‘Art whenever they want’ for remote-learning students

Frank Neufeld // Western Communications

Visual Arts professor Tricia Johnson uploaded videos of herself sketching as part of her pivot to online teaching.

Except for the edge of her tortoise-shell glasses, you can’t see much of Tricia Johnson’s face during her first video for her online art class.

You’re looking over her shoulder, watching her hand flutter across the sketchpad as she pencils in the contours of an unmade bed.

“So, I’ve worked more on my pillow and blanket,” she begins, her voice soothing, as the forms take shape under her hand. Her voice trails off, as though she’s lost in her own creation, before she speaks again. “I must say I did a lot of work back here,” she says lightly. “OK, we’ll see you again.”

The lesson is one of 19 art-making videos Johnson has prepared for the first time this year as she joins hundreds of Western instructors who are making a pivot to online courses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When she learned in May that she would have to teach Foundational Visual Arts course online, her reaction was immediate.

“It was ‘yikes,’” said Johnson, who has been teaching the introductory arts course for 24 years.

But after spending the summer recording herself making the art she will assign to her students, she said the process has grown on her.

“Sometimes I think I’m giving them so much information in the videos, they might actually learn more,” she said. “When I’m making my videos, I’m talking about what I’m doing in the moment it’s happening. I’m showing them the work.

“In the lecture, I always feel a little bit disconnected because I’m telling them things I did earlier.”

She is happy with the videos and likes the idea that students will be able to access them again to refresh their memories on lessons and techniques if necessary.

Tricia Johnson in an art studio

Frank Neufeld // Western CommunicationsVisual Arts professor Tricia Johnson uploaded videos of herself sketching as part of her pivot to online teaching.

Traditionally, students attended Johnson’s lecture on Mondays, then did their assignments – drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture – during a three-hour lab period at scheduled times throughout the week.

This year, each of the 240 students – 25 more than usual – will have to decide on the best time and place to complete the weekly assignments.

“A really strong benefit (to going online) for them is they will be able to make art whenever they want to,” said Johnson.

Former student Jennifer Guo who took Johnson’s course last year said she could see “pros and cons,” to remote art class. “It’s definitely doable. You don’t have to carry drawing boards around the campus,” she said, “But I do enjoy the studio in-person experience. Sometimes other people’s work inspires me.”

Guo recommended students take Johnson up on any opportunities to seek feedback via email or discussion forum.

Johnson, recognizes potential drawbacks to online art learning and has been working on strategies to mitigate them.

“You are losing the chance to learn from other students, to see what that person beside you is doing. That can be hugely inspirational and educational,” said Johnson. She also laments the loss of “dedicated space” this year. “That’s what students really like about the course. The studio is the creative space and their brains say, ‘here’s my art-making time’ and they really focus on what they’re doing in there.”

To compensate for the lack of a physical art space, Johnson will ask her students to set aside a time each week to “think about art.” She has created a voice-thread on her class website asking students to contribute their work and works-in-progress and talk to one another about them.

She has also altered several of her usual assignments to help students be successful.

“I’m really into drawing from observation because it teaches you so much more,” she said. So she made the assignments revolve around objects that could be observed from almost anywhere.

sketch of hands

One visual arts assignment will be to ask students. to sketch their hands, as visual arts professor Tricia Johnson has done here. (Artwork by Tricia Johnson)

For example, rather than bringing in a nude model for the human body assignment – “there was no way I could think about doing that in an online course without it being really strange for everyone involved” – students will learn to draw their own hands and feet.

Instead of sketching a pile of leaf bags in the studio lab, they will draw a crumpled piece of paper wherever they are.

The messy bed exercise from the video replaces one using white ceramics to practice “additive and subtractive” drawing.

And for a mask-building project that typically requires bamboo sticks, students will use toothpicks instead.

Without scheduled lab times, they will have to be more disciplined about managing their time, so one thing that won’t change is the weekly submission deadline of every Sunday night at 11:59 p.m.

Like many instructors who are making the pivot, Johnson has been also been learning how to teach remote learners better.

That’s why her face is not in the video, for example. “Students just learn better when they can focus on the materials,” she said. “They are just looking at what I’m doing, rather than me being part of it.”

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