‘We Are All Connected’
A local artist focuses on positivity, creativity, and community during the COVID-19 crisis.
by Bill Donahue

Consider Ashara Shapiro an unapologetic optimist. Despite the unprecedented upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, from the big (widespread sickness and death) to the small (school closures and other inconveniences), she has found ways to grow, appreciate the value of stillness, and make a difference in the world around her. 
“I have found outlets through writing, taking a college online class that I am loving, and cherishing this time together [with family],” says Shapiro, an artist and the owner of ARecherche, a fashion-design firm in Newtown. “Not only have our families become more cherished, but our neighbors as well. The earth has had a greater opportunity to be heard. As the noise has stopped, the birds have been louder.”
The pandemic has forced Shapiro to adjust her daily life, much like everyone else, but some things haven’t changed. As a fashion designer, she continues to make wearable art with a focus on “where we have come from as a society by using antique finds in order to support our history, celebrate it, and give it rebirth.” As a wife and mother, she continues to offer strength, positivity, and inspiration to those closest to her.
During a few moments of downtime, Shapiro shared her thoughts about maintaining a sense of normalcy during isolation, the lessons she imparts to her children at times like these, and humanity’s connection to the natural world. 

How do you feel about our present situation, with most of the people in our area isolated at home and many businesses closed? Has it affected the way you go about your daily life?
I feel this isolation is necessary. I feel that as a rule of humanity, life comes before money. … I think at times of crisis, the world will always divide: those that will help others at all costs, and those that will focus on themselves. It is the nature of humanity. With this illness affecting the elderly and the weak immune, it is a scary time for them. We risk losing the wisdom of generations, which we need now more than ever. They are the storytellers of “do not let history repeat itself,” and I fear when we need to hear them most their voice will be quieted. 
We, as a society, are only as strong as our actions show. The young have a very blasé attitude about this, thinking it does not affect them so who cares? This is very concerning. This entitlement among them makes me think deeply about their willingness to be an actual part of society as grown-ups. I am hoping to see this change as we navigate this uncertain time.
We are lucky as a family unit. My husband can work from home, and I am an artist and can work in my studio. My children have begun to adjust; they luckily have each other and are close in age. We have slowly fallen into this new normal and only go out when necessary.  

Have you found any “silver linings” in the crisis, such as opportunities to become closer with immediate family, more time for self-reflection or time outdoors, more “brain space” for creative activities, etc.?
This has been the beautiful piece of it. … We have created many opportunities for the family. I have creative time worked into the daily schedule as is, but sometimes you just must read the room. On a rainy day, we decided to do a day of vision boards. The kids chose the theme. My daughter chose “things to do when you’re bored,” and my son chose “ways to help the earth.” I did a design board. We only used National Geographic magazines, with my hope that we would learn something new as we looked through for pictures to cut out. This started many wonderful conversations about the world. My daughter even took to my mannequin with print art about the women’s movement she found in an issue, creating a “dress” of photos.  
There have been many acts of kindness. In our neighborhood, the kids have drawn pictures in the driveways so when families go for walks, they can look for them on the path. Neighbors have left rainbows in windows as a treasure hunt for families on walks. It is our way of saying hello. We have dropped soups off to our neighbors and have received meals as well. We are caring for our elderly, pregnant, and the neighbors who have been on the front lines, like nurses, making sure they have what they need, and offering our gratitude through bottles of wine and baked goods. The children’s teachers have checked in throughout this. Our friend who owns a meat plant has kept us stocked with food, as well as our family members. We have received surprise presents from the children’s friends, and we have dropped them off as well. There has been a collective desire to express our care for one another.

How have you explained to your children the situation and the disruptions to their lives?
This has been a difficult piece of this virus. As a mother, I need to be honest, a trait I feel is vastly important as a parent. I also have always treated my children as people, meaning I do not treat them as if they cannot comprehend life’s nuances, the good and the bad. … They have an emotional response to news such as this, with questions stemming from a place of others, not so much their [own] safety: “Will people be OK,” and “How can we help?” … I also have been aware of not filling the house with incessant news, as that becomes toxic for them. 

Do you have strong concerns about where we are now or what the future holds, or do you believe the period of self-isolation will help matters?
I have the same concerns I always have had. This has been a looking-glass view, and seeing it up close only seems to confirm my feelings. I always feel an underlying current that we have lost our way. Perhaps it is because I am so connected to nature, that it has always been my safe space and the place I go for reflection and connection. It seems we have been so caught up in having more, that we lost sight of what is important. This seems to be Earth’s way of saying, “Enough.” This constant move toward convenience, toward immediate gratification, has left us all vulnerable. … Before this immediate gratification, we had learned how to be patient. Now, it is hard for us to even sit still with ourselves. We are not self-sustaining; we rely on others for all food, and barely use our local farmers. We outsource way too many important things. These modern ways, these modern ideals of the “me” and not the “we” cannot last forever. … Changes can be made, but I am always the optimist. 
I have had many conversations with others, vocalizing my strong belief we are all connected, on a spiritual level and physical level. I have had many tell me that I am incorrect. I would say to them now, “Look. Really see what is happening. Take your lens wide and listen.” We have always been in this together, for better and for worse. 

Ahead of the Pack
“Don’t go dark” in a crisis, says Alpha Dog Advertising’s Craig Trout. 

Ten years have passed since Craig Trout founded Alpha Dog Advertising and “put out a shingle” in Lancaster, Pa. His advertising and marketing communications firm experienced “explosive” growth early on and continued to expand year over year, right up until the first quarter of 2020. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which has since brought the entire country to a standstill. Trout may have had something far different in mind to celebrate the firm’s 10-year milestone, but he’s cautiously optimistic about what comes next. We spoke with him about the agency’s growth, his perspective on how marketing-driven companies should react in a crisis, and his outlook for the future. 

Understanding clients’ needs …
“We bring a different perspective to our clients. We really dig into their business, and almost become secondary business advisors. They may hire us for a website, but we may ask them, ‘Why aren’t you pushing this [aspect of your business] more?’ What they ask for isn’t always what they need.” 

The importance of client diversity …
“Our portfolio is broad on purpose … to isolate us from the situations from 2007-09, when the housing industry imploded. I look at our portfolio like a stock portfolio, to isolate myself from any one industry being impacted. … In terms of clients, we range from microbiologists to CPA firms to the AEC (architects, engineers, and contractors) community, to traffic control [services] and garden centers. It’s important to have a mix from a size standpoint, with multiple types of clients. It definitely provides a lot of diversity. One day I’m trying to help a client sell financial services and the next I’m working on a microbiology trade show. I know very little about a lot of things.”

Marketing during a crisis …
“Like ’08, the worst thing you can do is go dark [with advertising and marketing]. … Unlike ’08, where we had a false economy, we had a strong economy and now we have a pandemic that has shut that down. This is going to be different for businesses in different categories. Some categories will come out of this with pent-up demand, and others will have a tougher time getting back. What are they going to do? You want to make sure you’re putting out communications and not leave it to your competitors. Don’t go dark.”  

His outlook for the future … 
“I’m a believer of ‘hope for the best and prepare for the worst.’ I’m assuming [marketing budgets] may have to be cut back [next year], so what does that look like? I hope it doesn’t, but I have a plan in place based on where I think budgets might go. If I’m delightfully surprised, I’ve already won. ... The businesses that adapt and persevere, they’re the ones that will continue better than others. Like everything, things evolve, and sometimes the evolution is natural, and sometimes it’s forced. This is one situation where it’s being forced.” 

Photograph courtesy of ARecherche

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, May 2020.