ON a cloudy evening in mid-March, a busker who goes by the name of Bam Artist Artiste left Cork city, unsure of when — or even if — he would return.
Best known for his groovy, Jamaican jazz, Bam is a familiar sight on his Paul Street pitch in normal times. But the coronavirus had arrived and normality was suspended.
“Everything was over. I was taken aback,” he says of that day when he went home to Galway.
It was the day that street music died. Since then, the coronavirus pandemic and social curbs imposed to slow its spread have emptied the streets of the city, including its many and varied buskers.
The quiet hits you particularly sharply if you’re taking a stroll on Paul Street, Bam’s usual spot. “My office,” he told us in an interview in The Echo last summer.
Bam, aged 49, used to take the earliest bus from Galway to Cork three or five times a week, rain or shine. Surviving and thriving on the streets of Cork, busking was his sole source of income.
After the street life was upended, Bam says he felt as if “I fell out of a plane into the Atlantic Ocean, dead in the water.”
A civil engineer turned travelling musician, Bam is now singing a different tune by painting day and night in isolation to make ends meet.
He details his daily life now with the accuracy of someone who revels in a set routine.
“In the morning, between 3.45 or 4.30, I wake up. I drink a bottle of water that has been left out in room temperature from the night before. I drink half of that.
“And then I put on my coffee. After I had my coffee, I get a little bit of water and start painting, usually in my sitting room which I use as a studio,” he explains.
Painting is only interrupted for food, except for a few hours in the evening when “I download something off the internet to watch — and then I might fall asleep for an hour and a half,” he says.
Most of his artwork consists of oil paintings that depict characters with an air of mystery, whose faces are revealing anguish and pain, exemplifying the artist’s isolation woes.
Bam is unsure about the future of busking, hence he paints all day so his savings won’t dwindle to zero during the lockdown.
“I have been using my savings and my friend’s savings during this time, but then I would help them when I can,” he says.
“Every relationship is symbiotic; you need to bring something to the table when you take. Some people are just takers and some just givers; they’re both wrong.”
Bam says something is amiss from his days now that he’s not travelling around the country to perform — the road is calling his name, yet he’s homebound and level-minded.
“In moments of crisis, you need to stay calm. You shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste,” he says.
Speaking on the phone from his Galway home heaped with scores of books and paintings, Bam talks about his plans to survive through painting.
He reasons that the life of a painter with no agent to aid him is doubly difficult. So, he plans to embody and adopt the mindsets of three ‘separate and distinct’ individuals to succeed.
“I have to train myself to play three parts. I have to be the agent, the person who sells the art and the artist creating the work. It is like living three different lives, most people wouldn’t understand it,” Bam says.
“My plan is very high-risk and very high-return; you don’t know what the cards are going to turn over.
“My ultimate goal is to be financially viable. Just being an artist is an emotional pay-off; it’s not going to pay my rent.”
The strategy involves becoming business-savvy, so Bam reads books on the art of marketing, so he can promote his work. “If you look at my work online, you will notice it is not properly presented yet, it is meant for a certain type of clientele that I need to learn to market it to,” he says.
Bam recounts the outpouring of support from Corkonians after an article about his life was published in The Echo last summer. He says, the story “saved his Christmas” as more people stopped to tip him having read about his dedication to the art.
In isolation, Bam misses Cork and the generosity of its people, but focusing on those feelings often distracts him from painting, so he tries to move past them.
“I miss Cork, but I try not to linger on my feelings. When you’re on the battlefield, and one of your fellow soldiers dies, you don’t stand there to lament,” he says. “You wait until the war is over. Now it’s not the time to lament.”
Faced with the suggestion that street music will be resurrected once the pandemic alleviates and the Government eases social curbs, Bam firmly disagrees, at first.
“I’m a busker, I would know. It is like someone telling me they’re going to Iceland to sell ice cream having never lived in Iceland,” he says, laughing.
A day later, I receive a Facebook message from him. “I think, when all this lockdown is hopefully over, I’ll be back in full swing, come to think of it,” it reads.
To commission artwork or buy Bam’s finished paintings find him on Facebook under the name, Bam Artist Artiste.