Art from a distance

Over the last year, there is no doubt that each department at Hope College has been forced to make some major adjustments to the way their courses are taught. Being thrust into an online-only COVID-19 world last spring and continuing to navigate safety protocols on campus has not been a simple task. 

One area of study in particular, however, has faced an entirely unique challenge—how do Hope’s art students continue to create, present, and critique their work in an intimate way in a world where distance is essential? Art students Michaela Bunger (’21) and Kat Henry (’21) share their experience being senior art students in the midst of this chaotic age.

Kathryn Henry
empty light, idle wrinkles, 2020
oil paint on canvas

“The hardest part is having the energy to keep going,” says Bunger, whose medium of choice is sculpture. “All of us are depleted in that energy, whether it’s socially, creatively, or academically. Just having the energy to go in and make [art] is harder right now.” This sentiment is mirrored almost exactly by Henry, who has found her energy to create just as exhausted—even with her favorite medium of oil paint. “It’s hard to focus on being creative and think about something other than the world,” she says.

Finding inspiration in any typical day is a unique process for every artist, and that process has had to face modifications as well. “Whenever I go in to make a piece, I look back to art history to see what has been made before,” says Bunger, describing the dilemma of a world where museums have been virtually inaccessible and art installations scarce. “When you can’t go in and see the work in spaces in person, it makes the creative process harder.”

The lack of these in-person creative spaces has clearly affected more than just the art community of Hope College. Henry shares that “everyone in the world is stressed about this, and the art world is no different. I’ve seen people be more productive because of Covid, but also more stumped.” Bunger adds that “having other people around you that are passionate about the same thing obviously inspires you to be more passionate about what you’re doing,” which is a luxury few people have been able to access in recent months. 

Not all facets of creating art have been lost, of course. In Henry’s experience, the isolation of quarantine provided her with a new kind of direction and vision for her work. “I have been focusing on myself a lot more. It brought to light what I am most passionate about,” which she said has led her to a series of oil paintings on nostalgia, memories, and prayer.

Bunger describes the benefit (however frustrating it may be) of documenting work for virtual critiques—something all art students had to learn quickly last spring. “[Documenting work] is a skill that you need to have later on in life, so it’s a good thing we’re learning now. But it is definitely hard, especially as a 3D maker. That’s something you’re supposed to observe from all angles,” she says, “and a lot of times texture is a huge part of my work. Not being able to see those things in fine detail in person has definitely been a huge part that’s been hard to navigate.” 

The difficulty of documenting sculpture is not unique, Bunger clarifies. She explains that taking pictures of drawings, whether they be charcoal or pencil, still distorts the gradient. “So I would say that, no matter what, unless you’re making work digitally, this time has been hard. You just lose a lot in translation.”

Kathryn Henry 
I don’t know where prayers go, 2020
Oil paint on canvas

Even live and in-person, critiquing in-studio classes is not the same experience as it once was. “It’s hard to remember what it was like before masks [in the studio]. We used to be able to all gather around a piece and point out specific things, or share something around the class,” says Henry. She speaks to the fairly universal experience of this season: “It’s hard to connect all at once.”

In addition to adjusting to the learning curve of this year, senior art students are also tasked with the planning and implementation of a senior show later this spring. There will be two shows—one taking place in Depree Art Center from April 16 – May 16, and the other at the Kruizenga Art Museum from April 23 – May 16. The show at the KAM will also feature pieces from the class of 2020 since last year’s senior show was cancelled. 

At the end of the day, Bunger and Henry both expressed their gratitude for the Art Department faculty. “[Our professors] are advocating like crazy for us to be here in person working in the studio,” Bunger says. “We’re all just really grateful for all the work they’ve been doing so we can keep making art and so that people can keep seeing it.”

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