Fine arts education flourishes in face of pandemic

Four people sit on a couch with their faces lit up but obstructed by the digital devices they're holding in front of them., photograph, Samantha Wiltermood.From moist, cool clay to wet, drippy paint and dry, smudgy charcoal, visual art is a distinctly hands-on, sometimes messy, field of practice and study. So, what happens when art education goes online?

“Remote teaching certainly hasn’t slowed us down. In fact, these strange times have helped us reimagine new, more expanded ways to reach out to our students while still having deep and meaningful experiences in the virtual classroom,” said Io Palmer, associate professor of fine arts and ceramics coordinator.

For faculty and students in the Department of Fine Arts at WSU, the pandemic-prompted move to mostly remote instruction in spring 2020 inspired many creative, new approaches to making, teaching, and learning about art – even the messy parts.

Palmer and many of her fine arts colleagues, including Joe Hedges, assistant professor of painting/intermedia, created their own makeshift media studios where they shoot, produce, and edit demonstrations and tutorial videos for their students to watch online anytime.

“Our classes, and especially smaller studio courses, continue to be personal and engaging, with regular student-to-teacher interaction,” Hedges said.

Like faculty across the university, arts instructors are relying more on virtual learning tools, such as Zoom and Blackboard, but students are still producing inspired works in various physical and digital media, Hedges said. And most are doing it from within the comforts of their own homes and apartments – even in back yards, parks, and forests.

Image from above of clothed, male figure, with his hands on his bowed head, in apparent distress or grief, sitting in a bathtub filled with dark water.
One of student Rebekah Price’s recent oil paintings.

“Each of our students is really on a personal journey of creative exploration. We are not prescriptive about where that journey leads, so we use frequent one-on-one and group dialogues and critiques to help guide their learning in a highly individualized way, maintaining individual connections with each student wherever they are,” Hedges said.

Art as outlet

Painting student Rebekah Price, like many of her classmates, has been inspired by recent events to create works that speak to the challenges of being home-bound during the pandemic. Among her new oil-on-canvas works is a series of figures in bathroom settings.

“These paintings are so strong, in part because they feel so personal and timely,” Hedges said. “Her work really seems to embody the anxiety many students feel. I think for a lot of our students right now, art is how they are coping.”

Master of fine arts candidate Siri Stensberg agreed: “Art making is one of the only things that is keeping me sane. I stay engaged and challenged with my practice by moving across mediums and disciplines. This semester, I’ve worked with video, traditional painting, installation, ceramics and sound.”

Colorful abstract ceramic artwork.
Ceramic mural by Io Palmer.

As a graduate student, Stensberg had the option to supplement her remote coursework with limited in-person instruction. She has been working with Palmer and ceramics technician Kassie Smith on a large-scale ceramic mural to be installed at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at WSU Spokane.

“We follow CDC guidelines for safety, so only creativity and positivity are contagious in the space,” Stensberg said. “The three of us often bounce ideas off each other, and I’m learning a lot about ceramic processes and the teamwork necessary to achieve a large goal. I’m thankful to be able to touch and move clay and materials every day.”

In response to space limitations imposed by the pandemic, Stensberg shifted to making art also with fabric, video, and sound. “It was a big step for my practice and required a lot of patience and persistence,” she said. “After learning and growing into new mediums, the elements are finally starting to weave together holistically, and it’s incredibly exciting!”

Adapting her teaching and studio instruction to the online environment has actually changed Palmer’s longtime relationship with clay, she said. “It helped me open up to new ways of experiencing clay – for example, how clay can be used in art installations and performances.”

New perspectives on place and space

Unlike in previous years, most of Associate Professor Dennis DeHart‘s photography students are now living off campus, making dynamic images at a wide variety of locations and creating connections to places in new ways, he said. They share examples of their work via the photography program’s social media pages on Instagram and Blogspot.

Freshman Samantha Wiltermood captured some of the strangeness and anxiety of 2020 in her recent images, which include a ballet dancer photographed not on stage but inside an ice cave in the southern Cascades mountains. In another Wiltermood image, a family of four is seated on a couch, each lit by the eerie glow of their digital device.

Contemplative woman of African heritage sitting outside a building with elbows on her knees and chin resting on her folded hands..
Fine arts photo by student Baonhi Nguyen.

Among other students’ stirring photos, Baonhi Nguyen’s portrait of a seated woman evokes a sense of quiet contemplation.

“All of these student-made images seem to speak to the sense of isolation that many people feel right now, but with an uncommon formal beauty,” DeHart said.

Although fine arts faculty and students have successfully transitioned to remote instruction, they still look forward to a time when they can again exhibit and share their work in physical gallery spaces, Hedges said.

“Despite having far fewer opportunities to exhibit work and attend exhibitions, I think artists and art students remain as productive, and in some cases more productive, than they were before COVID-19,” Hedges said. “When the galleries reopen, there will be no shortage of art to see in-person – and, in the meantime, we have all benefited emotionally and intellectually from being able to process the pandemic through our art and discussions.”

Top image: “Invented Personae,” fine arts photo by student Samantha Wiltermood.

By J. Adrian Aumen, College of Arts and Sciences