Art When the Medium Has Been Changed to COVID-19

Clay, colored pencils, paper and other materials in hand, art students left their art classes at The Bolles School. They had been previously notified they may not come back to their art classes, so they took home all their supplies thinking that they would bring the materials back at the end of spring break. COVID-19 thought otherwise.

 

Fedora located on one corner of the dining room, various blocks of clay located on the other, Mr. Smith begins his online classes in his classic button-down shirt. Smith, the teacher of five different periods of art classes in a day, has not been experiencing the same ‘flow’ of teaching in his art classes since COVID-19 struck. Mr. Smith’s ‘laboratory’ art classes, based on a foundation of 3D art, have been increasingly difficult to carry out online according to Mr. Smith. Instead of talking through the creation of ceramic and sculpture pieces as an example for the students, he must now take on the scratchy visual display of a computer camera, pointing at the various details in his art that he would like his students to note. “Do you remember Bob Ross? That would be the ideal situation,” Smith says referencing talking through his artwork without stopping.

 

Smith, however, has other concerns for his students who seem to be ‘rolling with the punches’ material and artwork wise. He fears that his students are not interacting as much with these online classes. There is less of a give and take of questions. Instead, this is replaced with small visible outlines of the tops of students’ heads as they work vigorously on their artwork. Smith admits, “There’s something about this dynamic, that they do not tend to do what they used to do.”

Along with his students, Mr. Smith is also rolling with the punches. Avneesh Badarinath (‘22), one of Smith’s sculpture students proclaims, “Mr. Smith is a lot better with technology than I expected.” It’s safe (mask, gloves, and all) to say that Smith who has been teaching for 44 years didn’t expect Coronavirus to be a part of his retirement.

Badarinath himself feels as if he is less productive in his art class, despite it being a self-proclaimed “de-stressing” class. While Mr. Smith previously walked around the art classroom and commented on each of the students’ pieces, he must now wait for students to approach him in this virtual setting: a great feat when many mute themselves during the classes. Students must be the catalyst of the conversation now.

 

With students’ faces on rectangular screens on his computer instead of the classroom, Smith feels as if there is something missing from the open space of a physical classroom. Certainly not one to spend long nights out on the town (he even joked, “Often I will joke with my friends and say…I gotta go home, it’s a school night”), Smith feels holed up in his house. COVID-19, which arrived in the United States on the Friday the 13th that was his birthday, has been restricting him from a ‘natural’ teaching style. “I really am pleased and grateful that we managed to have online learning and introduce it long before we had to scramble to do it…but it’s just a failsafe. It’s never going to replace the classroom experience.”

 

Now, the so-called ‘classroom experience’ is replaced by features of the online Schoology conference application. The most used feature of online art classes have been the breakout rooms. Often, AP students are put into a breakout room by AP teachers Mr. Smith and Mr. Bied to talk individually about their concentration and pieces mimicking the privacy they would have approaching Mr. Smith’s or Mr. Bied’s desk in the online realm. Mr. Smith says, “My AP class is such a comfortable place that all my students have had that experience of Mr. Smith is going to take you to his desk and we are going to talk…They’ve all had that kind of talk and look forward to it.”

 

While AP students are more independent in their artwork, adhering to AP deadlines is not a workaround concept. Natalie Garcia (‘21), an AP Drawing student, feels fortunate that COVID-19 struck in the fourth quarter: “We’re practically almost done.” AP Drawing students have been working on 10 AP submission-ready pieces after the original AP requirement was changed from 15 pieces to 10 due to COVID-19.

 

However, it certainly does not help that AP qualifications were changed this year. The AP criteria did away with an entire section; the ‘breath’ section, where students would submit pieces that did not relate to their concentration, was entirely removed.

 

Garcia, who has 12 pieces completed, is worried only about tweaking her pieces and being bound to AP deadlines, not the AP qualifications. But while Garcia took three pieces home to work on, the remaining seven that she plans to submit are left in the desolate hallways of school or displayed on the walls of the Library in Downtown. Her Scholastic Regional Gold Key art pieces are plastered for the public to see in the Library, but neither the public nor Garcia can see it as the Library has been closed down.

However, Mr. Bied is convinced AP scores of 4s and 5s will not decrease in his AP classes. “The Downtown Library is a dead issue.” Most students have taken pictures of their artwork. For those who left their artwork at school, Mr. Bied’s consistent yawns can be attributed to the fact that he has gathered the students’ artwork from his classroom putting it in the guardhouse of The Bolles School “gloved up and masked up” at 5 am on April 2 before the official lockdown of the school occurring midnight on this date.

Teacher art spaces with their materials laid out from the comfort of their homes. Photo Credit: Mr. Bied

Much to the relief of AP art students, the AP team has also extended the deadline of pieces to May 26, 2020 as of press time. While this may be a relief to AP art students, the date is at a detriment to seniors who will have to submit their pieces after graduation. In what seems to be the wake of COVID-19, Bied’s ‘biggest headache’ is not these AP scores. Simply put: “It’s not a tragedy.” Bied, himself, has extended deadlines due to the recent crashing of Schoology

Mrs. Gonzalez’s creative-geared classes are, however, not bound by deadlines and the production of art pieces. Gonzalez has decided to suspend the use of technique and begin working on concept and composition during her online classes where the “new and shiny [of online learning] hasn’t worn off yet.”

 

Gonzalez is a survivor, as proclaimed by the firework box plastered with a picture of Rosie the Riveter on her desk. Her crowded oak desk is also the sight of her Surface Pro 5 and a mask she is creating for her daughter from old mail, with the namesake of the World War II feminist icon. As such, she has adapted well to the online classes favoring the pace of these classes where students have time to work on their self-directed art journals. When asked if productivity has increased with online learning, Gonzalez responded by saying, “Yes…we’ve had a shift towards creativity and problem solving as opposed to skills and technique.” To her, COVID-19 is an opportunity for artistry in a product-geared world. “They need room to create things that are never perfected.”

 

Perhaps, the most sought out answer to any question about how COVID-19 has affected the arts department is: What will happen with the art shows? Bied admits that a faculty meeting proved hopeful for the prospect of a new art show. If it was to be done, it would be done virtually or put up on the Bolles website, although no decisions were made at this point.