Facing moments of fear, uncertainty, and—quite frankly—boredom throughout this pandemic, most of us have, at some point, turned to art to survive. But how have the arts been surviving? It’s a complex question, and I turned to faculty and students of the Sarofim School of Fine Arts for insight into how their programs have adjusted to keep exploring and creating art in these trying times.

A piano private lesson during COVID-19.A piano private lesson during COVID-19.Making music in a masked world

The Music Department quickly realized that singing and playing aerosolized instruments in groups would need to be restricted because those activities posed a higher risk of spreading the virus, so faculty reconceived how students could fulfill their necessary performance experience. Musicales moved to the virtual performance hall via public Zoom meetings, and members of the orchestra and wind ensemble worked individually or in small sections and submitted video recordings to director Lois Ferrari for remote review and critique. Conducting from a distance was a challenge for Ferrari, but a silver lining was the unique chance to see her students perform on their own. “Now that I’ve heard them all individually, which I don’t usually get to do, I can appreciate how much they have improved,” she shares. 

Some ensembles used a little editing magic to fabricate performances together. Flute instructor Adrienne Inglis learned how to sync her students’ individual video recordings into group compositions, and the Southwestern University (SU) Singers completed small group projects in which members coordinated on songs of their choice and compiled their separate parts into virtual a cappella arrangements. Biology major Natasha Ndele ’24, who joined the choir remotely from Kenya, was excited to participate from thousands of miles away. “I had never sung a cappella before, but I enjoyed the assignment because I was able to sing songs of different genres and create projects that not only showed my background and culture but my personality as well,” she shares. Both the SU Singers and the flute ensemble premiered virtual recitals on YouTube at the end of the semester. 

Perhaps the most innovative shift in the music program was a redirection of the choirs from singing to playing handbells together. Beth Everett, visiting assistant professor of music and director of choirs, was struck with the idea after seeing a friend’s post on Facebook about handchimes, and “it was like this huge lightbulb came on.” She worked with the university to procure two sets of handbells, and each student was assigned two bell notes for the entire semester. Everett taught both choirs how to play from scratch, a task she had never before taken on. Although it was a challenge, she was happy to take on the extra work. “I was completely motivated by the fact that this was something we could do together safely and still make music,” she says.

The new practice has pushed the choirs to sharpen their music reading skills, and Everett is excited to see the benefits they will reap when they can sing as a group again. “Our students are amazing, and I knew they would be open to trying something new, or else I would not have done it,” she remarks. “But I think I had a bit of a pleasant surprise at just how much they seemed to enjoy it.” In December, the Chorale performed a handbell concert in the Lois Perkins Chapel for SU’s beloved Candlelight ceremony, which was streamed on YouTube to positive feedback from the campus and beyond. 

Rethinking live theatre

The Theatre Department also introduced clever adaptations that provided students with opportunities to develop new skills. Costume Design students learned how to digitally render on university-provided iPads, and the Devising Theatre class explored digital performance and technologies as preliminary work toward a larger grant-funded project that culminates in a production they will take to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (the largest arts festival in the world) in 2022. Associate Professor of Theatre Sergio Costola predicts that virtual theatre is a new form that will outlive the pandemic, and the goal of SU theatre faculty is to train students in new technologies so that “by the time they graduate, they are ahead of the game.”

A socially distanced outdoor theatre performance.A socially distanced outdoor theatre performance.The department’s major undertaking was pulling off a socially distanced production that the campus community could physically attend. It required the construction of a brand new outdoor stage, careful consideration for health and safety protocols in every element of the preparation process, and the selection of a play that could accommodate costume and scenery limitations as well as contactless acting. They landed on the play Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins—a modern adaptation of the 15th-century morality play Everyman—and planned to incorporate projections and recorded performances to limit in-person interaction. Rudy Ramirez, associate artistic director of the Vortex Theatre and the founding artistic director of Avante Theatre Project in Austin, was brought in to direct

“One thing that the pandemic did for the Theatre Department was it brought people together because it required a village to really make this happen,” says Desi Roybal, chair and professor of theatre. As the stage was built by an outside contractor in order to eliminate tool sharing, Ramirez coordinated with the Athletics Department to plan nightly rehearsals on the track and field around football practices. Cast members learned how to do their own fittings and cared for and commuted with their costumes to and from performances, and the crew methodically sanitized equipment after each show. The sound crew puzzled through buffering audio in a wide-open field next to a highway, the lighting techs adapted with late autumn’s dwindling daylight, and everyone had to proactively plan around inclement weather that could push the production back days. Despite the unpredictable obstacles of working outdoors, Everybody came together successfully.

The department has ideas for improving the process with their spring production, but they are proud to have created a safe and fun live experience under unprecedented circumstances. Says cast member Adam Kral ’24, We took it as a gift to both ourselves and our community that we were finally able to bring theatre back to a world that needed something that was enjoyable but wasn’t on a screen, because that’s what we’ve all been stuck looking at for the past few months.”

Approaching art in alternative spaces

Faculty in the Art History Department worked extensively throughout the summer to thoughtfully design engaging remote classes, and the Studio Art Department strategized how to make projects more transportable between the studios and students’ dorms or else translatable for those attending remotely. Abiding by the one-hour health and safety time restrictions for being in a classroom, typical two-and-a-half-hour art courses were divided into fully virtual segments followed by in-studio segments. Technical assistants helped to broadcast remote professors into the studio spaces using projectors. First-year art student Grace Biltz ’24 greatly appreciated the hybrid class format. “It allowed you to be in the comfort of your room while also allowing you to have that valuable in-person experience and enjoy other people’s company,” she says.

Assistant Professor of Art Ron Geibel's beginner Wheel-Forming course was adapted into Vessel Con...Assistant Professor of Art Ron Geibel's beginner Wheel-Forming course was adapted into Vessel Concepts, focused on forming containers such as vases, bowls, and cups and saucers through various methods.

Courses such as drawing and painting were somewhat easier to transition to remote settings, but ceramics classes had to be completely redesigned for at-home projects. Because remote students could not simply pack up and take home an entire throwing wheel, Assistant Professor of Art Ron Geibel’s beginner Wheel-Forming course was adapted into Vessel Concepts, focused on forming containers such as vases, bowls, and cups and saucers through various methods. Because of health and safety concerns around using clay outside the studio, remote students practiced crafting with alternative materials, including papier-mâché, cardboard, watercolor paper, and wheat paste.

Chair and Professor of Art Victoria Star Varner believes that this generation of students will be viewed by future artists as the fortunate ones who had front-row seats to the convergence of three global changes: a pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the 2020 presidential election.  “Such disruptions feed art,” she explains, “and our current students will be the artists who will shape the post-COVID world.” Varner shifted the conceptual focus of her advanced courses to give students a space to process the unique experience artistically. Studio art Sarah Friday's Doomscroll, a living documentation of their daily existence during the pandemi...Sarah Friday's Doomscroll, a living documentation of their daily existence during the pandemic. major Sarah Friday ’20, for example, who prefers they/them/their as their pronouns, embraced this approach in their capstone project, Doomscroll, a living documentation of their daily existence during the pandemic. Their titular piece was a “livestream” scroll of circuit-board shapes drawn daily on a 261-inch-long roll of paper, the circuits coded in colors that represent emotions they experienced while digesting digital content and significant personal or global events. Doomscroll, along with other senior exhibits and the annual student art exhibition, can be viewed on the Studio Art Department’s web page.

Beyond class, the art departments found ways to create community with their students from afar. In lieu of dinner parties hosted at her home, Varner shared a recipe that promotes eye health with her class and hosted a virtual dinner in which they cooked and ate together. Chair and Professor of Art History Kimberly Smith organized Art History Thursday Nights, in which students and faculty would gather virtually to watch art films and documentaries or play games. “We offered some chance to feel like you’re connected to someone else who’s thinking about similar issues,” Smith says. “To me, it wasn’t so much a matter of who came but who needed it.” 

As the pandemic carries on into the new year, the Sarofim School of Fine Arts continues its creative approaches to making art while fostering growth and resilience in its students. Biltz sums up the past few months best: “Although everyone’s experience of this pandemic is different, we’ve really learned a lot from it—such as appreciating what we already have, discovering something new about ourselves, and valuing the humanity of the moment.”