In the last year COVID-19 has drastically altered the way we approach life and the ways in which we inhabit the world. For some it has made them more cautious, feeling the precarity of each passing moment. Others have become more appreciative of the present, embracing the opportunity to take an extended pause. Living in a space of ambiguity provided the chance for some to reconnect with their passions and pursue them as a side hustle. If this is you, you’re not alone!
All over the Capital Region, Upstate New Yorkers have been rethinking their career paths, choosing to maintain their 9-5’s while pursuing their passions on the side. With COVID giving them more downtime, these five individuals have been able to maintain their creative side hustles while putting in a 40 work week. These “hustles” have been both a re-connection to self and an outlet for creative expression. The world around us remains as uncertain as ever. From fashion, to screenwriting and directing, and music, these creatives shared what has given them courage to choose both.
ANTONETTE LEWIS | AKL Studios
Meet Antonette Lewis from Albany, the Creator-Director of AKL Studios. By day Antonette works at a lobbying firm, but by night she runs a beautiful luxury sunglass line. ”Since I was little I’ve been in love with fashion,” Antonette said. “One thing I always remembered was when my mom drew a wedding dress on a napkin. It was the most beautiful dress I’ve ever seen. I was like ‘I want to make that!’” She eventually wants to develop a clothing line, but for now, sunglasses are a good start.
So how exactly does Antonette balance it all? “I have a special routine I do. I wake up at 5 in the morning, I draft my social media posts for AKL Studios and send those drafts to my team. Then, I get ready to go to my day job. Once work is over I start working again with AKL. That’s the time I reach out to my manufacturers and my team. I prep a lot of emails.”
Since launching the line during COVID,Antonette feels she’s learned a lot about herself. “I’ve learned to trust myself more, to have more confidence. You don’t need to go to fashion school to run your own line. The only difference is that they have more money and access. You can do it on your own.” Since building that confidence, Antonette has expanded her line and plans to do more fashion shows, more photo shoots, more collaborations, and pop up shops in the future.
Fashion is booming here
Above all, Antonette believes that, despite popular belief, the fashion community is booming here. “There’s always so much going on. Watch Spectrum News! There’s always a gala, a fashion show, an event. There are a lot of unique people here!” Albany’s creative economy is growing and it’s here to stay.
NNEKA MORGINI | Tall Luxé
Meet Nneka Morgini, Creator-Director of Tall Luxé fashion line and Niskayuna native. When Nneka is not working on Tall Luxé, she works in Human Resources for a community college. She took advantage of the extra time the pandemic created and launched Tall Luxé this year. “It’s always been something I’ve been thinking about. I want to make clothes for taller women. It’s always a struggle because I’m 6’1 myself; it’s hard to find clothes that fit me well. Amid the pandemic I had more time to do what I needed to do to start my clothing line.”
Through the creation of Tall Luxé, Nneka feels that she’s learned a lot about herself, “I never thought I was capable of doing something like this, to be honest. I’ve never taken that leap of faith to start this idea I have. I’ve always been shy and low key. I didn’t think about becoming an entrepreneur. When the pandemic happened, I thought to myself, this is the time to start. This line will be mine and I’ll be able to do something I’m actually passionate about. I’ve learned that I’m much stronger and resilient than I give myself credit for and that I need to get out of my own way. It takes believing in yourself to make things happen.”
A rich creative community in Albany
Nneka feels there is a rich creative community in Albany, and that there’s so much to discover here as opportunities pop up each day. As her business grows, her goal for the next year is to network more and to be immersed in the Upstate fashion community. Nneka, similar to Antonette, wants to participate in more pop up shops and fashion shows. Until then if you’re a taller woman and you’re looking for some luxe looks, check out her site! Click for IG and FB.
KENNA HYNES | Director-Screenwriter, Musician
Meet Kenna Hynes, a director-screenwriter from Chicago who has found her stride with music video direction. When she’s not creating rich narratives with indie rock star Half Waif (Nandi Plunkett), she works at a recruitment agency. “I’ve always been interested in music. Before I got into film, I was a musician. I started out as a Camera Operator, Director of Photography, and then started making documentaries of artists on tour. From there I began to direct music videos. My job at the recruitment agency gives me the flexibility to continue my work in film.”
Kenna has been active in the film and music scene since 2012. But when COVID hit, she had to go back to the drawing board, because she wasn’t able to shoot film. “Having such a close relationship with Nandi really got me through a big chunk of COVID. We started thinking of big ideas, and when it was safe to meet up, we started planning for future videos. It really gave us an outlet to be able to work on those projects together. Planning our next steps gave us something to look forward to and carried us mentally.”
Outside of building upon her personal-professional relationship with Half Waif, Kenna took the extended pause to reorient herself in her goals, “The biggest takeaway I’ve had is that you need goals. You need to have a mission for yourself while still trying to be present and deliberate. I was getting into ‘good old days’ syndrome, where I was thinking ‘should I go back to Chicago? I’m not making movies.’ But I needed to see what’s in front of me. Being present here and focusing on who you’re with something magical will happen.”
You do not need to be in big city to make great art
Experiencing film in both a big city and upstate Kenna feels that Upstate NY still has so much to offer. “There’s less ego here. The Upstate community is forming and you’re a part of something here, creating a creative community together. You do not need to be in a big city to make great art.” There is a wealth of community here, if you find it. If you’re interested in seeing Kenna’s work, click here!
SPENCER SPERRY | Actor-Screenwriter
Meet Spencer Sperry of Saratoga Springs, landscaper by day, actor-screenwriter by night. Both his traditional job and his filmmaking are done in collaboration with his friend-business partner, which gives him the flexibility to shift gears.
Currently (and always) Spencer is writing. He has a very exciting Stephen King-inspired short film on the way, which he began writing for a student scholarship. It was initially rejected because it wasn’t on King’s approved short list, but “I wound up reaching out to his agent with nothing to lose, asking for a commercial contract to option it. He responded saying that I wasn’t a big enough name. I went back again for a non-commercial contract because I really believed in the story and then he said okay, and gave me a special contract. I’m psyched! Now I’m trying to put a crew together to take a swing at this.”
COVID has given Spencer the chance to dig in and develop projects to shoot in the fall. “We’ve been really fortunate because business on the landscaping side didn’t slow down at all, and we’ve been able to push each other to work on film projects. I’ve written more than I ever wrote in a year. The pandemic made me get the confidence to write for the sake of writing. For me personally, I’ve had this trepidation of wanting to save a project when I have the technology, funds, and the means to make a film. Now I just want to crank out stories with very little fear of it being made. The nebulousness of Covid helped with my trepidation.”
The Upstate community is invaluable
Outside of honing his craft and leaning into exploring writing, Spencer has been delving more into the local film community. To Spencer, the Upstate community is invaluable. “It’s so much tighter here than it is in bigger cities. No one in New York wants to help a lowly PA on their passion projects. But here people are willing to help, getting locations is easier, people are so much more accommodating. It outweighs the potential money that can be made.”
If you want to see Spencer’s work check out his IMDB here, otherwise stay tuned for his projects to be filmed this fall!
SYMONE NOELLE | Singer-Songwriter
Last but certainly not least, meet Symone Noelle a singer-songwriter who has used the pandemic to fully launch her creative path. Formerly an interior designer, Symone is no stranger to a creative career, but music has always been her passion. “Covid provided a big push for me to follow my music. It was a challenging time for my mental health but it encouraged me to not sit around and let things happen. With my music it was a now or never kind of thing.”
That encouragement pushed Symone right into the studio. She’s releasing her new single and video entitled “All for You” in August, and is preparing for her EP’s release in spring of 2022. She describes her music as New Wave R&B in the same vein as Kehlani, SZA, and 6LACK, but doesn’t limit herself to one genre. “My EP will be more than just R&B. It will have a little bit of everything. Neo-soul, Alternative, Rock and New Wave R&B. I don’t want to be just one thing.”
Upstate is like a family
As Symone is exploring her sound and making her mark in the music world, she has also been exploring the music scene both Upstate and in New York City. “I think that New York and Upstate have a lot to offer, but what sets Upstate apart from the hustle and competitiveness of New York is the network here. It’s almost like a family, people help each other out on projects and work together.” She is happy to get her start here.
Written by: Arielle Steele
Arielle is a local writer who has a passion for community, film, dance, and Beyoncé. When she is not working at Ayco, she can be found working on her next film project or trying out a new hairstyle.