” said Pasche, who’s a cofounder of Art in the Orchard, Easthampton’s biennial summer/fall outdoor art exhibit. “I think people might go insane without art … I know there are things happening online, but it’s not a substitute.”

He’s trying to maintain some sense of humor about the situation: He has renamed Elusie Gallery the “Decontamination Gallery” for the moment, as he’s using the space to store all mail and packages for at least 48 hours before handling or shipping anything.

Also in Easthampton, Josh Suchoza, co-owner of Black Labyrinth Tattoo Syndicate on Union Street, is trying to be philosophical about closing his shop in mid-March, a move he made when it became clear the novel coronavirus was a public safety threat. There was a certain irony to that, he says, because he has always made proper cleaning, disinfection and sterilization techniques a priority in his business; he’s a certified bloodborne pathogens instructor who teaches Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) courses on the issue.

“Whether it’s an airborne pathogen or a bloodborne one, you don’t want your clients and the public to be exposed to that kind of risk,” Suchoza said during a phone call.

When it comes to what’s considered an essential vs. a nonessential job, Suchoza notes that the word itself might be “too loose,” given anyone’s employment “is essential to themselves and their family.” But, like Pasche, he understands that in this case “essential” is about “survival, about helping people who are sick and keeping up the food supply … it’s not [referring] to things on the personal level.”

That said, he and his wife and business partner, Rachel Nalewanski, are facing plenty of challenges from a loss of income, while tending to the needs of their two children, including a 17-month-old. Suchoza says he’s looking into the possibility of obtaining a loan through federal assistance programs, though he also wonders what kind of interest payments would be involved with that.

“All we can do is hope that we can reopen at some point and not find it really hard to come back,” he added.

Florence artist Piper Foreso says she has been trying to count the fortunate things in her life: good health, a “wonderful partner” and a nice home among them. But Foreso, who makes a wide range of metal- and glass-based designs, from freestanding outdoor structures to bird feeders and wall ornaments, says three spring shows at which she would have displayed and sold her work have been canceled.

“That’s about 60% of my income,” she said during a phone call.

Foreso has a studio at 1 Cottage St. in Easthampton, a building from which she and other artists were initially ordered to leave in March, though more recently she says she has been allowed back to do some work there. But with the canceled exhibits, she has been using her time primarily to rebuild her website, in hopes she’ll be better able to advertise her work (and perhaps make some sales) online.

Foreso, too, sees the logic in declaring fields such as health care and food supply as essential right now, though she also makes the case that the creation, display and sale of art has an important economic and aesthetic value, too: “I think you can find inspiration and nurturing on levels beyond just the physical.”

Foreso worries what might be in store for her and other artists — and people in general — if COVID-19 continues to disrupt life into the summer and fall. “It’s the uncertainty that’s so hard. I’m in my 70s, and I don’t know where this will end ... But I hope we can all use this time to find some good in our lives and get through this — and to take care of each other.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached as
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