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OU amid coronavirus: Art students adapt to challenges of online classes, find alternative ways to practice crafts

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Fred Jones Jr. Art Center

The Fred Jones Jr. Art Center on March 31.

Before the pandemic hit, Kimberly Ma was excited about the final project in her ceramics class: a teapot and teacup set for a Chinese wedding tea ceremony. The studio art junior had planned the project down to the color she would dye her clay and the dragon and phoenix designs she would add to the teapot. 

But her project was canceled along with others’, as arts students are locked out of the studios and spaces they would normally use to create, dance and perform. 

The challenge of adapting to online classes has required an extra dose of creativity from students and faculty in the College of Fine Arts. The college is letting each professor switch their classes to an online setting as they see fit, leaving a lot of flexibility for what each class should look like. For visual arts students, online classes might mean writing essays about pottery rather than making any, while for ballet students, dancing at home in socks instead of pointe shoes is the new normal.

“Everything that we're doing right now is experimental,” said professor Jonathan Shames, who directs orchestral studies and opera theater at OU.

Shames had a unique challenge in transferring his 70-person orchestra class to an online environment.

“(The orchestra and the opera) both depend upon putting a lot of people together into one room,” Shames said. “So it's kind of impossible for us to do our regular schedule ... the challenge is ... to discover things for us to do right now.”

Since orchestra members are scattered across different states and only accessible by Zoom, Shames is having his students record themselves practicing excerpts of music and then giving them feedback individually, he said.

For Freya Downey, a viola performance senior who is in the orchestra, this personalized feedback is an upside of online learning — and her friends agree, she said.

“Honestly, I think that I'm learning the music for orchestra a little bit better than I would be otherwise,” Downey said.

Shames said he is also excited about the opportunity to get to know each of his students personally.

“I start every semester with the ambition of getting to know every player individually, and I do my best, but I really can't,” Shames said. “And, well, I think this is an opportunity to be able to do that maybe a little bit better.”

While music majors may have their instruments with them at home, other students in the College of Fine Arts rely on access to specialized studios and expensive equipment to hone their crafts, making the online class format particularly challenging.

Ma said she used to spend almost every day in the ceramics studio, even when she didn’t have class.

“I feel like the environment of the studio really helped boost my motivation for creating ... but I just feel like now I'm just not really motivated to do a lot, which is very sad,” Ma said.

The art studio is also equipped with pottery wheels, slab rollers to flatten clay and kilns to fire finished ceramics. Ma said these tools are too expensive for her to buy on her own — new wheels run from $700 to $1,000, for example. Because she doesn’t have the right equipment, she has ended up scrapping most of the ceramics projects she attempts at home, she said. 

Elena Damiani, a ballet performance senior, is also making do as best she can without a studio to practice in.

“I am currently using my kitchen counter as my bar to hold on to,” said Damiani, who has been taking her ballet classes in socks in her home.

Damiani’s dance instructors are teaching classes through a combination of Instagram Live and Zoom. While she is still able to follow along at home, she is concerned about losing strength and not being able to do all the moves she normally could, she said.

“It's really hard to do like jumping or big movements just because of the space, and because I have downstairs neighbors that probably would be like, ‘Why is the ceiling shaking?’” Damiani said.

But Damiani said the ballet community has rallied, and dancers are offering many tutorials online through social media. The main Instagram account Damiani follows, Dancing Alone Together, offers pilates, yoga and conditioning tutorials in addition to dance classes.

Teachers and dancers from famous ballet companies are also giving online classes, which is a rare opportunity, Damiani said.

“These dancers who are super famous ... are also having to take class in their kitchen,” Damiani said. “So it's kind of nice to see and relate to them and know that they're in the same situation that you are.”

Damiani knows the ability to stay strong outside of a studio setting will help her in her professional career, since ballet dancers go through periods between dance company seasons called “layoffs,” she said.

To halt the spread of coronavirus, dance performance capstones, operas and plays by the School of Drama have all been canceled by the College of Fine Arts for the remainder of the semester, according to the college’s website. Contemporary Dance Oklahoma is among the canceled performances, and Damiani said she can’t imagine what modern dance seniors are going through.

“Especially for our seniors ... I can’t imagine knowing that the last time they performed on that stage, they didn't think it was going to be their last time performing,” Damiani said.

Downey’s senior recital is another one of the many canceled performances. 

“I've been planning my repertoire for my senior recital since I was a freshman (and) ... it was kind of ripped out from under our feet,” Downey said.

But amid this depressing news, art students are finding ways to stay positive. 

Damiani said the current situation is creating different opportunities for her to stay healthy and keep working on her art form. Ma’s new class format requires her to write essays about ceramics, which she said she enjoys. Learning about the history of her craft will help her work toward her future goal of getting her master’s in ceramics and eventually becoming a professor, she said.

“I'm trying to be very optimistic about it as much as I can,” Ma said.

Molly Kruse is a journalism senior and assistant culture editor at the Daily. She previously worked as culture reporter, copyeditor and social media coordinator.

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