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Visual and Dramatic Arts at Rice goes hybrid this semester

Courtesy Stephany Marchany

By Skye Fredericks     9/15/20 7:26pm

From filmmaking to sculpture, faculty and students in the visual and dramatic arts department are discovering what it means to create art when COVID-19 restrictions include room capacity limits and social distancing measures throughout campus. For those who are engaging remotely this semester, finding space to work on art at home can be a challenge. 

Meghana Nadella, a junior at Brown College, is double majoring in Kinesiology and VADA with a concentration in studio art. While she has the option to come on campus for certain workshops, she participates in the majority of coursework from her house off campus. 

When classes went virtual last semester, Nadella recalled having to adjust to the new format of her beginning drawing class. From big easels in the drawing studio to a small sketchbook in her bedroom, the scale of her drawings changed drastically alongside course delivery. Coming into the class with just middle school art experience, Nadella had to focus immensely on her craft without the guidance she was used to.

“We take these beginning classes to really develop our techniques, and when the professor is not directly behind you, telling you how to modify your drawings, that becomes a lot more difficult,” Nadella said.

Additionally, outdoor live model sessions, where students are invited to come and draw an actual person from observation, are optional, with social distancing, capacity limitations and mask requirements as opposed to in a contained drawing studio. The professor also provides critique to students by using a laser pointer, according to Nadella. Though it is significantly different than a class in a typical semester, Nadella said she feels that everyone is still able to get a quality education in the arts regardless of their ability to come to campus. Since everything is being made more accessible, she can focus on her craft completely from home.

“I don't think I have any advantage of being in Houston as opposed to anyone else ... in the course, which is really nice,” Nadella said.

Natasha Bowdoin, an associate professor of visual and dramatic arts, is teaching two sections of beginning painting this semester. According to Bowdoin, Zoom instruction has had both its ups and downs, but there have been some unexpected benefits. She remarked that the intimacy has been surprising and that with individual cameras comes a great deal of visual detail that’s hard to see when walking around a studio.

“If they're working on a painting, they have their painting in the camera view … you can actually see people work up close in a way that you wouldn't in a classroom,” Bowdoin said. “And it's not a perfect substitution in any way, but it does offer some things that would be hard to do in person.”

Christina Keefe, the director of undergraduate studies for VADA’s theatre concentration, is proceeding with her courses in person. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, group singing has been categorized as a superspreading event, meaning the COVID-19 virus could potentially be highly transmissible. Keefe said she has had to find alternatives to the musical that her theatre production class would usually be working on.

Over the summer, Keefe said she decided on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” as a production for her students this semester. 

“It is a play of high style, which lends itself to physical distance,”  Keefe said. “The speech style calls for more melodic speaking, which helps with intelligibility even though sound is muffled by a mask.”

Bowdoin said that this distance learning extends beyond the scope of creating art. Now, she can take her students to a museum in Amsterdam or an artists’ space in Australia. To her, access to technology has meant access to more learning opportunities.

“Art is super important and critical in the times that we're living in,” Bowdoin said. “Some people kind of underestimate the purpose art can serve and the way that art can instigate change and … given the time that we're living in it's critical that people have a voice, it's critical that people are able to express that voice in loud and convincing ways.”

Nadella said she is impressed with the safety measures Rice has taken against COVID-19. VADA’s accessibility to students, regardless of their ability to come to campus this fall, has been notable to her as well.

“I think it's just hard times,” Nadella said. “I'm glad to have a department that's understanding and willing to adapt to change.”

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