‘It’s still working’: Art class in the pandemic

This story was written by Olivia Owen, a student at Peoples Academy in Morrisville, for VTDigger’s new platform for student journalism, the Underground Workshop.

Inside the classroom, students’ art supplies and materials are scattered across entire tables: papers and pencils, boards and charcoal, paints and canvases. Students don’t have to worry about taking up too much space in the classroom anymore — with the new social distancing guidelines implemented at Peoples Academy, each fully-masked art student has their own table.

Emily Ward in art class at Peoples Academy in Morrisville. Photo by Olivia Owen

Mirandia Kuney, a senior in AP Art, created her project, “It’s About a Lot,” to express the struggles of adapting to life since the pandemic began.

The prompt for her project was given to her by art teacher Averill McDowell.

“Averill asked us, ‘What keeps you up at night?’” Mirandia recalled. “Nothing keeps you up at night more than your own thoughts. … When I get too overwhelmed and can’t think straight, I know that I can step aside, take my art out and channel that energy into my art.”

“It’s About A Lot” by Mirandia Kuney. Photo by Olivia Owen.

At Peoples Academy, students enter the school building two days out of the week and spend the remaining three days at home attending classes virtually. The time spent away from school has been challenging for many students, but in art class that freedom has allowed them to thrive.

For Mirandia, this newfound freedom has proved to be beneficial to her creative flow. “Because I had so much more time [at home], it kind of gave me an excuse to sit down and do it,” she said. “I had way more flexibility and time to complete my work, instead of ‘9 o’clock every day, this is when you’re doing it,’ now it doesn’t matter. Now I can do it at 2 a.m. if I want to.”

On the other hand, some students have found that more freedom in their schedules this year has deterred their work ethic and motivation.

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“The challenging parts have been doing the work at home,” said Cam Chertoff, another senior in AP Art. “It’s just difficult when it’s self-discipline as opposed to being in the art room everyday.”

The in-person school day for Cam and his classmates consists of two periods per day, each period lasting approximately three hours. Cam said that these longer periods in the hybrid system do not necessarily make up for the length of time spent outside of school. 

“It’s less time in the art room, so it’s made it more difficult to communicate,” he said. “The benefit to it is that you have the ability to do it in your own space.”

Peoples Academy Art teacher Averill McDowell working with student Morgan Van Blunk.
Photo by Olivia Owen

The physical environment is a critical factor for art students: it can determine how creative and honest the artist can get with their work.

“Art classes need materials and we need a space to do it,” said Ms. McDowell, the art teacher at Peoples Academy. “Without materials and without space, it’s really challenging.”

One student’s home work space. Photo courtesy of Peoples Academy’s AP Art Class

This year, Ms. McDowell has tried to find ways to connect her art students and see the positive side of the hybrid system. One project that all of her art classes are working on together is a mural on Peoples Academy’s greenhouse.

“The kids that are really interested in it keep coming back to paint it,” Ms. McDowell said. “I think that because we’ve been at home doing the same thing for months … kids just want to get out and try something different.”

The pandemic has provided much adversity for students, and schools are drastically different from what students left in March, but art class remains a liberating lifeline for students’ mental and emotional health. 

 “It’s still working,” Ms. McDowell said. “It’s still a good thing.”

Painting the greenhouse mural at Peoples Academy. Photo courtesy of Averill McDowell.

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