Paint-splattered easels pile under the rusted shelf in the painting studio. Dust swirls around the table saw and chunks of timber in the wood shop. Not a soul can be found in the Annie Smith Building in Sheridan College, except the faces on abandoned canvases ensconced in the shadows, and plaster busts gazing infinitely into oblivion, waiting for their creators to return. Once occupied by Art and Art History students, the building resonates with silence from the cubicles all the way through the floating stairs.

Painting, sculpture, print media and other studio art courses jointly offered by UTM and Sheridan College have migrated to online platforms since the start of summer. Alek Vuksinic-Gauthier, Print Media Assistant and fifth-year Art and Art History student selected for the Advanced Project, shares with The Medium his perspective on COVID-19’s rippling effects on the academic lives of art students.  

“Art is ideally digested in person. It is an interactive process between the viewers and the artwork,” Alek comments. “Without direct contact, the effectiveness and quality of art are inhibited.”

The Art and Art History Graduation Exhibition in 2020 was originally planned to take place in an art gallery. Because of the lockdown, students have no choice but to showcase their works via online format on Instagram. In Alek’s opinion, the shift to digital platform suppresses artistic pursuit and limits the opportunity for students to present their work. 

“When [the] university closed unexpectedly last winter semester, everything scaled down quickly and not much was prepared. Online classes and materials are scrambled and put together in a hurried and scribbled-up manner.” Alek adds a personal remark, “I can’t say I enjoyed it.” 

The shift to remote learning is especially concerning for students who lack reliable access to Internet, private space, or art supplies. Before the pandemic, Alek, who lives far from town with limited Internet at home, completed his schoolwork at the university library or in a café. With the closure of these facilities, he must drive to other people’s houses to watch lectures, which causes him great inconvenience and hinders his learning experience.   

“Everything takes place over a longer period of time,” continued Alek. “The professor is no longer fifty yards away and students have little incentive to email and ask for additional resources. They are more inclined to just google the answers.”

Beside Internet access, Alek finds staying motivated another challenge with long-distance learning. With pre-recorded lectures available to watch at any time, students in asynchronous courses lose the ability to be present and interact with others through discussions in class.  

“Unlike subjects such as history, which rely heavily upon factual knowledge, studio art is based upon implicit, practical knowledge,” says Alek. “You have to watch someone do it, practice it yourself, and get advice from others to become better. This interactive process is restricted with remote learning.” 

For Alek, art is a medium to express impersonal ideas. For others, art provides an opportunity to engage in personal reflection and introspection, especially during social isolation. “Art serves as an alternative method of communication when verbal communication becomes hazy and intractable,” Alek explains.

With his social relations fostered mainly on campus, Alek also finds it difficult to connect with his friends during quarantine. Social media, for Alek, is only a pretext for in-person communication. It complements but doesn’t replace face-to-face meetings. “Sometimes you just see pictures of people’s cats and you don’t know anything about them,” he laughs.  

In the past few months, Alek has incorporated music composition into his arsenal of new skills and will continue to explore interests in musical theory with his jazz band. He spends quality time on his hobby of gardening and cooks regularly for his family.

When asked about his advice for incoming art students, Alek pauses for a moment. “Don’t get the idea that this is all art is about. This is only a reduced version of the whole picture. Bear with it and things will get better.” 

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