“Art in general teaches you these skills—how to change and adapt—and it’s coming in handy right now for sure.”
Leslie Walfish is witnessing it now, how those in the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh art department are making the best of the circumstances brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. As director of the Allen Priebe Gallery and an art instructor, her spring semester was upended when classes moved off campus last month.
In a way, she and her colleagues are built for this.
“Artists in particular are amazing problem solvers,” Walfish said. “Artists are really good at adapting to changing situations, so one thing you see is that a lot of people are finding the best that can be found in these circumstances and I think that might be particular to the art world.”
Classes change shape
Frank Zetzman is a UWO art professor who usually leads three courses on the Fox Cities campus each semester. This spring his schedule includes drawing and ceramics studio classes, meaning they’re all now a few weeks removed from their last in-person meeting.
In a semester not upended by a global pandemic, these students would be working on their art in group settings, with their peers and professors providing immediate feedback. It now runs more like a correspondence class.
In the drawing classes, for instance, students email photos of their creations to Zetzman, who then replies with his comments. He said after a few weeks, things are working out OK. One of the biggest challenges is not being able to help students adjust what they’re creating while they’re creating it—to help steer them as they go.
“The drawing students don’t get to see me draw while they are drawing and the ceramics students don’t get to see my clay work in a studio next to them, or live demonstrations,” he said. “… Also critiquing individually by email is fine, but it does not allow for spontaneous comments. My feedback is written and sent to them and I am best, after almost 37 years of teaching higher education, at improvising and reacting in a live group setting.”
Zetzman said in the traditional format, there would be assignments to complete in class and then special assignments for outside the studio. That, of course, is no more, since everything’s now done at home.
The show must go online
Another group forced to be flexible were the senior students who had been preparing for exhibitions in the gallery as a send-off celebration of sorts for all their work at UWO. Art professor Karina Cutler-Lake had a group of graphic design students planning to show off their work in an annual exhibition in Priebe Gallery. It’s a tradition that goes back more than 20 years and brings in students’ family and friends, alumni and potential employers.
“I always look forward to the reception because it gives me a chance to meet the parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents and significant others I’ve heard so much about during the years I’ve spent working with my graduating students,” Cutler-Lake said.
This year’s exhibition had been booked for the middle of May but will instead exist as a series of digital collections. Each student will put together a .pdf portfolio of up to a dozen pages featuring their best work, and they’ll all be viewable to the public through the UWO website.
“As with most professors across campus I am sure, I sorely miss seeing the students in person,” said assistant art professor Trina Smith, who is working with senior studio students on creating online presentations for work that otherwise would be showcased in the Priebe Gallery.
There’s disappointment, sure. But there’s also innovation. (There’s also possible consolation: If they want and are able to, this year’s seniors are invited to take part in the exhibition with the next round of seniors planned for the fall.)
Tatum Houlihan, a senior fine arts major from Stevens Point, is one of Cutler-Lake’s students who would’ve celebrated at the gallery show. The cancellation was a bummer, she said, both because the seniors worked so hard and it serves as a goodbye gathering for students.
“These are extenuating circumstances and I’m happy our professor went the extra mile to give us an alternative way to show our four years of hard work,” Houlihan said. “We put so much passion into what we do and I personally am very excited that I still get to share some of it.”
Still a bright future
While there’s plenty for students and educators to recreate in a digital space, there’s only so much human connection available through a laptop or smartphone screen. It’s a sentiment surely shared by educators far beyond the UWO campuses.
“I love my job so much it’s really sad to not be able to do it right now,” Walfish said. “My job keeps me incredibly busy and connected with artists but it feels like that is on hold right now.”
To help foster connections, extra attention has been given to the Facebook and Instagram accounts used within the art department. Both accounts—Allen Priebe Gallery on Facebook and @uwoshkosh.artgalleries on Instagram—are regularly sharing content to try to keep students involved and thinking about art. Some of the pieces that will be showcased in students’ online exhibitions will be shared with the public through those accounts.
The methods of communication are different. The classrooms are quiet and the gallery spaces may be empty. Nevertheless, Houlihan said she and her fellow student artists still have “the long nights, hundreds of sketches and hours of effort” they put into their senior projects—and all of those experiences will stay with them as they move on.
“We will carry that with us into our future,” she said, “and continue to make great work.”