Updates on the visual arts program: a picture is worth a thousand pixels

Creativity flourishes from home


Photo Courtesy of @oakpark_art Instagram Account

Anna Mendez approaches her limited setup in a unique fashion, using a box to hold up her computer, as well as coffee mug, a cup, and an art notebook to make the best of the space she has outside.

Creativity is still alive at Oak Park High School, although the classes may look different. Distance learning has forced the visual arts programs, including drawing and painting, 3D design, photography and 2D animation, to move from OPHS’ art studios to students’ own homes.

All the visual arts teachers have had to shift the way they teach their subjects, and all have found both benefits and downsides to this new adjustment. Anna Mendez, who teaches the drawing and painting classes, spoke about her new method of teaching as a struggle in terms of social interaction, but also as an interesting new way to see the progression of students’ art.

“I have all my kids put on their cameras, but, often, they will tilt their cameras onto their project. Pointing their camera at their work has been wonderful, I can see everyone’s progress, and everyone can see their peers’ work too,” Mendez wrote to the Talon.

3D design teacher Ian Fullmer believes distance learning has increased socialization within his virtual classroom. With less clean-up and kiln maintenance required, he has gotten the chance to know his students better through their screens.

“Every class period I try to check on every student. I often talk to them … about life and family, so I feel like I’m getting to know more of my students a little better [and] faster this year. When we are in the classroom, there are a lot of tasks that need to be done during each period … I don’t always have the chance to check in with every student. In distance learning, my time is 100% directed at my students,” Fullmer wrote to the Talon.

Anna Mendez’s Period 3 Advanced Drawing/Painting and AP Art classes work on their projects via Google Meet. (Photo Courtesy of Anna Mendez)

Tony Peluce, the animation, technology and photography classes’ teacher, also thinks that distance learning has some benefits, especially in terms of preparing his students for a real-world career in the digital arts.

“The digital media arts area has already been going [in] this direction for years anyway, so it’s not new. In the animation industry, you’ll meet with people in China [and] talk about something,” Peluce said. “[Video chats are] a way you can [tell] your boss really quickly, ‘Oh look this is what I’m working on. How does it look?’ So I think it’s actually preparing my students for the real world.”

Peluce also believes that his students have more free time during distance learning and therefore more time to engage in creative endeavors in his class. Rather than being pressured by a teacher to complete work on time, students are becoming more independent and, in turn, more equipped for life after high school where he won’t be there to check up on them to see if they’re progressing well.

“It really forces students to be more self-motivated,” Peluce said. “I am honestly seeing people be more focused. I actually see more productivity because I think people are so bored that they’re putting more energy into their creative projects.”

Mendez echoed Peluce’s idea of self-motivation as a benefit to distance learning. She finds students are developing their art skills because they want to express their creativity, rather than because they are forced to in class. Art, to Mendez, can become more than an assignment to complete during distance learning.

“I think that since we are all home, distance learning offers, possibly, more time for the arts. When we log off, I can tell that kids are still creating art. When I see them again, there is so much good progress. They are not leaving their project in class and coming back to it. It’s with them, day and night, and it’s become a part of them,” Mendez wrote.

According to Harvard Health, participating in creative activities has been shown to reduce stress, increase communication stills and even stop cognitive decline. For the visual arts teachers at Oak Park, this is one of the main reasons why making sure to provide time for the visual arts is especially essential during the pandemic.

“I think [the arts are] a psychological outlet, a time to express,” Peluce said. “It’s a hard time, so [my classes] keep kids creative. [They] keep students mindful … This time is kind of isolating, so you can get in your own depressing world, but photography forces you to get out, look around, look at your space and notice things around you that you wouldn’t normally notice: be creative [and] think.”

Junior Shreya Maddhali, who is enrolled in Digital Photography, also believes that the class is providing her with some mental health benefits that she wouldn’t otherwise experience. However, with all the restrictions that come with online school and COVID-19, Maddhali finds that it is harder to feel artistically free during distance learning, compared to the larger OPHS campus that was available to photograph during live classes.

“I think that it’s really nice to essentially be forced to go outside and take pictures of trees and [such] since I wouldn’t go outside otherwise during the week, but I feel like my photos get a little redundant at times. There are only a number of things that you can take pictures of without leaving your house. I feel like my creativity is limited, but I guess that’s what makes a good photographer: being able to compose well even if the subjects aren’t interesting,” Maddhali wrote to the Talon.

Despite all the benefits that distance learning may have to offer for the visual arts program, the teachers expressed a desire to see their students in person again. The hardest part of teaching visual arts during distance learning, for Mendez and Peluce, is the lack of social-emotional contact.

“I miss having one-on-one interactions [and] having kids come up to me privately and talk about anything and everything,” Mendez wrote. “I want to be next to my students, holding their projects, holding pencils and supplies and showing them techniques … I can show them my sketchbook, but I just want to be present and live with their project.”

Even though OPHS’ art classes may be structured differently during distance learning, the visual arts’ therapeutic power to destress and inspire students has not diminished. The teachers continue to see improvement and artistry in their students’ works, along with mental benefits.

“The arts are what gets us through the day often,” Mendez wrote. “More than ever now, our kids need to be expressive, to be creative and have an outlet to express themselves. Art therapy is what I’m seeing every day. I’m so proud of my kids, they have inspired me so much through this quarantine and pandemic, I’m very blessed to have them in my life.”