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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.”

Social justice

The pandemic is only one factor. Throughout the year, political upheaval and social justice causes, like Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement, have inspired student creativity.

Every year, ArtQuest has a unifying theme. This year it’s “Question, Disrupt, Create, Change.” Frost challenged her digital arts students to communicate using basic sign language words (a “sneaky way to get them to turn on their cameras,” she said), then use a word or phrase to design an illustration with hand drawings to communicate ideas like “change” or “create.”

Sophomore Ava Johnson spelled out “Beauty” with six hands of all colors. “I’m biracial,” she said, “so I really wanted to get that message across, that no matter what you look like, or who you are, you’re beautiful.”

In the same class, sophomore Stella Dinkins painted a scene with a person in a tree reading a book, in acrylic on brown paper. “It’s kind of my idea of peace in a sense,” she said. “It’s a calming idea to help ground myself in this mess.” It recently won this newspaper’s “Brighter Days” art contest.

Because of privacy and equity issues, students aren’t always required to turn on their cameras in Zoom sessions. But intermediate and advanced teacher Jereme Anglin finds it hard to teach theater without seeing students’ faces. “I just never even gave them the option to turn their cameras off,” he said, half joking. “Don’t tell them.”

By necessity, students are becoming more independent as distance learning wears on.

“I feel like the students are teaching themselves and each other more,” said Danielle Cain, beginning theater teacher. “I’ll put them in breakout groups and if we were in the classroom, I’d be able to see, ‘Oh, that actor is making the same physical choice they made last time,’ and I could walk over to them and ask them a question. But now, they’re figuring it out on their own. They’re directing themselves and each other, and I think that’s fantastic.”

ArtQuest’s future

Now, in its 27th year, the ArtQuest program faced a crossroads in the middle of the pandemic when longtime director Jan Sofie retired in June at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

“We were all really nervous about the future of ArtQuest,” Sappington said. “Politics as they are, everybody is always fighting for funding. And ArtQuest is an art program, and that’s always the first thing to get cut.”

Anglin has witnessed cuts to classes and funding during his five-year tenure, including a theater production class. “Every year, we’re told by the district, ‘Don’t worry, we’re just cutting it this year; hopefully we can get it back next year,’” he said. “I’ve never seen anything given back, only taken away.”

After Sofie retired, the staff pulled together and Woods and music teacher Kira Bombace took on the role of co-directing the program. Fighting for the arts is nothing new for the program. In 1998, the county board of education was considering limiting arts electives in favor of tougher graduation requirements. At a meeting to discuss proposed changes, senior ArtQuest student Gabriel Kahane stood up to say, “We want students in the future to have the opportunities we have.”

Kahane would go on to record a handful of highly original and acclaimed albums, several named “best of the year” by Rolling Stone magazine, and play sold-out shows all over the country. Other notable ArtQuest alumni include Gabi Moskowitz, creator of the popular BrokeAss Gourmet blog; guitarist and composer Ethan Sherman, who recently played a concert with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline; touring Barnum & Bailey clown LaRena Iocco and hacker and free speech advocate Jacob Appelbaum, who became somewhat famous a decade ago as the only American member of WikiLeaks.

Now, attracting that next wave of artists during a pandemic is proving a challenge, Woods said. Parents and interested middle school students would typically sit in on ArtQuest classes to learn more about the program. But this year, it’s a Zoom experience, which is less than ideal. Registration for the program is now open on the website at artquestonline.org.

On the bright side, “with our new applicants, we have a huge wave of digital art students like we’ve never seen before,” Woods said. “I think students who have predominantly been overstimulated by everything going on in their life and around them now have the ability to hone in on their artistic pursuits, especially on their computers, while they’re stuck at home.”

If the pandemic is still around when they start ArtQuest next fall, it won’t take them long to learn something special about their digital arts teacher, Frost. She occasionally likes to abandon the art of creation for the simple art of making a connection; just to make the kids laugh, if only for a moment. One day, Frost “Rick Rolled” her class, which meant when they returned from breakout groups to the main session, there she was singing and dancing to Rick Astley’s ’80s hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

“You should have seen their faces,” Frost said. “They hated it, but they loved it at the same time. Even one of the quietest students, who doesn’t turn her camera on and never comments, wrote in the chat: “Thank you for Rick Rolling us, Ms. Frost.”

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