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“In the Time of COVID-19”
Aingkhu Ashemu reports for NPR’s NextGeneration Radio. The arrival of COVID shut down travel options for many Americans. For Topaz Hooper, artist and travel writer, this meant an interruption of both her personal and professional life. Now she is finding new ways of coping through expression and exploration right at home.
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When Topaz Hooper visited the African Bead Museum in Detroit, Michigan, she met the founder, a man by the name of Olayami Dabls, a curator, craftsman, and artist. When she left, she had a new pair of earrings, and in Dabls’ possession was “My Mind’s Eye,” Hooper’s first published work, which he received in trade for the jewelry.
“It’s not my art I take home after traveling. It’s someone else’s art…I enjoy giving poetry as a gift, giving philosophy, giving social justice ideologies to the world as a gift,” said Hooper.
For Hooper, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, both art and travel are ways to speak with the world, to share and receive the stories of the individuals she meets. With the risk and restrictions that arrived with COVID, Hooper longs for the freedom to once again travel internationally and share her art around the globe.
At 27 years old, Hooper’s talents have proven to be as kaleidoscopic as her personality. An entrepreneur, she wears many different hats as a travel blogger, a visual and spoken-word artist, a vegan blogger, and a copywriter. Also on her resume, an array of past jobs from online English instructor to web designer. The one thing that unifies all these different passions: each one is related to her travels.
Five years ago Hooper had never left the United States, when she was suddenly presented with the opportunity to visit a friend in the Netherlands. Nervous but deciding to take a chance, Hooper boarded a flight and flew into the rising sun until she landed in Holland.
“I was so confused and I remember loving just the anonymity,” she said. Visiting different countries, Hooper feels that meeting and engaging with new communities for the first time allows her to show her most genuine self.
For Hooper, travel represents far more than a physical relocation of her body, or the momentary departure from daily life. In each place that she visits, she makes it a point to fully immerse herself in the communities she enters. Hooper studies the language and customs before going, and takes care to be involved in the local communities while she is there, saying “I’m a slow traveler, I like to move slow, like be in a place for a month or two. I also prefer to speak the language of the country that I’m visiting as well, because I just think it’s more respectful.”
Topaz Hooper at the Admont Abbey Library in Austria, the largest monastery library in the world. (Photo courtesy of Topaz Hooper)
During the height of quarantine, Hooper said she experienced difficulties with inspiration and creativity due to being stuck at home.
It’s been harder to write poetry. Hooper said she can only create when in the depths of her more volatile emotions. And despite the dire news circling in the media, she hasn’t experienced enough in-person conflict lately for her to feel inspired. On the other side, her attraction to the visual arts has grown. “It’s super deep with painting, it’s a deeper longing. Like, it’s almost like if I’m longing for something that I can’t have, I want to paint it or something.”
Hooper said the restrictions to her travel plans were especially difficult in the first few months of quarantine because she was forced to be still. She found that “there’s a lot that I’ve been avoiding and that I’ve been using plane tickets and Airbnb’s to hide from.”
In response, Hooper has taken this time to recenter her focus on her overall well-being. To this end, Hooper has maintained healthy practices through quarantine, like meditation, running, hiking, and healthy eating. “I’ve realized that continuing to invest in my health, and that’s mental health as well, has become my greatest asset.”
Even with the limits to international travel, ever the nomad, Hooper has set out to explore her domestic surroundings in the U.S.
“I’ve made it more localized, but I still like to be somewhere new, like once a month,” she said. For Hooper, this could mean seeking out places as close to home as unexplored areas of Colorado, or to other states like California and Utah. Among these more recent trips, Hooper traveled to Mount Rushmore where she felt a distinct difference from her travels abroad.
“It’s really, like, conservative biker dude. There’s not people of color thriving there, I would say.“ Hooper felt the narratives of racial identity that travel usually allows her to escape were instead memorialized at the site.
Facing towards the future, Hooper is focused on maintaining her health while remaining optimistic about the possibilities that the next year could bring. Italy, Costa Rica, and the Netherlands are among the first of her trips she has planned.
An art piece by Topaz Hooper, starring a black goddess, a motif in her artwork. (Photo courtesy of Topaz Hooper)
Topaz Hooper, 27, has turned to exploring domestic travel in 2020, after coronavirus closed off international options. (Photo courtesy of Topaz Hooper)
Topaz Hooper performs a piece from her poetry book. (Photo courtesy of Topaz Hooper)
The Next Generation Radio Project is a week-long digital journalism training project designed to give competitively selected participants, who are interested in radio and journalism, the skills and opportunity to report and produce their own multimedia story. Those chosen for the project are paired with a professional journalist who serves as their mentor.
This edition of the #NPRNextGenRadio project was produced in collaboration with Colorado Public Radio in September 2020.
Our audio engineer is Patrice Mondragon and Selena Seay-Reynolds.
Our illustrator is Ard Su and Emily Whang.
Our visuals editors are Erica Lee and Kevin Beaty.
Our web producer is Robert Boos.
Our managing editor is Traci Tong.
Our digital editors are Megan Verlee and Laura Isensee.
Special thanks to our journalist-mentors this week:
- Taylor Allen
- Sam Brasch
- Graham Brewer
- Ariel Van Cleave
- Mariana Dale
- Maggie Freleng
NPR’s Next Generation Radio program is directed by its founder, Doug Mitchell.