Encompassing a wide world of media and materials, there is an essential element in the work of all sculptors: space. Studying and working remotely presents a unique conundrum to the visual arts, specifically those exploring the made object at the intersection of form and space. Students and faculty in the BFA and MFA Sculpture programs in CFA’s School of Visual Arts (SVA) have met the remote learning challenge brought about by the COVID-19 crisis with innovative solutions.
In classes ranging from Foundation Sculpture to Ceramics to Welding, many of which require very specialized facilities found at Boston University, but not at students’ homes, classes have delved into theoretical public art proposals, narrative projects, and at-home adjustments. After some weeks of adjustments and pivoting in-progress projects, SVA faculty reflect on how their students have adapted to distance learning and what it means for the study of sculpture.
Bridging the material and theoretical
Senior lecturer in art Kitty Wales’ welding class is transferring the creative skills developed in the studio to the entrepreneurial and project management challenges of proposing, communicating, funding, and executing a large-scale, public sculptural commission.
Before social distancing, students were exploring narratives in the sculptural medium of steel. Now outside of the welding shop and on the Zoom platform, the class has shifted focus to researching, proposing, funding, and executing theoretical public sculptural commissions. A few weeks in to the assignment, and students have discovered sites near where they are isolating – in parks, parking areas, old railroad depots – and are sketching proposals for public art in those places. They will present scale models, proposals, and budget outlines to the class by the end of the semester.
According to Wales, students “have risen to the challenges and found solutions to continue a rigorous art practice directly relating to or actually producing sculpture.”
Seniors were in the midst of preparing for their thesis exhibitions, which involved ambitious projects in addition to a Thesis book of images, artist statements, and related narratives. Following the initial pang of no longer having a format to display the culmination of four years of work, they altered attention to expanding the focus of those Thesis books.
“The seniors in this new form of thesis are expanding on the internet as a tool for expression,” says Wales, “and a way to connect with each other as before, but more collaboratively. Research and explorations relating to the assignments have been more intensive and productive. Students are using the using the extra time they have in isolation to go more deeply and thoughtfully into gathering information and ideas before they start their projects.”
Associate Professor Gregory Gomez recognizes the limits presented by the variety of environments students have been thrust into, and aims to make the best of this creative challenge. As the inevitability of remote learning loomed earlier in the spring, Gomez and Wales mobilized to send students packages of materials consisting of different lengths and gauges of wire, rubber gloves, and needle nose pliers.
His students are studying drawn and photographic images from old entomology books to extrapolate a 3-D result from looking at 2-D sources (not unlike virtual hangouts on a flat screen reflecting the 3-D forms of friends on the other side). Students must also create nonobjective forms with the wire which reference some of the patterns and structures that they had developed within their first assignments. “Things shifted a lot,” says Gomez. “We’re used to solving systems and problems with our projects and presentations; but it’s a bigger challenge for students now because they’re thrust into an environment that may not facilitate that creative surroundings of being back in school.”
Ceramics in everyday life
Danielle Sauvé teaches ceramics to BU students whose majors range from visual arts and art eduction to health science and communications. Her students are taking this opportunity to explore the material culture of ceramics and respond to ceramics found in their lives.
While creating ceramics requires specialized facilities and materials, ceramic objects exist in surprising ways in home environments, so inspiration and sources are available for students, even if the traditional tools and materials aren’t. Student artists took inventory of all ceramic items they encountered in their home surroundings, and are building their own sketched and imagined “cabinets of curiosities,” filled with everything from tiles to mugs to lamps to toilets, around which they’re building narratives about their found objects. One of Sauvé’s ceramics students, Emily Yang (CAS’22), a biology major, is even working on a stop motion video project to present the process of her work.
“Process is something I push a lot to students. It’s not just final projects, but seeing how those ideas develop and being very present to that,” says Sauvé. This situation is an opportunity to show students how professional accomplished artists grapple with their ideas and constantly look for different avenues and solutions.
Building virtual spaces of togetherness
“The challenge of teaching Sculpture online seems formidable, but I have been awestruck by my students’ ability to adapt,” says David Snyder, Assistant Professor of Art and chair of the graduate sculpture program. “Significantly, their flexibility seems to speak to me of their understanding of Sculpture as a medium that is no longer defined by or limited to a chisel finding form from within a block of marble.” His students are exploring the boundaries of form, physical or otherwise, and the context of space – be it temporal, spatial, or geo-political.
Students are leaning on a strong foundation at the heart of the program: the wide-ranging conversation that they’ve been actively developing over the course of many semesters. “This conversation includes the faculty members, but it is largely driven by the deeply interconnected relationships that they have forged with one another. The work is driven by this sense of connectedness – it feeds off of critical dialogue and dissent, and currents of influence and response are legible throughout the students’ work.”
For the seniors, facing the abrupt dispersal of their class and separation from their intensive studio work was devastating. Snyder jumped at preserving their cohort through a new kind of togetherness. From there sprung up a virtual studio facility; a “space” to exist as a collaborative online sketchbook-installation-journal.
With mini grant from the School of Visual Arts, they launched this website built on the qualities of a Sculpture cohort which is invested in making things, engaging directly with materials, and unafraid to fail and make a mess. Spurred by the collaborative effort, senior, Devin Wilson (CFA’20), even pulled up the carpet in his bedroom, painted the walls white, and set up a call-for-submission for the inaugural show in his new gallery space (The Bedroom Contemporary Art Gallery).
The loss of studio space, access to materials, and technical support offered by SVA’s incredible staff could have set up insurmountable challenges for Sculpture students. But “the students have been able to rise to meet the particular challenge of this time with remarkable aplomb,” Snyder reflected, and in doing so have redefined the connections they forged on Comm Ave.