Biggin Hall is near and dear to Bryony Talley. In addition to being the building where her art classes meet, it’s a retreat for her inspiration, a place usually buzzing with other Auburn artists.
When she visited on April 3, however, she found it unnaturally quiet. She wasn’t there to attend class or work alongside others in her major – she would be in and out in minutes to gather her supplies and return to her hometown in northeast Alabama.
“[The University] was only allowing one student in the building at a time,” Talley said, sophomore in studio art. “All the classrooms were locked and they’re normally not. Normally there’s people in every studio at all hours of the day.”
Because of the University’s recent move to remote instruction, classes have needed to quickly tailor their coursework to an online format, but it hasn’t been so cut and dry for more specialized programs like Talley’s. In the studio art program, she said students thrive off one another’s feedback and professors’ in-person guidance.
“Right now, I’m taking Advanced Drawing I and Painting II,” she said. “You’re in the studio with other students and the professor and they basically see your entire process. You’re able to interact with them all throughout class, and you’re able to bounce ideas off each other and get the work done in class.”
The online transition, however, has meant many courses have shifted to Zoom meetings and lectures shared over Canvas. These teaching methods can’t always capture the cooperative spirit of studio art, but they still allow opportunities for students to learn, said Barb Bondy, professor in the Department of Art and Art History.
“In the Zoom meetings, I can present projects and answer group questions,” Bondy said. “I am keeping in mind the AU workload and that students are likely stressed and possibly overwhelmed, as well as living in limited conditions, means and space.”
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The last point was a concern for both students and faculty alike in the department, with not all students sharing the same art supplies at home required for their assignments. Some students were unable to collect their materials as they were out of town for spring break when the University announced its suspension of on-campus instruction last month.
“One of the first things we did was take stock to see who had what in so far as materials are concerned,” Bondy said. “Drawing mediums now include charcoal, pencil, ballpoint pen or whatever is available. We also discussed in our first Zoom meeting how to join paper together to create a larger sheet, [which is] not uncommon in artmarking.”
To alleviate these worries, the Department of Art and Art History elected to allow students to revisit campus briefly between April 1 and April 8 to take their left-behind drawing pads and art utensils home, retrieve projects and return unneeded equipment. Nita Robertson, art administrative support associate, and Brian Cooley, tech staff member for the department, coordinated pick-up appointments for Biggin Hall and the 3D Arts Building respectively.
“Some students wanted to come get their things, and we thought before the end of the semester, while they’re still working on stuff, we give them an opportunity,” Robertson said.
Robertson and Cooley created a survey, which was shared with students in a department-wide email, where they could register for a five-minute visit to one of the facilities, which Robertson said the students greatly appreciated.
“It was well accepted, especially in the Fundamentals classes,” she said. “They wanted to draw on pads, and I was glad to offer that.”
Bondy teaches some of these Fundamentals courses, and because of the change in students’ creative environments from a studio to their homes, she has rewritten criteria for her assignments. Previously in her Drawing I class, she had students create still life drawings of the classroom setting, but now they will be making a single such piece of their own space.
“This still life will reflect the contemporary life of a student,” she said. “They will then photograph their still life so they can dismantle it afterward if they are living in a smaller space or need to use the objects they included in their still life. Students will work from the photograph to create a large-scale drawing.”
She had also intended to take classes to the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art to view an exhibition, after which they would write a descriptive analysis about one piece of art. Remote instruction has meant they will instead look at artwork online along with supporting information about artists to complete the exercise.
Bondy said her past experience as an Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project instructor helped her learn that there are no limitations in art. She remains optimistic that courses can function over distance, and she demonstrated to students how to use a flattened paper bag or take-out bag as a drawing substrate in the first week of online learning.
“Historically, during difficult times and situations artists have used innovation to find materials to continue making art when there is little to none available,” Bondy said. “[This] is definitely like teaching with one hand tied behind one’s back, but we can respond to these unprecedented obstacles as challenges that demand more creative thinking and innovation.”
But Auburn's art programs involve more mediums than drawing and painting – disciplines like ceramics and sculpture are more specialized and have been disrupted by the shift to online, Robertson said.
“They’re definitely teaching totally different,” Robertson said. “I’ve only had a handful of students who wanted to pick up things in the 3D Arts Building. Their stuff needs to be carefully put in a kiln, so they’re leaving their stuff until the fall so it can be prepared then.”
The coronavirus closure has not only had an effect on art classes, it has also halted the department’s events. Wendy DesChene and other art instructors will be facilitating an online exhibition to support B.F.A. students graduating this semester, according to Bondy. But other annual events will not be taking place much to the dismay of students like Talley, who usually looks forward to displaying her work.
“We had a juried exhibition that art students participate in most years, and that was canceled this year,” Talley said.
Despite this, Talley did remark that she was pleased with how her classes and the department overall have adjusted in such a short time span.
“The professors are being really helpful and really accommodating and just trying to make this as simple and as smooth a transition as possible,” she said. “I think they’ve done a really good job of that.”
As for Bondy, she says it’s all about continuing her students’ education and putting the finishing touches on this spring’s classes in the face of current circumstances.
“We have five large drawings to complete over the coming weeks along with other assignments,” Bondy said. “We’ll get it done and stay calm while we’re doing so.”
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