'Zoom' Ensembles And Building Forts: Overcoming Obstacles To Express Your Art In A Pandemic

Apr 10, 2020

Have you seen visualizations of what the COVID-19 virus looks like under a microscope? It looks like a small sphere with little spikes coming off it.

Now picture those tendrils as human fingers clawing out of the center of the sphere. With universities across the state canceling in-person classes, Veronica Storc can't go into campus art studios for the rest of her senior year at Northern Illinois University. She made that sculpture in her apartment, illustrating how the virus and social distancing have changed our lives.

“In my head, I’m thinking about just how it changes the role of touch within a culture and kind of how that becomes kind of almost a more fearful thing,” she said.

Being stuck at home also means she doesn’t have many art supplies or power tools.

“It's almost kind of gives me a kick to do some of those things that maybe in the back of my head, I've been like ‘I should do’ or ‘I want to do,’” said Storc.

The fine arts major with a sculpture focus even stuck her hands in the mud outside to craft a human figure.

In the performing arts, the challenge is different.

There’s no replacing the immediacy of live theatre. And there’s no replacing a live concert or recital.

But Alex Gelman says it’s worth remembering that art’s greatest enemy can be a lack of limitations. He’s the head of NIU’s School of Theatre & Dance.

“We're just dealing with a whole new set of strictures, but we teach how to deal with strictures and how to employ them in art-making,” said Gelman. “And now we get to lead by example.”

Mud sculpture by Veronica Storc.
Credit Veronica Storc

That’s forcing acting students, in the spirit of improv, to say “Yes, and” to their circumstances and adjust the performance accordingly -- even with Shakespeare.

“They reached the conclusion that the ‘To be or not to be’ is being done on Instagram Live. And it is towards the end of the scene that Hamlet realizes that Ophelia has been eavesdropping by seeing her on the screen,” he said.

Actors and musicians are performing with each other from miles apart -- with no audience present. Musicians are recording themselves or trying small Zoom ensembles.

Andrew Glendening is the director of the School of Music. He says they’re trying to work through challenges with students, instruments and locations.

“In some cases, landlords are being really good about, you know, 'Let's keep it during the business hours and talk to your neighbors.' And in other cases, we're trying to get students equipped with practice mutes,” said Glendening.

Students may have to practice the trombone outside. Some musicians find themselves locked out of concert halls where they’d been working a year on competition recordings. Others don’t even have their instruments, and the school is racing to ship the equipment.

But it hasn’t stopped students and faculty from making music. Just listen to NIU Jazz professor Reggie Thomas and his coronavirus-inspired song.

Glendening says they’re also thinking about younger musicians, and they’ll be working on projects helping students in the community boost their skills while they’re stuck at home.

Other artists, like sculptors, depend on an audience too. At the end of your fine arts degree, there are important public art exhibitions to show off your work.

Douglas Boughton is the director of the NIU school of art and design.

“People come and the kids, particularly the Masters' students, often get opportunities for job offers because of the show. And, of course, we're not having a show now,” said Boughton.

Butterfly Sculpture by Veronica Storc.
Credit Veronica Storc

The art shows are moving online now. And he says art education students are doing practicums and student teaching online as well.

Boughton says even art programs like metal and jewelry design are adapting because most of their work is done via digital software these days.

One of Veronica Storc’s sculpture professors is Michael Rea.

His students are sharing and commenting on each others’ work through Instagram and they’re still writing essays like they normally would. They also got to build forts in their homes for the first assignment.

“I think just everybody handling their own and, you know, if we can kind of build stuff that keeps people in their houses safe and mentally occupied, that's fantastic,” said Rea.

But art has many functions during uncertain and trying times like a pandemic. That’s something Storc has been thinking about.

“Some people are spreading information, some people are making masks. Other people are kind of documenting the time or creating distractions,” said Storc. “There are so many ways to go about it. I think it definitely inspires people in a lot of different ways.”

There remain challenges to learning and creating art from a distance. But these students and faculty got into the arts because of their creativity -- and that creativity is helping them overcome those online obstacles.