Resourcefulness and resilience: Local thesis shows in a global pandemic

Graduating art students pivot from in-person thesis shows to an array of virtual offerings

By BRIANA MILLER

There is a lot going on in the world right now, and in the midst of it, a newly minted class of fine art and craft students is setting out into the world. The timing couldn’t be better – we need their hope, creativity, resiliency, and ingenuity now more than ever. Equally, the timing couldn’t be worse – nearly all of their final in-person thesis shows were cancelled because of Covid-19 related closures. But art and artists are attuned to change, and as the pandemic forced colleges and universities across the Portland Metro area to close their campuses, their art departments moved swiftly to adjust expectations and find meaningful ways to culminate their degree programs. 

“Our role was to be responsive to the moment and work with the circumstances and not despite them,” said Jess Perlitz, who teaches sculpture at Lewis & Clark College and is the co-chair of its Department of Art. “Something about the arts is to be prepared and resourceful and resilient. We got to model that.”

For many schools, delaying or postponing the thesis exhibition wasn’t an option. Students left as campuses closed in mid-March, and because they were graduating, any plans to return were uncertain. As a result, institutions pivoted to thinking of the final exhibitions as virtual, building new online galleries or substantially enhancing existing web pages. 

The senior thesis exhibition at Lewis & Clark was scheduled to open on campus in the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art the first week of April. “We very quickly understood that we weren’t going to be able to be on campus,” said Perlitz. “If students can’t be on campus finishing, we thought maybe the gallery could be open, but some students hadn’t finished, and it’s such a big important part of their major.”

Instead, the department shifted its focus to creating a print and digital publication and asked its 14 graduating Bachelor of Arts in Studio Arts students to reimagine how the first-person gallery experience of their work could be experienced in book form. Students with immersive painting, site-specific work, or work with an audio component had to forego major elements of their installations. Some took their work in a different direction, adding poetry or graphics. “At the end of the day, they’re artists, so they tackled it. It was like a bonus art project,” said Yaelle Amir, the curator and editor who taught the senior capstone course.

Francesca Beilharz, still from Inhabitants (2020). Video. Image courtesy of the artist.

The book’s design is clean and succinct, with an emphasis on imagery that encourages spending time with each student’s work. And it’s good, from the visceral opening of red blotted snow from a video by Francesca Beilharz to work by Emma Ray-Wong, who added manipulated Chinese fortune cookie tags to photographs as a tart—I mean that in a good way—answer to people who make assumptions about her skin color to documentation of an interactive piece that’s an inquiry into touch by Isabel Betsill. A PDF of the book is posted on the Hoffman Gallery website, and the hardcover publication will be available for purchase.

Emma Ray-Wong, Learn Whiteness (2020). Pigment print. Image courtesy of the artist.

With the opening of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at PSU last fall, 2020 would have been the first year that the School of Art + Design Bachelor of Fine Arts Showcase would be exhibited in a single space. Previous years’ shows have been installed in multiple spaces across the downtown campus. “We had big plans and were excited to hang the show,” said Emily Stennes, the museum’s marketing and communications manager. 

However, once campus facilities closed and art faculty started to teach online, museum and university staff advised them to adjust their plans. “We said, ‘We foresee this being a virtual exhibition. Keep that in mind when you’re creating your curriculum,’” recalled Stennes. 

“AB 60”—the exhibition title is a nod to the physical studio space where many of the students worked—is a tidy, neatly interactive virtual exhibition hosted on the museum’s website that showcases each of the 15 BFA students, including short video artist’s statements. Faculty, staff, and students collaborated with graphic design students from PSU’s internal creative design team, A+D Projects, to design a full catalog. The catalog will be printed as a hardbound book for each BFA graduate and can be downloaded from the exhibition website.

Many of the students were forced to rethink their shows, said Stennes, noting that they had planned for some of the textile work to hang from the rafters of their new space. But for some students, an online format also afforded an opportunity to show more work. Thus we get to see five paintings by Katie Costa, who paints large, landscape inspired canvases. On a smaller scale, Eleanore Warner’s  distended ceramic chairs are strange and delightful.

As the Pacific Northwest College of Art closed its studios and moved to online teaching, its spring-semester Bachelor of Fine Arts students still had some six weeks before their final shows. The college’s Technology and Communications departments and preparators worked closely with students and faculty to shift away from what has traditionally been a week-long presentation of their final work and their oral thesis defenses to build out a series of galleries on the college’s website. “It took every single one of us to make this happen,” said Linda Kliewer, the college’s Director of BFA Thesis. 

While the college didn’t require its BFA graduates to show work in the online galleries, all but eight students ultimately finished work to show. “Their ability to revive and just be artists was just quite stunning,” Kliewer said. 

Savanna Judd, still from the video game Kitty (2020). Image courtesy of Pacific Northwest College of Art.

The BFA thesis portfolios are showcased in 65 online “galleries” arranged alphabetically by last name and extending over four pages. There’s also a virtual reality gallery for the annual BFA juried show and a link to the Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC) BFA thesis show. 

As is often the case with viewing art in person, visitors are rewarded by aimless wandering. Clicking into the dozens of individual galleries uncovers a a hidden object game by Savanna Judd created by painting, animating, and coding scenes that are a meditation on the life of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in 1964. Johanna Oppeck’s thesis is a socially engaged project that examines providing public toilets—in this case these turn out to be striking golden objects as well—to Portland’s houseless population. 

Johanna Oppeck, image from Alchemy Buckets project (2020). Image courtesy of Pacific Northwest College of Art.

Across the river at Washington State University Vancouver, Associate Professor of Fine Arts Avantika Bawa said that working with new restraints provided new possibilities. When classes went online in March, she and fellow faculty member Harrison Higgs had already selected about 60 percent of the works for the 24th Annual Fine Arts Student Exhibition, which includes both majors and non-majors from all class years. They “quickly shifted to documenting work appropriately and using the opportunity to show work that would’ve been challenging to show otherwise,” said Bawa. 

As originally planned, the exhibition would have opened in mid-April for a four-month run in the Dengerink Administration Building Gallery, which Bawa described as “more like a hallway gallery.” Making a virtual exhibition made it possible to show larger and more ephemeral work, said Bawa. And because the exhibition is digital and space not limited, they also decided to keep adding work even after the show was online. 

Screenshot of the 24th Annual Fine Arts Student Exhibition, Washington State University, Vancouver

The result is an eclectic, charmingly curated show. While other institutions gave individual students their own capsule online portfolios, here pieces by different students in a range of mediums play off one another. A row of minimalist work that starts with a black-and-white digital print by Shara Chwaliszewski also includes a wire sculpture by Nika Mohabati, a series of retro looking geometric paintings by Krista Kenney, and an atmospheric, abstracted digital color photograph by Betsy Hanrahan that look well together. 

When OCAC closed last spring, PNCA agreed to provide instruction and studio space for OCAC students to finish their degrees. The final OCAC BFA class graduated this spring and was set to hold its thesis exhibition, “From Concentrate,” at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in mid-April. Determining that it couldn’t safely install a show because of concerns around COVID-19, Disjecta instead provided space for the students to individually install and document their work and gave the program space on its website.

Eliza Gooding, Marlboro CowGirl (2020). Photo credit: Fenn Paider. Image courtesy of Disjecta.

The cohort of 18 students also produced a winning send up of itself in the form of a video. What looks like it was originally intended as a trailer to announce the thesis show now makes a lively introduction to the virtual exhibition, where an installation by Eliza Gooding works well installed in Disjecta’s clean, industrial space. The taught line of a hot pink extension cord slung around a beam holds a car door and anchors to a rock form, which in turn is the base for a lightbulb, creating a play of light and space and a little bit of punk. 

Other highlights include a series of lush, graphic paintings by Ben Lynn, whose four large canvases commemorate his mother, who died at age 52 of colon cancer. Clips of Evan Kirby’s “Spirit” costume being performed in an industrial outdoor space in the video “Anima” feel euphoric and free. 

While most of the undergraduate studio art departments saw a silver lining in the fact that shows will be viewed by larger audiences and students can link back to their online galleries, they acknowledged that it’s disappointing for students not to have a final live exhibition where they can see their work being experienced in person. “The minute they declare their major, they’re imagining this show,” said Jess Perlitz from Lewis & Clark College.

The discussion over the potential benefits and drawbacks of seeing art in person versus seeing it online predates COVID-19. The pandemic has forced the conversation. “There’s a lot of talk in the museum community,” said Emily Stennes of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at PSU. “Some people don’t like it and some people do.” But, she added, “It’s kind of the new normal. We can’t give up and wait and make art later.”

This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.

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