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Teaching During the Pandemic: Discovering Opportunities Inside the Artist’s Studio

by Tim Berg

Recently I made a quick visit to the ceramics studio at Pitzer College and I noticed that the whiteboard calendar where I post class assignments and deadlines still read Spring Break 2020. I was struck by how much time has passed since the beginning of the pandemic, and just how much my teaching has changed. Before our last spring break, I was teaching two ceramic courses. Once we vacated campus and classes went online, I did my best to adapt to the fact that most of the students had neither the materials or facilities to continue producing the work they were making previously.

Once it became clear that there was little chance of in-person classes resuming in the fall, I rethought what types of courses would make the most sense on Zoom. On our daily walks around Claremont, my wife and I would discuss ideas and we eventually we hit upon one that expanded on a course we took as undergraduates at the University of Colorado. In that class, we traveled to a different artist’s studio every week, learned about their work, and asked questions in an informal/conversational setting. One of the consequences of this experience was that it made being an artist and having a career seem possible. This led me to create a similar course titled Inside the Artist’s Studio. I pitched it to The Hive for financial support, and I asked my friend, colleague and Scripps Professor Adam Davis if he wanted to teach it with me. He agreed and we taught it in the Fall of 2020. The following is our discussion regarding its first iteration.

Prof. Tim Berg: When I approached you about co-teaching this course, where were you with your planning for the fall and what was your initial reaction?

Prof. Adam Davis: I was still telling myself that we would be returning to normal course offerings, so I think I said – thanks for the invitation, but I already have other courses planned. A few weeks later, our new normal set in, and I realized those courses were no longer feasible. I recall praying that your offer was still on the table and feeling a great relief when you said that you had already applied for The Hive grant!

Once we agreed to team teach the course, the next hurdle, as I recall, was creating the roster of guest artists. Do you want to share a bit about that process and what factors came into play when making your choices?

Prof. Tim Berg: At first I was thinking it would be easiest to invite artists I knew, but after talking to you and securing the Hive funding, that changed because it felt like I was unnecessarily limiting myself. I realized I ought to be thinking bigger, and started asking myself “Who would my dream visiting artists be?” and “Who haven’t I heard speak about their work who I would really like to hear?” I also wanted to bring in artists who work in many different materials, use divergent methods and have a wide variety of practical and theoretical concerns at the heart of their conceptual approaches. You helped me realize that there wasn’t anyone who we couldn’t approach because the worst case scenario was that they either would just say no or not respond.

Teaching on Zoom has removed the limits created by distance and location. We were able to invite anyone we liked from anywhere on earth, which is not something we normally can afford to do when inviting visiting artists to campus. Next, we shared a spreadsheet with a list of artists, crafted an invitation letter and started contacting them. As people began to accept our invitations, we became more strategic about the balance of representation.

I thought this was a very successful collaborative process, but I’m curious if you agree? I’m also curious if you think we struck a good balance of representation and whether or not you were surprised by any of the artists who agreed to participate in our experiment?

Prof. Adam Davis:

I completely agree. At first I imagined that creating a roster we both were happy with might be difficult, but it worked out very organically. In the end, it became less about who either of us wanted the most, and more about who was available from our list and how they balanced out the roster. By sending out just a few invitations at a time instead of all at once, we could base each round of invitations on who had already accepted and what their participation would add in terms of diversity.

I do think we did a good job of balancing representation. From the onset, we were both very mindful of balancing things like gender, race, geography, artistic disciplines, approaches to making, etc. In the end, I think the roster of artists we assembled was really impressive and I was certainly amazed by some of the artists who agreed to participate. I think everyone we invited understood the far-reaching effects of the pandemic, sympathized with the challenges of teaching under these conditions, and were very generous with their time. You put it well in once stating to me that the process was self-selecting, meaning that the individuals who agreed, were naturally generous people, which is exactly who you want participating in discussions with students.

Our next biggest challenge was imagining how to approach the studio component of the course. This was especially challenging since all of our students were remote and without studio space, materials and equipment. Given these circumstances, how do you feel about the structure we arrived at and the overall results of the weekly creative exercises and projects?

Prof. Tim Berg: 

That’s a tough question because week-to-week the creative exercises were so different depending on the artist who visited and what they wanted the students to attempt. Overall, I think the results were much better than I ever expected. I think this was maybe due to two factors. One, many of the students were isolated at home so they could focus on their work without as many distractions; and two, I think they really appreciated having work that was offline and hands-on in most cases. This gave them an opportunity to recharge and step away from their screens.

Two exercises stand out to me as being quite successful. The first was the one assigned by Nina Katchadorian based on her Seat Assignment body of work. In this work she allocates her travel time, for instance trapped for hours in a plane seat, to making assemblages with what she has at hand and then photographing them in situ. Several of the students really seemed to enjoy this assignment and created stunning images that will remain with me. The second exercise was devised by Candice Lin and came with a full page of instructions on how the students would make their own “ink” from rust and tannin. When she gave us this assignment, I just thought to myself, “Uh oh, these students aren’t going to be able to figure this out or make it work with what they have around them.” The students totally surprised me and not only made their own “ink” but used it to make some really beautiful and thoughtful pieces reflecting on history and ephemerality.

[Image: Heather Wing]

What exercises do you think went particularly well? We also had the students refine and build upon one-two of these exercises for their midterm and final projects, do you think that was an effective way of allowing them to delve deeper into the material?

Prof. Adam Davis:

I think that both of those exercises went well and I also recall being impressed with many of the pieces made in response to Gerhard Demetz’s visit. Their figure-based sculptures carved from food came out way better than I would have ever expected. The land acknowledgement public art pieces inspired by Emily Jacir’s visit also impressed me. We received a lot of good proposals and I could honestly imagine some of them being implemented/funded.

In regard to your second question, I do think requiring students to revisit a favorite prompt was a good idea. Overall, it yielded stronger projects, and I like to believe it increased students’ confidence in their abilities.

[Image: Caroline Tuck]

Prof. Tim Berg: 

Overall, I was really glad to have the opportunity to teach this course with you and have the support of the Hive to make it happen. I was glad the class had good representation from all 5C’s, different majors, and included first years through seniors. Each week I looked forward to our meetings with the visiting artist as well as the student’s creative exercises. This class was the silver lining of the pandemic for me.

I’ve been thinking of ways to adapt this class for a return to campus and wondered what aspects of this course you would want to maintain and what aspects you would change for teaching in person?

Prof. Adam Davis:

It was a great experience for me as well, and the class was definitely a weekly ray of light. It was exhilarating to know that there was going to be a new person, whose work I respected, meeting with us every week! I also want to thank the Hive for making the whole thing possible. Their call for proposals was definitely the engine behind this idea, and the experience has opened my eyes to ways of incorporating online visits into all my classes moving forward.

[Image: Caroline Kim]

[Image: Caroline Kim]

Our students were very resourceful and did a great job with what they had lying around their homes. So, this naturally makes me wonder what would be possible with even more resources at their disposal. I think I would be interested in trying an in-person version of this course, where we cut the visits in half and spent twice as long on the exercises. We might also be able to schedule one or more artists from the Los Angeles area and visit their studios in person. These would help to solidify the notion that a career in the arts is actually attainable at all different levels.

Do you have anything else to add or that you would like to try?

Prof. Tim Berg: 

I think these are all solid suggestions. I would add that an in-person version of this course might include the opportunity to do more collaborative or group work. We heard from several artists who work collaboratively or who have teams that work for them, and it would be beneficial for the students to experience the challenges and possibilities brought about by this manner of working. 

Thanks for having this discussion with me. It has been very enjoyable to reflect on this class and think about how we can continue to evolve it for the future.

Prof. Adam Davis:

I agree, it was my pleasure, and I am excited to teach the course with you again once we return to campus!