Students in Stephen DiRado’s Introduction to Photography course typically work with film throughout the semester, but when campus closed last month, he told them to grab a smartphone, a digital camera — whatever they had on hand — and begin documenting their lives in black and white during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I said, ‘Look, you’re all probably going to go home and hide in your bedrooms, but I want you, for the rest of the semester, to react,’” DiRado says. “‘It’s your vision; everything is through your eye and mind. Talk to me and the rest of the world about what it’s like to live in coronavirus times.’ Even if they photograph a plant in the window, it’s coronavirus times.”
DiRado is among Clark University’s studio art faculty who have had to transition their classes to a virtual format after the COVID-19 pandemic closed campus last month. Through a combination of Zoom sessions, virtual critiques, and at-home assignments, the professors have developed creative ways of not only teaching art remotely, but also helping students process and document the events that are unfolding around them.
“Many of my students have said they’ve really enjoyed having these projects to work on at home. It takes their mind off the situation they’re facing,” says Amy Wynne, who is teaching Foundational Drawing and a Painting II course this semester. “Art can be healing — so in the midst of all this stress and uncertainty, the artistic process in its best form is about staying in the realm of not knowing and liberating your practice by diving into the unknown.”
Associate Professor of Studio Art Toby Sisson says she’s kept the disruption her students are facing at the front of her mind. She’s delivered lessons for her beginner drawing and advanced mixed media courses via weekly emailed assignment sheets, and is having students build upon the skills they learned during the first eight weeks of the semester through projects that focus on their responses to the pandemic.
“I believe it’s not a good time to operate with a ‘business as usual’ set of assignments, and I want students to be record keepers during this extraordinary time,” she says. “It’s also an opportunity to allow art to provide solace and be a healing force when so many students are feeling especially anxious and stressed.”
For their final projects, Sisson asked students in her drawing class to create four pieces that convey their relationship to the pandemic. Students in her advanced mixed media class are working on one final project on the same topic, which can be done in the media of their choosing – including 3D and performance art.
“I’m expecting really emotional work,” she says. “Some of it might not be upbeat, some of it might be really difficult and really challenging, but I think there will be a range.”
Wynne said she had to make some adjustments when switching to a virtual format, but for the most part, her classes have remained the same.
Students in her drawing class are completing a classical drapery study they began while on campus. Before they left, Wynne asked them to photograph their view of the setup for reference. As they finished their drawings from home, she used an iPad to record live technique demonstrations from her studio.
The class was scheduled to move on to figure drawing, but Wynne says that can be challenging without a model. Instead, she recorded a live demonstration, taking students through a classical proportions system and pointing out all the subcutaneous landmarks on the human skeleton. Then, she sent them worksheets to start practicing drawing the proportions of a standing figure from different perspectives.
“I told them this is a new challenge and as artists, we are always encountering creative challenges — it’s what we’re trained to do,” she says. “It’s not ideal, but it is workable.”
Wynne also created private Instagram accounts for both her classes where students can submit their images for critique.
“It’s kind of cool. Usually, during a critique in the classroom, not every student has a chance to speak about every piece of work because it would take a long time, but in this case, they have to sit with each other’s work and think about it,” she says. “It also necessitates that they’re quite precise and thoughtful about what they’re saying about each other’s work.”
She also has asked her students to keep photos of their artwork handy, as they’ll also hold live critiques via Zoom screen-sharing.
“I think that creativity and having a creative outlet right now is really important for people — not only my Clark students but also other artists I’ve spoken with. At first, I was a little skeptical about how meaningful of a connection we could make with an online platform like Zoom, but I think it actually is providing a place for students to connect and transmit some inspiration.”
Studio art major Samuel Mescon ’21 says that after a two- or three-week adjustment period, attending classes online began to feel more normal. He’s been able to maintain relationships with his professors and continues to receive feedback virtually.
“Those classes are pretty independent and project-based, anyway,” he says. “You’re doing your own thing even when there are in-person classes — the only difference is we’re not coming together in person to critique and share work; we’re doing it digitally.”
In his Image and Word class, taught by DiRado and theatre arts professor Gino DiIorio, theatre and photography students are working together to make art based on how their lives have changed during the pandemic. Mescon said his classmates have been shooting photos and writing plays about isolation and the virus, and sharing their work over Zoom and Facebook.
“In that way, it’s been a very relevant course and workload that we’ve had the past couple of weeks,” he says. “We’re making art that’s directly relevant to that.”
As a photographer, Mescon has also been documenting his daily life by shooting photos of the inside of his apartment, his roommates working at their desks, and some self-portraits to chronicle the experience of isolation and social distancing.
“As a photographer and an artist, you can never do enough of that,” he says. “It’s also a coping mechanism. It helps me process the reality of the situation and it gives me some purpose for my art.”