Lander faculty, students prove arts flourish even in pandemics
Friday, Dec 04, 2020
student creating sculpture
History has shown that creativity continues even in pandemics. At Lander University, the arts have flourished over the past nine months as evidenced by this sculpture class taught by Doug McAbee, associate professor of art. Photo by Laura Brown.

Throughout history, artists have found ways to continue their work during  plagues and pandemics. Norwegian expressionist artist Edvard Munch, famous for "The Scream" painting, survived the Spanish flu. The illness led him to paint "Self-Portrait After The Spanish Flu" in 1919, which depicted the artist, wrapped in a dressing gown, near a bed.

Leonardo da Vinci survived a series of bubonic plagues that struck Milan, Italy, between 1484 and 1485. Those outbreaks inspired the Renaissance artist to design concepts for a future city that he illuminated through drawings and notations to address urban planning problems between 1487 and 1490.

COVID-19 led Belgian artist Erik Pevernagie to say that poets, artists, and musicians will carry the world into a new reality after the pandemic. “They are the ones who tell us how to navigate, breathe, feel, think, enjoy, and fully live our lives.”

And so it has been with the Lander University Department of Art, which has embraced the reality of change and found ways to nourish creativity.

Elizabeth Snipes-Rochester, Painting

“The obstacle is the path.” For Elizabeth Snipes-Rochester, these words became crucial to solving the challenges that many artists faced when COVID-19 forced faculty and students to continue their instruction online – away from University studios and face to-face instruction.

While many people grappled with the technological challenges of learning, artists refused to let a virus destroy their creativity, said Snipes-Rochester, an associate professor of art.

“We just leaned into what was happening and moved forward,” she said. “Art flourished during the early months of the pandemic, and it continued to flourish during the fall semester. In the spring, we turned to technology for teaching. Students created in-home studios, and I made videos to help my students.”

As she spent time at home with her husband and young daughters, Snipes-Rochester said she had the opportunity to create a new body of artwork for herself, as well as develop video demonstrations to teach students as an extension of their face-to-face instruction. Art faculty met regularly online to discuss how they could make the work relevant for students and keep them engaged.

“It may have been challenging at times, but we found ways to persevere,” she said. “I kept reminding my students that during World War II, for example, we saw an increase in the number of patents. In times of turmoil and challenge, people find alternative ways.”

During a fall class, Snipes-Rochester worked with young painters assembled on the second floor of Lander's Art Annex. Their assignment was to create self-portraits on canvases. All wore masks and were social distanced from their peers. But the paintings, rich with color and intriguing individual concepts, underscored a determination to be creative.

“We are visual problem solvers. We came together, and we have thrived,” said Snipes-Rochester.

Sandy Singletary, Ceramics

As students were leaving campus in March, Sandy Singletary rushed to send her students home with equipment, including pottery wheels, so that they could complete their ceramics assignments.  “It was challenging. Many of the online teaching resources available didn’t fit well with ceramics’ tactile and hands-on needs,” said Singletary, chair of Lander's Art Department. “I had no idea how the semester would go.”

Singletary produced her own videos to help students learn at home. By doing so, she enhanced her own skills for the classroom. “I became a better educator through this experience,” she said, noting that students became more engaged in their classes. “The burden of doing this was on them as they watched my videos and completed assignments away from campus.”

Singletary, whose own ceramics creations are sold to collectors, said students set up studios in their families’ garages and kitchens or in outdoor spaces. “That is a true level of commitment. Not a single one quit. I am proud of how they navigated all of the challenges. Since they’ve returned to campus, my students have been working harder than ever.”

Many of them created items for Lander’s annual holiday Ceramics Sale. “Our art faculty have worked hard this semester to give our students normal levels of interaction. We’ve adhered to the public health guidelines, and that has been part of our success in learning this semester,” she said.

“Art is emotional. The creative process is so personal. The desire to create, even during a pandemic, doesn’t go away,” Singletary said. “When you move forward, as we did, something creative is going to happen.”

Doug McAbee, Sculpture

Just days into the fall semester, students in Doug McAbee’s sculpture classes could be heard using power tools or hammering metal into new works of art. Nearby onlookers saw sparks flying during a welding class.

It was a different scene than the one in March when students returned home, just as they were beginning their metal project assignments. Instead of the large-scale artworks that many had planned, they worked with string and wire and other items accessible in their homes, said McAbee, a painter and sculptor who used the time for his own creative projects.

Advanced sculpture students worked with food or items found outdoors. “Students created an amazing body of work for the semester,” said McAbee, an associate professor of art. “Some have portfolios that they can submit for juried art exhibitions. In some ways, the pandemic probably helped students.”

When students returned to campus, “we hit the ground running,” he said. “Students were eager to create. I restructured the curriculum so that we would do welding first, for example, in case COVID-19 cases closed campus. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.”

In October, McAbee had his own work highlighted in a critically acclaimed exhibit, titled "Instagram Remix," at the Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia. His works, created during time away from campus, were from a series of Instagram posts featuring paintings by famous artists shown side-by-side with his own interpretations of those artworks.

The enthusiasm for the fall semester was inspiring for students and faculty. “During time away from the studio, students took the separation to heart, and they made up for lost time,” he said.

Haley Floyd, Drawing and 2-D Design

“Much more self-driven than ever before” is the way Art Lecturer Haley Floyd describes her students, most of whom are in the early stages of their art studies.

When the pandemic closed college campuses, Floyd said “students were in the middle of learning, and it is difficult to teach studio art online.”

But all found a way to make the virtual experience a successful one. Video sessions and critiques enabled students to continue their art assignments, and Floyd produced video demonstrations of sessions she would have taught in person. “This is good resource material for the future,” she said.

The separation brought its own lessons, she said, including those on problem-solving and time management “which are great life skills.”

Removed from the classroom structure, students learned to overcome fears of failure. “Students want to succeed. But failure is a form of knowledge,” she said. “They learned to take risks, even if it meant not succeeding the first time. The work that they did was really hard, but they learned to work independently. Everyone faced different challenges.”

She applauded the students for creating their own home studios and making “the work on their own. In a way, this was an opportunity to learn in a very unusual way. The timing wasn’t great, but they saw the possibilities and adapted.”

Even in a time of isolation, Floyd said, “We can turn to art and work through the feelings that we might have because of it.”

James Slagle and Fathima Nazim-Starnes, Graphic design

Lander’s graphic design program boasts numerous successful alumni who are working for many of the nation’s top businesses and industries, said James Slagle, a professor of art, and they continued to do so during the pandemic.

That success was underscored by another achievement during the pandemic: Lander’s new bachelor of design (BDes) in graphic and interactive media, developed by Slagle and his colleague Fathima Nazim-Starnes, which was approved by the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. The first such degree program in South Carolina – and among the first in the nation -- provides students with the tools, skills, knowledge and experience to creatively express and develop ideas through the latest design technologies.

Lander’s graphic design students and faculty had “no lag time” as they switched to work remotely in the spring, said Nazim-Starnes, an associate professor of art.

The University’s Internet Technology Services department worked to help students have the necessary computers and software to work from home. “Our students worked throughout those months to complete assignments,” she said. “It was gratifying to see the results of their work and creativity.”

That same “can-do” spirit was evident throughout the fall, said Slagle, noting that some classes were conducted through face-to-face instruction, while others were hybrid, offering a blend of online and in-person classes.

Remote learning isn’t unlike the real world of design. “In our industry, it is not uncommon for people to work with clients all over the nation and around the world,” Slagle said. “They do their work from home or small offices and are able to produce outstanding designs for their clients. In some ways, our students got this experience a bit earlier than they might have.”

Graphic designers find their jobs change as quickly as new technologies become available, Nazim-Starnes said.

“We adapt,” she said. “The design world is constantly evolving, and our students have learned this.”

Slagle said graphic designers “don’t get into this field if they are not open to change.”

He explained, “We encourage our students to teach themselves beyond the classroom. That is the best way to learn. Throughout the pandemic, our students adapted to changes, just as they will in their professional careers.”

Jon Holloway, photography

As a professional photographer and a professor of art, Jon Holloway saw remote learning as “a novel way of thinking about the creative process.”

It was important in the spring semester, he said, to make sure that Lander’s photography students had the equipment and resources they needed to complete their assignments.

After that came the all-important effort to incorporate technology into the learning experience. “Overall, this is making us better professors,” he said.

Students found ways to change the course of some projects as they adapted to health guidelines that wouldn’t allow interaction with people – often the focus of their work. “I think that they did a great job,” Holloway said.

When students returned in the fall, one of the first activities on campus was the “Emphasis” senior exhibition, featuring the works of Lander arts students who graduated in May. The art exhibitions, held in the fall and spring for upcoming graduates, highlight art across the disciplines. But COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the spring exhibition, which was rescheduled for the fall. December graduates had their exhibition open as scheduled in November.

“Time does not stop. Life goes on, even in a pandemic,” Holloway said. “Our students found a good balance and new ways to be creative. The pandemic was a disruption, but it didn’t stop the process.”