Online Art Classes Spark Creativity, Resourcefulness

Art classes have always been a place for students to get creative. But this spring, art has demanded an extra measure of creativity from students and teachers alike.
Teaching art online clearly presents some unique challenges. Students may not have the tools, materials, and space they need, and they likely don’t all have access to the same resources. Teachers have lost the ability to offer real-time feedback, the way they would in a physical classroom. And, at Rivers in particular, everyone regrets the loss of working in The Revers Center’s new state-of-the-art studios.

In spite of all that, though, teachers and students are producing works of art, both physical and digital, and finding in that process an outlet for some of the frustrations of the moment. Even beyond that, some are seeing a silver lining in rising to the challenges.

“It’s certainly a lot different from teaching in the studio,” says Jeremy Harrison, who is currently teaching advanced art and painting and intermediate digital photography. Harrison’s semester—his last at Rivers, after a 33-year career at the school—comes with an added twist: He and his wife traveled to Spain for spring break to visit their son Henry ’05 and meet their first grandchild, and have been unable to return. Stranded in Barcelona for the duration, Harrison has also had to work a six-hour time difference into his schedule.

“My style had always been sort of one-on-one, helping each student as they worked,” he continues. “That’s out the window.” Fortunately, he had told his students before break to bring home their sketchbooks. “A lot of them have materials at home,” notes Harrison. “A certain percentage are drawing and painting on an iPad, and others are using traditional materials. I’m allowing students to be a bit more broad in the materials they use.” Harrison himself has made increasing use of the Procreate app, available to all students, and has uncovered some of its hitherto unexplored potential. “I didn’t use to like working on an iPad, but now I’m really getting into it. Even though not all students are using the app, I’m showing the kids a lot of the work I’m making and the things I’m discovering.”

His classes have taken on something of a “flipped classroom” format: Students make their artwork outside of class and spend class time in a shared critique session led by Harrison. Student works are shared on Google drive, and during class Zoom sessions, Harrison can screen-share the work under discussion. “Everyone can see it, and the student and I have a conversation,” says Harrison. The critique is thus more public than it might be in person, which Harrison says doesn’t seem to bother the students. On the contrary, they learn and grow from seeing and analyzing one another’s work. Annabelle Hasselbeck ’20, one of Harrison’s current students, says, “During our online classes, we are still able to see each other’s work, which is super fun and also very inspirational when looking for new ideas.”

Harrison says that some students have embraced the opportunity to use new materials and techniques. “Some of them are experimenting more than usual—partly because they’re alone and have to do everything on their own, including choosing materials and using materials they’re not used to using.”

Hasselbeck concurs: “Something I never would have used if it weren’t for an online art class is virtual drawing apps. I never used to use my iPad for planning out drawings or even just doing sketches, but now it’s a part of my whole process.”

Technology tools can help with two-dimensional art, but what of 3D art? Art faculty member Nicole Winters says her biggest challenge this semester has been beginning ceramics class. “The materials are just not there,” she says. “But we’ve done a lot of creative substitutions. And I’ve been transforming the way I think about the class.”

She continues, “They may not be able to touch the clay, but they can learn about artists who’ve done impressive things with clay.” She introduced the students to the work of a ceramicist who creates “conversation cups” that reflect his time serving during the Vietnam War and are meant to spark conversation about that experience; the students were charged with creating their own conversation cups, sketching them out based on cups they found in the house and using the designs to spark conversation. The cups will be made from clay when it’s safe to return to the studio.

Typically, says Winters, students in the class learn slab-building—rolling out flat pieces of clay and using them to build pieces. Without access to clay, she says, “We did sculptures that used this technique, but instead we used paper or cardstock. They did all the steps they would normally do, just using a different material. The end result was some interesting things, being creative with different approaches.”

Winters says that, though the current situation has necessitated more screen time for all students in all subjects, she’s trying to capitalize on her subject’s offline potential. “I’m trying to make it less media driven and more a place where kids can step away from the screen and be creative any way they can,” she says.

Students appreciate that opportunity. In Winters’s classes, as in Harrison’s, students have the option to use digital tools, including one that allows them to design projects that can be printed on the 3D clay printer when campus reopens. “But oddly enough,” Winters says, “most students seem to prefer pencil and paper—tools that let them get away from the screen.”

Note: A virtual version of this year’s senior art exhibit will be made available in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for updates.