ArtQuest students, teachers move creativity online
Imagine teaching high school dance online during a pandemic, five days a week for the foreseeable future.
You’d quickly learn how and when to angle the camera so students can focus on your feet. You face a mirror, so students can see your front and back movements.
“But then the kids will ask, ‘Can you turn around? We can’t tell if that’s your left foot or your right foot,’” said ArtQuest co-director and dance teacher Nzinga Woods. “It can be very challenging.”
Across the country, students are struggling to adapt to distance learning at home. Math or literature might translate to online instruction more easily than chemistry experiments in the bedroom. But at ArtQuest, the award-winning Santa Rosa High School arts magnet program, students and teachers are grappling with how to stimulate creativity in a Zoom gallery of online faces — and those are just the ones who choose to turn their cameras on.
What was once interactive and spontaneous is now many steps removed. Theater students who would typically volley dialogue back and forth to provoke and react to each other are now plagued by time delays over Zoom.
“We kind of lost all of the magic,” said theater student Madelaine Williams. “We were told, ‘Oh, you’ll be together for four years and you’ll all get to learn and grow with each other and you’ll create this community where you get to create art together.’ And now we’re all sitting in our bedrooms, alone, rehearsing a monologue and sending it to each other.”
To help bridge that gulf, Artquest digital arts teacher Lauren Frost focuses on “connection over content,” she said. “So while I may be frustrated that we’re not where we normally would be in November, at the same time, am I connecting with my students? That’s the thing that’s going to bring them back and have the most profound effect.”
Despite the challenges, this unfamiliar time is a rare opportunity for student artists to create something from nothing in a strange, new world, whether through theater, dance, digital art, photography, video, visual art or music. Just as Picasso didn’t paint “Guernica” in a vacuum, artists have always reflected the world around them. What students learn now, in a time of anxiety, fear, isolation and loneliness, could shape their art for years down the road.
Reflecting the times
In photography teacher John Sappington’s year two class, Mia Pedersen created a self-portrait blending two images, one of her smiling back at the camera, the other reaching out to herself in the mirror in desperation, as if yearning for human contact. Inspired by the “Stranger Things” TV series, she “wanted it to show ‘the other side,’” she wrote in her artist statement. “On the other side it’s lonely and cold. You’re trapped in a place where your only company is yourself.”
Others seemed more optimistic: Sophia Kamariotis’ self portrait shows her out of focus and peering at a flame. “In this case, the flame represents the hope we all have for the year to get better,” she wrote in her artist statement. Harrison Cole took a photo of himself standing alone in slippers in his front yard, gazing at a smoky horizon during the wildfires. “Even with the disasters of 2020 there will always be something beautiful in the world, maybe closer than you think,” he wrote.
A 17-year ArtQuest veteran, Sappington is constantly surprised by student output this year. “It’s pretty amazing to see how resilient the kids are and how quickly they adapt,” he said. He’s assigned other projects asking students to document their family lives and capture interaction with their pets.
In video teacher Stephan Perez’s class, filmmaker Dylan Mooney made an eerie 35-minute sci-fi film called “Borrow” that follows an unnamed operative who breaks into a house and splits himself in two trying to solve a mysterious pulse that haunts the house.
“I wanted the film to feel very isolated, with this guy all alone, on both sides of the house. It’s just him,” Mooney said. During the pandemic, “with everyone having to stay in their homes all the time now, it made me think I could kind of go down that rabbit hole.”
The assignment was to make a silent film and convey a story without any dialogue. Another filmmaker in the class made a silent film where the main character is pursued by an ominous masked figure who is later revealed to be himself.
“I’ve been surprised how avant-garde some of these films have been,” Perez said. “They’re free to experiment and throw anything they want on the screen and see if it means anything. They’re trying to make something out of this situation.”