Seeing the self through the gray rectangle of Zoom

Lincoln City students blend art with technology to create self-portraits using concrete, foam, and wood during a year of virtual learning

For most of the past year, Taft High School teacher Noah Lambie has worked largely with his junior and senior high students tuning in from their computers at home. It can be a trying means of teaching, but also one with surprisingly positive reactions. 

“It’s funny, there’s always hesitation with a new project,” said Lambie, an art design/physics instructor. “At first, when I come up with some of these kind of wild ideas, they are bobbing their heads in video land.”

Yuritzi Cuellar-Pacheco, Taft High School senior, self-portrait
Yuritzi Cuellar-Pacheco, Taft High School senior, used concrete, Baltic birch wood and black acrylic to create her self-portrait.

It’s a look he describes as, “OK, don’t really know what is going on yet.”  Then he answers some questions, helps however he can, and eventually students get on board.

“But by the end of this one, they were saying, ‘Whoa, those are rad.’ They were feeling good about this.”

“This” would be portraits created from various materials, including concrete, foam, wood, and acrylic. The finished pieces, along with traditional art created by other Taft students, are the latest exhibit in the Lincoln City Cultural Center’s PJ Chessman Gallery, opening Friday and running through April 5. The live virtual gallery opening will be at 4 p.m. March 12, hosted by gallery director Krista Eddy on Facebook.


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The assignment is one of the ways Lambie attempts to prepare his students for life beyond high school by blending art with technology. Now in his 11th year of teaching at the Lincoln City School, Lambie began his career teaching art and physics.

Lambie said he learned early in his career about Career and Technical Education, which lets instructors focus on a profession, and by doing so, gives them access to funds earmarked to develop academic, career, and technical programs. “That allows you to build a program to try to prepare students for jobs and careers,” he said. “That’s what my art led to.”

Lambie comes up with the ideas, bringing to the project a mix of art and digital design. While critics say work produced digitally or with some other “machine” takes away from creativity, Lambie said it calls for at least as much creativity. Graphic design offers tools that might come in handy for magazine art, while digital technology relies more on computers, software, and printers.

“When you get to know the process, you see how much goes into it and all the options available in that digital world,” he said. “It gives them an experience with a process that can be applied all across our world now.”

This project was inspired by the months students have spent working together in front of the “gray rectangle of the computer screen on Zoom,” Lambie said.

He asked students to create a portrait of themselves, or someone they were close to, so they would have “that knowledge, that understanding of their experience in this restricted environment.”

For example, self-portraits by seniors Yuritzi Cuellar-Pacheco and Gage Koceja use concrete as both a medium and a color. The medium, Lambie said, is embedded in their own experience — specifically in reference to virtual learning and virtual interaction.  “The gray of the concrete broadcasts the neutral tone of a screen while also communicating heaviness and restriction.  These students accomplished this with only two materials in addition to the concrete, so the simplicity in these is special.” 

Koceja said the most difficult thing about virtual learning last spring was that no one was prepared for it — teachers or students. “This year was easier, we adapted to it with improved online and distance learning,” he said. “I still prefer being at school, where I get to see people. It was also hard, because I couldn’t get as much time with teachers getting help.”

Students chose the portrait subject, then used software tools to break it down and put it back together, cutting shapes from whatever material they chose. The shapes then were puzzled together and embedded in concrete.

Lambie was surprised to find most of the students chose to do self-portraits.

“That’s not something students necessarily like to do,” he said, but something about the digital process made them feel more at ease. Noting participants were among his top students, Lambie said he saw them all grow with the project.

Gage Koceja, Taft High School senior, self-portrait
Senior Gage Koceja says his self-portrait, made of concrete and two colors of acrylic plexiglass, “actually looks like me.”

Koceja said of his self-portrait, “It was cool to experiment with different colors and materials.” He added, “The best part is how it came out.  It actually looks like me.”

The exhibit also features traditional artwork and independent student projects. Eddy, the gallery director, describes it as a showcase of artistic skill, technology and tenacity.

“What’s really amazing to me is that he was able to pull off a student art show, considering COVID is going on,” Eddy said. “He and his students have really shown a lot of resilience and dedication and just commitment to creative arts, getting the work done… The Chessman is really a community art space and our mission is to include the community in many different ways in arts, and so we’re really proud to have these shows by our young community members.”

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

About the author

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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