Are Art Classes Surviving Quarantine?
Gone are the days of walking up too many flights of stairs to reach the art studio. The serene, calming room filled with soft chatter and students illuminated by the skylight as they work is empty now. Instead, students roll out of bed and hastily prepare themselves for class; creating a much shorter trip to their new “art studios.” While this shortened commute is more convenient than flight after flight of stairs, art classes on Zoom come with a multitude of difficulties for both students and teachers.
The most obvious hurdle that art teachers have to overcome is students’ lack of materials. What was once rooms filled with art supplies that students could use, is now whatever students have in their desks – or their recycling. Eric Baylin, the upper school art teacher, enthusiastically showed off a cardboard sculpture during his interview, fashioned from a Cheerios box, an example he made for his sculpture class.
“At the start, we did some quirky things– like make a sculpture out of your clothes!” said Malva Blåvarg (‘23), a student in Mr. Baylin’s online art class last spring. Other examples she shared included students photographing and manipulating everyday objects in their homes, such as kitchen sinks or light fixtures. Malva used olive oil and salt to create a painting on a plate, making use of convenient materials at her disposal. “I have found all different stages of artists who have done art of their own interior spaces,” said Elizabeth Eagle, the middle school art and upper school photography teacher.
Sparking conversation and active participation in students are some of the other issues that art teachers at Packer are fighting to overcome. One student, who would like to remain anonymous, described the decline in participation in their class: “It would have been nice to be able to interact with people more, but I don’t think that that would have actually worked… some people were just so unresponsive.”
Ms. Eagle also touched on the topic of disengagement: “There’s this sort of flat zone. I don’t mean that just because it is physically a flat zone, but it’s like a flat zone…it takes an extra nudge sometimes to get responses.”
This lack of participation is a common theme seen throughout many online classes at Packer, but as Mr. Baylin explained, “In the classroom, in the studio, students are working right next to each other and you see what that person is creating, what that person is doing, you get inspired by your classmates,” the absence of which has made both active participation and creativity more difficult to maintain.
To combat this stasis, Ms. Eagle has been trying to make more of her Zoom lessons independent and encourage students to be away from the screen like they would be if they were at school. “It’s something that I’m really trying to change in the way that I am teaching. I had my intro to photography students get out of their chairs and go shoot for 15-20 minutes in the class today.” Having students get away from their screens restores the feeling of art classes being creative and relaxing [is] a much-needed break from an otherwise exhausting and computer-consumed day.
Mr. Baylin, like Ms. Eagle, has not let the difficulties that Zoom presents quell his enthusiasm. In art club, which he advises, students positioned themselves and their screens in gallery view on Zoom to create a collaborative art piece where each student’s screen made up a portion of the piece. This opportunity to take advantage of software that cannot be used in person, “was intriguing and it worked to generate an interest in students as well,” explained Mr. Baylin.
Even after having found creative ways to continuously engage students, something that seems to be impossible to replicate is the energy of the art studio. Many students find the art studio to be a sanctuary and a zen space where they can relax and unwind during a busy day. Even when school is over, one can frequently find that either Ms. Eagle or Mr. Baylin have stayed in the studio late so that students can have the time to fulfill all their creative needs.
Mr. Baylin pointed out that online art classes don’t “ have the classroom ambiance, we don’t have that classroom banter.” He continued, “I miss those individual moments with students. We kinda have them… well starting to have them a little more on-screen. Just like– I’ll see somebody laughing. I’ll interact with that person and say ”well… what’s going on?!” But it’s hard. It’s still hard.”
All in all, the goals that art teachers have for their students have stayed the same. Mr. Baylin shared the message he conveyed to his students at the beginning of the year: “I want you to come away from it being a courageous learner. This is a time for us to be courageous in all kinds of ways. And I don’t know what that means for each person, but it’s more than just making art.”