Shelter Projects

Shelter Projects: Aaron Strand, “Here With Me”

The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, in partnership with the UGA Graduate School, UGA Arts Council, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Flagpole magazine, has awarded 34 micro-fellowships in its Shelter Projects program. The $500 fellowships support graduate students and community-based artists and practitioners in the creation of shareable reflections on their experience of the current pandemic through the arts and humanities.

Artist Statement from Aaron Strand: News, dreams and social media posts blend together to form a new reality: life under shelter-in-place. Shot, written and edited in the first three weeks of the COVID-19 quarantine, “Here With Me” features new original music by multi Grammy Award-winning singer Cecile Mclorin Salvant.

Flagpole: Tell us a little bit about your background as an actor and filmmaker! What was your experience like creating this short film?

Aaron Strand: I went to high school at Athens Academy and was very fortunate to be involved with such a great drama program under the leadership of Lorraine Thompson. I then graduated from NYU with a BFA in drama. But upon entering the professional world of acting, I found that the lifestyle is—how should I say?—totally fucking miserable. So six years ago, my mother, Jena Johnson (who’s an amazing insect macro-photographer here in Athens), let me start shooting videos with her DSLR camera, and I fell in love with it. Since then, I’ve started my own production company, Stranded Entertainment, producing commercial and dramatic films. I still act, but most of my time these days is devoted to writing, directing and editing.

This short was created in a very organic way. When the whole country shut down, I was like most people: sitting at home, obsessively looking at my phone and getting super depressed. So one morning, I woke up and there was this beautiful blanket of fog over everything. I forced myself to go outside and just started firing off shots. (Film shots, not gunshots.) By that afternoon, my good friend, Cooper Bucha, who plays the lead, came over and we just improvised scenes of what our lives and dreams looked like. From there I wrote the poem and set the music to that day of shooting.

Flagpole: The narration begins with a mention of you seeing your wife go to work at the hospital. How has it been for her to be working on the frontline?

AS: Yes! My wife, Shub Agrawal, is an Internal Medicine Resident at Emory. To say she’s an inspiration would be the understatement of the year. I mean, your first year of medical residency is hard enough, but then throw a global pandemic on top of the 14-hour days and say “good luck?” I mean, I’m just in awe of her. It’s been really hard. She treats COVID patients every day. But seeing the passion that she and her colleagues bring to their work has really reaffirmed my faith in humanity. Plus she comes home and somehow has the energy and patience to give me notes on my little videos…I guess that’s what you call “marrying up?”

Flagpole: The sequence of videos shared around the four-minute mark focus primarily on self-care, yoga, home workouts and performance streams. What activities have you found to be the most helpful for maintaining your mental and physical health during quarantine?

AS: That video sequence was all just friends of mine putting things on social media. I found it really inspiring to see that creative outpouring. As far as my mental and physical health goes, I’m a work-a-holic… plus a recovering alcoholic, so take my advice with a grain of salt. I work from home every day, and maintaining that regularity has been critical to my sanity. Additionally, Fuel Hot Yoga, who I’ve done commercials for in the past, has done an amazing job transitioning to virtual classes. Jolin Conine, the owner of Fuel, has worked so hard to create a huge catalogue of online videos and I do one about every day. 

Flagpole: I’d love to highlight another video you’ve created recently, a music video for Terry J featuring MissAllieJoy called “8 Minutes and 46 Seconds.” How did this collaboration come about? What role do you see film and the arts serving during the Black Lives Matter movement? 

AS: In June, I was participating in a lot in the protests but I wanted to contribute more, so I put out a post on Instagram that I would donate a music video to a Black artist making music about Black Lives Matter. I was put in touch with Terry J and his fiancé, MissAllieJoy, who had just finished this song “8 Minutes and 46 Seconds” with music producer Brady Dunn. Terry and Allie are both really talented and passionate artists, actors and educators so it was enlightening to collaborate with them on this video which we shot in late July with the help of, once again, Cooper Bucha, who is the greatest collaborator I could ever ask for. 

I wasn’t at the March on Washington, but I can hear Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” in my head. I wasn’t alive for Kent State, but I can hear the opening notes of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” So in my experience, art has the ability to both immortalize and sustain the soul and spirit of a social movement. I believe that artists have a responsibility to reflect the world as they see it. Now, my voice is not necessarily the one that needs to be heard right now, so I’m to exercise my belief by elevating the voices of others.