L to R: Janet Reed, Marcia Festen, Sue Teller
KB Studio closed temporarily, or what I thought was temporarily, at 9:00pm on Thursday, March 12, 2020. The city of Chicago had just instituted a Stay-At-Home-Order starting on Sunday, March 15th. As we left class that night, myself and a group of students, we were just beginning to register the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic but still unable to see the truth of what was to come.
My brick & mortar studio was indeed a brick and mortar studio in the most literal sense. It was a 1300 sq ft space on the north side of Chicago that I moved into in early December 2016. It was formerly an autorepair garage that had been renovated into a stylish, industrial space with high timber ceilings and light brick walls. It had a spacious, open feel but I loved to hear that others found it warm and inviting. My goal had been to create a neighborhood art studio where I could teach classes and workshops, mount exhibitions, and work with the local community on a variety of projects.
L to R: Jan Wishinsky, Jason McInnes, Susan Gamerman
I have been a teaching artist for over 30 years with a primary interest in working with adult students. Focusing on contemporary processes and practices, there were ample opportunities in my studio for students to explore new approaches and concepts, experiment with a wide range of materials, and challenge themselves by setting new and bigger goals. Larger works, in-depth projects, and group exhibitions allowed students to push past perceived boundaries and fostered amazing growth and deep community connections. It was a joy to watch it all unfold.
But then we were sent home. As individual artists and as a community of friends, we were directed to our homes for safety until the pandemic was under control. Maybe it would be a few weeks, a few months. Surely we would be back together again by Memorial Day or summer. But what could we do in the meantime?
Like many educators around the world, digital technology made it possible for me to develop an online education program on the fly. I quickly learned the ins and outs of Zoom, working with students one-on-one and in groups. I sent out quaratine sketchbook prompts to help with focus and quell anxiety. We looked at and talked about art online as a way to keep our sanity. And our connections continued. Not exactly as if we were in the studio together, with lots of work space and opportunites to see firsthand how art is made by others. But in new ways. And sometimes, surprisingly, better ways.
L to R: Katharine Hathaway, Mary Gomberg, Phyllis Rabineau
Looking back now after nearly a year and with the pandemic still in full-swing, it is astonishing to take stock of the outstanding art completed by our community through our ever-evolving online education program. Once students were able to set up studio spaces in their homes, whether in their offices or basements, at their kitchen counters or dining room tables, the desire to make art never subsided. Our weekly one-on-one meetings continue to focus on idea development, sketchbook practice, materials investigations, and new directions. Our weekly group meetings are a great time for connecting, laughing, sharing art, and supporting each other through these difficult days.
Our student body has grown to include artists from all over the country and even overseas. When we meet on Zoom, we can see the uniqueness of each artist’s home/work space. Since we look at the progress of artwork through photographs, we have the luxury of seeing each stage captured as pieces evolve. We can see entire book projects all at once, with the pages spread out for comparison— not really possible when looking at bound books in real life. We can work together as a collective taking on topical creativity challenges, make work for thematic online exhibitions, and develop specialty book projects. We are currently working on a collaborative book inspired by the artist/naturalist Charles Burchfield. It is interesting to note here whether or not this type of project would have ever happened if digital classes had never happened—a silver lining among many others that have been both surprising and encouraging.
L to R: Mary Ridley, Virginia Carstarphen, Kathleen Maltese
And through it all, the pandemic continues. I closed my beloved brick and morter studio space a few months ago and moved all my art, materials, and art books back home. It had only been used twice last summer but otherwise sat still awaiting the return of the creative energy that had formerly filled it. There was a hopeful moment in August where it looked like masks, social distancing, and hand sanitizer might make it possible to work together there again but it wasn’t meant to be. As I said to an artist friend at the time, “the building was just a part of it, the people were really the heart of it.”
So we forge ahead as a collective of artists connecting through the marvels of technology and the hopeful persistence of art as a salve for our spirits. With wide eyes and determination, we continue to do our best to make sense of our times by using our senses to transform materials into meaningful, beautiful objects. How fortunate we are to have learned over this past year, that no matter what our circumstance are, art does endure.
L to R: Karen Hovey, Chris Davidson, Joan Baer