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Art departments persist despite challenges of remote learning

March 27, 2020

As two of the departments most dramatically affected by the transition to remote learning, the Department of Theater and Dance and the Department of Visual Arts have had to substantially restructure courses previously dependent on live performance and in-person collaboration.

The faculty, however, remain hopeful.

“While it’s sad, and we truly miss the students, it’s also an exciting challenge,” Chair of Department of Theater and Dance Abigail Killeen wrote in an email to the Orient. “Theater and Dance were made for these times—each discipline has, historically, brought people together in crisis. It’s a fun challenge to figure out how to do that despite physical distance.”

Immediately after the College officially announced its transition to remote learning, theater and dance faculty met to discuss creative solutions to keep students engaged. Though the task presented significant challenges, together they designed adapted syllabi for the remainder of the semester, explained Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater Sally Wood.

“It’s really phenomenal watching creative people work. Once we get done mourning for the fact that it can’t be the way that we all wanted it to be in our brains, then something happens with artists,” said Wood in an interview via Microsoft Teams. “People have been losing their minds in terms of figuring this out and then turning around and sharing it with the world.”

Many theater classes will turn to online video platforms to workshop monologues and other performance pieces.

“[The theater department is] a blend of theory and practice, and practice is difficult when we can’t be together in the same room,” wrote Killeen.

Dance courses plan to continue coursework by having students make and record their own dances at home, explained Senior Lecturer in Dance Performance Gwyneth Jones.

“They will remember the work they’ve already done in the dance studio and hopefully see it change into a new form,” Jones wrote in an email to the Orient. “They will [also] experiment with creating dance for film,” she added.

The visual art department will similarly have to adapt. In place of face-to-face interaction, Carrie Scanga, Chair of the Department of Art and Director of Visual Arts Division, plans to incorporate virtual studio visits with professional artists into courses this semester and to have her students exchange letters and art with students at other small liberal arts colleges.

“I am also considering having optional live open studio sessions in which I’ll be working in my studio on Sundays with Zoom set up and any students who want to can drop in and work together with me,” Scanga wrote in an email to the Orient.

Scanga also noted that losing access to equipment such as printing presses and facilities such as the darkroom, wood shop and the gallery spaces in the Edwards Center for Art and Dance will impact the kind of work that students will be able to produce.

“We have shifted the materials and scope of art assignments, redirecting toward simpler methods that can be conducted on a kitchen table at home,” wrote Scanga.

One of the most significant challenges faced by faculty across art departments is the need to re-imagine the presentation of senior honors and capstone projects designed to reflect the culmination of a student’s work in the arts at Bowdoin.

“Currently we are discussing the possibility of a virtual exhibition that would be mounted on a website,” wrote senior studio course instructor and Associate Professor of Art James Mullen in an email to the Orient. “Students are very interested and I am going to reach out to IT for suggestions about options.”

Killeen, Jones and other faculty will be meeting with senior studio students in theater and dance in the coming days to discuss options for dealing with the immense challenge of presenting theater pieces remotely.

“I’m realizing right now that I’m so grateful for what I’ve chosen to study at Bowdoin precisely because it doesn’t translate to remote learning. It doesn’t work,” said theater major Tori Clarke ’20 in an interview over video call. “The connection of being with other people in a studio and getting into the nitty-gritty of a piece of theatre can’t be replicated over Zoom. That is the beauty of what we do at Bowdoin, and it means that I don’t have to find a silver lining—this is just a great loss.”

Clarke, however, also expressed great appreciation for the efforts of the department faculty for making the best of such a difficult situation and for encouraging collaboration among students.

Faculty members likewise noted their gratitude for the meaningful creative work that they do and the connections they have forged with students during this time.

“I do think that art courses offer unique opportunities for meditative handicraft, stillness, and creative or emotional engagement that could be an important outlet during this time for our students,” wrote Scanga. “I will try to be a role model by cultivating that practice in my home studio, and then offering them a window into my life and art.”

Other faculty members expressed similar wishes for the power of art courses.

“It’s like we’re all standing on the same tightrope. I can’t even imagine what will grow out of this,” said Wood. “But rest assured that the artists’ community will find some way to just make this thing explode in a really great way.”


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One comment:

  1. Sabrina says:

    So proud of the art department faculty, staff and students for their continuing efforts to channel creativity in a time of hardship.

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