Creativity in a time of crisis and solitude

Fine Art is a material form of self-expression that is perhaps best understood, within the academic world today, as being a practice-based field of research. Each day we work with materials (clay, paper, steel, ink, paint etc.) to create artworks that are conceptually and formally complex. But form does not precede meaning and nor the other way around. Meaning emerges during a multifaceted process of making and thinking. More than this, much of the knowledge we as lecturers share with our students occurs in – and as part of – an embodied spatial dynamic. That is to say, students rely on us to be physically present in their space in order to impart tacit knowledge and to respond to their works as they are formed in real time.

In all it may be said that in Fine Art we teach technical and conceptual skills that are rigorously applied to the actual making of artworks during classes. This leaves Fine Arts in a precarious position when it concerns online teaching modes. We cannot quickly adapt existing syllabi and practical modes of teaching for online purposes. Fortunately, this is not the whole truth.

In the University of Pretoria’s Fine Art programme we propose a hybrid, multifaceted approach to alleviating some of our most pressing concerns regarding the teaching during this moment of crisis.

The first is to attempt to supply students’ art materials delivered to their doorstep. This is complex but, at least for undergraduate students, it will make a world of difference by helping them to make artworks. As one of our current Master’s students, Monica Blignaut, quips: “It is very strange to make material-based works of art without any materials, but it is an interesting experiment to try.” More on the latter later.

For now, we know that sourcing and delivering art materials can be costly and subject to availability. From a pedagogical perspective this also means we may have to change how we teach and evaluate students’ artworks while being mindful of what materials students are able to access during this time. To this end we have also established the Tuks Emergency Art Fund – a fund set up by the Fine Art division to assist our students specifically with material costs during this period of incredible financial hardship. In brief, a needy student can apply for financial support for each art project they must complete as part of their studies.

Of course, these interventions require funding, from both the students and the university! But if we want our students to succeed, we need to do our best to contribute and support each other. UP is looking into fundraising and sponsorship options and we are optimistic that we will find continued support from the private sector and individual donors for this project.

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Fine Art is a contextually responsive practice – artists use their practice to interpret their surrounds and they generate creative ideas from their unique experiences. This is something that art students and lecturers study when we discuss and evaluate artworks. A colourful woven tapestry will mean different things to different people. In Fine Art, we do expect students to clarify their artistic process and conceptual development in the wall texts that now routinely accompany the display of artworks. Basically, students must write down the ideas that they are researching during the making of the artwork. In this way such explanatory wall texts help us understand the hidden complexities of artworks that we have to evaluate.

That said, this explanatory text does not replace the artwork – it is mostly a pedagogic device. Because if we cannot see any of the ideas discussed in the text when we look at the artwork there is a huge problem! We as lecturers also expect each student to have a research file within which such textual academic research as informs the making of a particular artwork is archived (and may be accessed during the evaluation process). Again, form and meaning must be synthesised into a singular whole in the artwork. We can indeed evaluate whether or not an artwork has managed to do just that. But what does this mean in relation to the complexities of teaching Fine Art in an online mode?

At the university a number of our platforms will be made data-free services, meaning that we may make such content as required available to students (albeit in limited form and with permissions in place). One of the ways we can and will do this is by providing ample opportunity for the reassessment of art projects produced during this period. We will also make hard copies of all project briefs and distribute them to students without any digital access – briefs replete with added technical and conceptual information in order to help them complete their art projects successfully.

Nonetheless, even if students have the requisite technological tools at their disposal, sending us photographs or videos of completed art projects such as sculptures really only provides the lecturer with a partial picture of the work. At some point we must see the actual art object, but until such a time as this is possible, students may discuss and show artworks to their lecturers during video conference calls, by way of text descriptions, and even by way of basic sketches that can easily be scanned and sent to lecturers.

At UP, we have also re-sequenced our modules to accommodate the current situation and provide a modicum of certainty to our students. Tristan Roland, a third-year student, expresses this paradoxical need when he asks for “…certainty in uncertain times”. That said, Roland – also the class representative for Third Year Fine Arts – is acutely aware that students are desperate to resume their studies, even under such changed circumstances. This means that we must rethink our year schedule in order to begin as soon as possible.

For example, we are preparing a set of intensive technical workshops in the use of mediums and media later in the year. For now, we are focusing more on text- and/or concept-based modules that students may still be able to complete within the confines of the home. These modules will be presented as lectures and even PowerPoint presentations that students should then translate into more open-ended three-dimensional forms such as art installations or art performances. Small instructional videos may also be uploaded onto ClickUP in order to illustrate technical information related to the specific module. For example, a lecturer may make a short 30-second video clearly showing how to use a small chisel to safely and correctly cut into linoleum plates as required for mono-printmaking.

In fact, there is such a thing as text-based art and there exists a long tradition of using the home as the very space within and from which artworks are created.

The simple truth is that most professional artists work long hours alone in their art studios and that these studios become their homes. More philosophically speaking, the home is not simply a physical place built from brick and stone, but also a space of dwelling. To dwell for Heidegger is an essential part of our being human in this world. For artists it is our natural condition – we are dwellers (whether we sit still and dwell at home is often of no real concern to us). For now, the academic focus must deliberately, if momentarily, concentrate on the physical space of our dwelling. However we think about our homes, the home-as-idea remains the vital precondition upon which we as humans build our creative dreams.

Our greatest hope during this time is that our students can continue to make art and to meaningfully intervene in their lives and those of others. Every artwork is a physical intervention into the world: it is something that did not exist before and now fulfils a particular, often highly personal function in the life of its owner. It reminds us of a particular moment in time, provides us with a feeling of joy or even of loss, and ultimately artworks contribute to the meaningful fabric that is life itself.

We will do our best to provide our students with the materials and the various conceptual tools to do just that. We are also hopeful that their voices will help us understand this present moment better. Artists have rarely succumbed to the pressures and hardships of (our) so-called reality, because to do so is to forego the possibility of another. It is to give up on our individual agency as creative beings and we cannot do this ever.

Perhaps then in time even this moment of being stuck in a single space may offer its own clarity and teach us a thing or two about our ability to be creative!

By Dr Johan Thom, Fine Arts Programme, School of the Arts, University of Pretoria