When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, University of Virginia faculty scrambled to find ways to deliver a traditional college education online. While the transition wasn’t easy for anyone, it was especially difficult for those in the fine arts.
For actors and musicians, the experience of connecting with each other on stage is an essential part of their education. For painters, printmakers, photographers and filmmakers, limited access to studios, darkrooms and essential equipment has posed unprecedented obstacles to creativity. Sculptors and dancers have struggled to find alternatives to the experience of engaging with three-dimensional art while learning in a two-dimensional space.
But as faculty in UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences worked to educate their students despite the obstacles presented by COVID-19, they found themselves creating the foundation for changes to the practice of art education – changes that may make it just a little better than it was before.
Art in the Age of the Internet
Lydia Moyer is a studio art professor in the Department of Art. She teaches courses in new media where students use video and animation as vehicles for expression.
In the classroom, Moyer relies less on lectures and more on providing interactive experiences for her students that involve working together to solve problems and learning the software that new media artists use to make art. The leap to an all-online format might seem like an easy transition for this discipline, but that ignores the challenge of providing technical support to students who had to load new software onto their home computers. Often, the responsibility of solving technical problems fell more on the students’ shoulders than Moyer would have liked, but at the same time, it added a new dimension to the classroom experience.
“It really forced them into a mode of operating that was much more like a professional artist,” Moyer said. “It was a crash course in being your own computer technician.”
Rather than worrying about the equipment and resources she might have had access to in a normal year, Kim Salac, a student of Moyer’s who graduated in the spring with a double major in studio art and computer science, saw the situation as an opportunity, rather an obstacle.
“It empowered me to think about art-making in a way that doesn’t involve needing fancy materials,” Salac said. “I think it gave me a new perspective about approaching art by prioritizing what we have to say over how many fancy things that we can learn how to use. It brought me back to the basics in a way that I cherished.”
As a video artist herself, Moyer spends much of a typical year traveling to festivals where her work is screened and where she can see the work of other artists using the same medium. During the pandemic, however, as many festivals moved online, Moyer and her students had the opportunity to see work from all over the world without the challenges that typically come with travel, especially for those faced with accessibility concerns or who struggle with the high cost. She doesn’t view online festivals as a replacement for the real thing, but she thinks the pandemic will transform the festival experience for the better.
“I think it will probably change things,” Moyer said. “Some festivals may keep an online component. There has also always been a sense that online festivals are lesser than in-person festivals, but this year there was no choice, so maybe in some ways those values will change.”
Moyer also thinks the pandemic may have given students of the fine arts a good look at some realities of making artwork, especially for those who spent the year creating art without being able to present it to their peers and their professors in a traditional gallery space. Documenting studio work has always been important for visual artists, but she explains that the concept of “Post-Internet Art” suggests that some art is being made with the expectation that the visual language of social media will play an essential part in how people engage with it. Understanding that concept could become as important for the next generation of artists as the materials or methods they use to create their work.
“The number of people who are going to see the work in person is often much smaller than the number of people who are going to see the images of the work on the internet, and so it can be as important – if not more important – to have good pictures as it is to have work that looks good in person,” Moyer said.
A New Take on an Ancient Dramatic Tradition
The pandemic was uniquely challenging for students learning the craft of acting. But in some ways, the experience wasn’t entirely unprecedented.
Colleen Kelly is a professor with the Department of Drama and director of UVA’s M.F.A. Professional Actor Training Program. She also supervises graduate students who are teaching acting to undergraduates in the program’s “Acting I” course. One of the biggest problems she and her graduate students faced was finding a way to teach fundamentals of acting, like voice and movement, online.
The first step, she felt, was to prevent the pandemic from taking center stage.
“One of my challenges with both the graduate students and with the undergraduates was taking phrases such as ‘under normal circumstances’ out of my vocabulary,” Kelly said. “I had to learn how to remove those phrases from my vocabulary and focus on what was being taught and not what wasn’t.”
Using virtual conferencing applications like Zoom wasn’t an ideal substitute for in-person experience, but Kelly said that the skills students have learned about communicating with each other online may play an important role in preparing them for life after college, as online communication becomes an ever more important part of life in the workforce.
“I think the support we gave our undergraduates in ‘Acting I’ gave them experience that may help them down the road with their communication skills and their confidence in job interviews,” Kelly said. “Having a presence in Zoom meetings and being able to not just speak into a camera, but to be able to use vocal range and tone to be clear about what it is they want to say, will support them whatever they’re going to end up doing, whether it’s online or in a live meeting.”
Her approach to making the best of the circumstances at hand was an example of the role the arts can play in helping deal with challenge and adversity. In the spring of 2021, when they could have settled for less ambitious projects, her graduate students chose to perform the plays “Death of the Author,” by Steven Drukman, and “God of Carnage,” by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton, live on the Culbreth Theatre stage, but with no audience. Both performances were performed in masks, with actors maintaining safe physical distancing, and were recorded for broadcast.
“We embraced the idea that these characters are living today, in this time. We were not going to pretend that the characters were not masked, and that was an interesting process,” Kelly said. “As actors you have to make choices, and allowing the characters to deal with the distance between themselves on stage and to deal with the absence of exchanging breath taught us a lot about how characters can make choices in a moment under any given circumstances.”
According to Jack Clifford, a graduate student in his second year of the MFA program in acting and a member of the cast of “Death of the Author,” the experience provided additional depth to his role.
“It made us think a lot more about physicality, the physicality of what we had to do as characters. We had to think about that more,” he said. “When you’re on stage, your face is 10% of what tells the story.”
And of course, the idea of wearing a mask is not a new one for actors.
“The mask is part of the theatrical tradition,” Kelly said. “It’s part of ritual and storytelling, and the theatrical idea that a mask can conceal something about yourself, but it can also reveal something about yourself and can give you permission to say things or do things that might be a little bit out of character. Watch any kid become a superhero on Halloween, you know?”
Making Music Mean Something More
While performance venues were closed and group rehearsals were an impossibility, efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 made life especially difficult for music educators. Music faculty scrambled to find ways to find virtual equivalents for choral and symphonic rehearsals, to replace recitals with live recordings and to get themselves and their students up to date with the technology necessary to make those things happen.
When the University’s Rap Lab, a community space that includes a fully functional recording studio, closed abruptly in the middle of 2020’s spring semester, A.D. Carson, professor of hip hop and the Global South, was in the middle of teaching “Composing Mixtapes,” a course that gives students the opportunity to collaborate on writing, recording and producing a full-length rap album. Carson uses the course to teach students about how music can have a positive impact on people and their communities.
By spring break, his students were on track to finish their album and were already looking forward to hosting a record-release party in just a few months. Days later, UVA President Jim Ryan’s announcement that in-person classes would be cancelled for the rest of the semester to help combat the spread of COVID-19 left Carson and his students in shock.
At first, Carson was willing to lower his expectations for the class, but his students responded by letting him know that they not only wanted to finish the project they had started, but they also wanted to use it to help raise money for those who were struggling with food insecurity in the Charlottesville area.
“I was blown away by their commitment to not just finishing the project, but to making the project be of service to others,” Carson said. “Maybe it doesn’t really affect them as much to not be in the same physical space because they are so used to inhabiting these digital spaces, but in a lot of ways their work got better because they were determined in a way that they weren’t before. After we came back from spring break last year, they were absolutely laser-focused, and in some ways, I believe, they became a closer group because of it.”
Nia Williams, who graduated in May, took Carson’s class because she wanted an opportunity to learn some of the technical skills she would need as a musician and songwriter. Going into the class, she had a difficult time collaborating with other musicians because of the vulnerability it can require. Faced with the challenge the pandemic suddenly presented to her and her classmates, her perspective changed.
“We worked really hard to come together and figure out how to make this not just about us in the middle of a global pandemic, and I think that was a really cool thing,” Williams said.
With his students spread from one coast to the other as they worked together to produce an album and plan and organize both a virtual record-release party and a fundraiser, Carson reflected on how teaching during a pandemic may have a lasting impact on the idea of accessibility in education.
“There are lots of times when instructors are asked to make accommodations, and the resistance is that if I make these accommodations now, then I would always have to be accommodating,” Carson said. “I think we can throw that out the window now. We are definitely capable of making the accommodations that need to be made. We know it’s not impossible because so many of us did it, and maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world to be flexible in those ways moving forward. I think that’s something that we should all hold onto.”