Innovation and Inspiration Kept Art Thriving

As the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts moved instruction online, faculty and students improvised and kept creating
A line drawing of a bird on a roof overlaid on a window looking out on flowering yard. As the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts moved instruction online this spring, faculty and students improvised and kept creating
“Sylvia on Emily” by Maria Fong. “Good artists can always find ways to create,” said Floor van de Velde, a professor of the practice. “My teaching philosophy is: if you’re an artist, you can work anywhere with anything.” Photo: Courtesy Maria Fong
June 8, 2020

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When the COVID-19 pandemic sent student artist Maria Fong, A21, back to her home in Berkeley, California, she found a fresh way to make art, collaborating with friends from across the country.

Working from photos her friends took of the view from their windows, Fong, fulfilling a project for Professor of the Practice Ethan Murrow, drew those images in ink on plastic report covers she happened to have at home. She mailed each one to a new person, who taped it on their own window, then photographed the synthesized view and emailed it back.

“I wanted to make connections between people,” Fong said. “It was a time for reaching out and making sure they’re OK.”

Her project was one of many innovative artworks that students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts (SMFA) made this spring after classes were moved online. SMFA faculty helped students shift quickly from studio-based classes to new ways to learn and make art.

“Good artists can always find ways to create,” said artist Floor van de Velde, a professor of the practice. “My teaching philosophy is: if you’re an artist, you can work anywhere with anything. So I started thinking, ‘What if this were a self- imposed residency—and you don’t have any equipment, you don’t have any tools. What do you do as an artist?’” 

Bella Kiser wears soft armor pieces made of recycled bed sheets, while posing on a pedestal at Beaux-Arts de Paris in 2019. She included the image in an online publication she created as project for a spring 2020 course on installations. Image: Courtesy of Bella KiserIn van de Velde’s Digital Fabrication Lab course, the answer lay in switching to digital book design, since students no longer had access to the laser cutters, 3D printers, and milling machines of their usual studio.  

Working from different countries and time zones, the students collaborated on a book of speculative art ideas and designs called Synchronous / Asynchronous, which will become part of the SMFA library when professionally printed. To accompany the publication, students also experimented with geo-location using Google Earth, placing 3D models of their work in distinct locations.  

Students brought similar inventiveness to a course van de Velde co-teaches with Megan McMillan called Advanced Installation Projects. Aidan Huntington, A/SMFA 20, learned new design software and used repurposed video stills to fulfill their creative vision, while classmate Bella Kiser, A21, shifted her plans for a large-scale inflatable installation to a smaller creation powered by a hair dryer.   

Maya Erdelyi-Perez, a lecturer who teaches animation, embraced new technology to replace the traditional end-of-year animation show with an hour-long livestream Twitch event (view the recording here). The online gathering—like a gallery opening, really—attracted 110 participants and included a Q&A with the artists. “It provided a sense of celebration and it helped end the class on a really high note,” Erdelyi-Perez said.  

She also guided students in her Animation Integration course on video tours of three artists’ studios in Chicago and in Somerville. “I don’t know if we would’ve had the same opportunity to see their spaces without Maya and her connections within the community,” said Valerie Cervantes, A23, of Dallas. “I want to commend Maya for remaining so upbeat and incredibly positive.”

Maya Erdelyi-Perez, a lecturer who teaches animation, leads an hour-long livestream Twitch event, much like a gallery opening showing off her students’ work. That support from faculty is important, especially for online learning. Murrow, for his part, conjured up new ways to engage students in his Drawing Directed Study class. His far-flung students created zines about the COVID-19 crisis, “documenting grocery store lines and daily hardships with their phones and sharing them on social media,” he said. “Their ideas and commitment were truly inspiring.”

To keep students’ spirits up, Murrow raided his daughter’s dress-up drawer and made light-hearted videos. “Hopefully my bad jokes and goofiness made them laugh a bit in a hard time,” he said. “It is also a way to remind them to keep experimenting with whatever they have at hand.”

Video still from a Zoom demo on performative self-portraiture with Ethan Murrow. “Students were asked to build self-portraits using whatever mirrors and supplies they had available and considering ways they could inventively alter their appearance to stay playfully and critically engaged in discussions of representation and identity,” said Murrow. “In my case I used items from our kids’ dress-up drawer.”Danielle Abrams, professor of the practice, helped her performance classes adapt to a new stage: the Zoom grid. And in one Beginning Performance assignment, she asked students to perform in relation to a site in their home.

Ananya Jain, A23, of New Delhi gave a tarot card reading from a tent in her bedroom. Her props included “my blanket, cushions, makeup, crystals, tarot cards, and my old study lamp as a spotlight,” she said. “My overall goal was to make everyone feel included and engaged and create an interesting ambiance with the things I like. I wanted to come across as intimate and funny.”

The experience of making art from home, with Abrams’ guidance, taught Jain that “creativity is fed by what you truly love as an individual,” she said. “I used to be stuck on impressing my teachers, but Danielle’s class, in particular, helped me embrace myself and my ideas and be less rigid about my work.”

Looking ahead, Abrams is carrying forward lessons learned from the spring’s distance learning experience to her fall courses, including “What Would You Do with a Chair? Performance as Sculpture / Sculpture as Performance,” co-taught with Mags Harries. 

“As teachers, we are always looking for new ways to challenge our students,” she said. “So for us, online learning is another opportunity to develop their own art but also artistic perspectives—even everyday objects can be seen with new eyes.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.