CORVALLIS, Ore. — In a normal year, seniors in the fine arts program at Oregon State University spend their spring quarter ramping up to a final exhibition in the university’s Fairbanks Gallery, where they can showcase the pieces they’ve been working on for months or even years.
This year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the art show for students completing their bachelor’s degree in fine arts is fully online. So are the solo shows typically held in the smaller West Gallery, where seniors each get a week during winter or spring quarter to display their artwork. Only the first half of this year’s seniors completed their in-person solo shows before the pandemic struck.
“It’s a bummer. Normally, they get to document their work in a professional gallery with good lighting and good walls,” said art instructor Andrew Nigon, who teaches a spring seminar geared toward preparing students for this final exhibition. But at the same time, “It’s forcing us to think literally outside the box and think about what the role of an art gallery is: It is to promote artwork and get work to be seen by as many people as possible.”
Nigon’s seminar is a chance for the seniors to discuss different ideas and options for how best to display and publicize their work in the online space.
The smaller West Gallery shows moved to the Instagram page of the OSU Fairbanks Gallery. The account featured artwork by a different student every week of spring term.
The move to online learning is accelerating what’s already happening in the art world, Nigon said: As social media has become more dominant, artists need to think beyond physical spaces and learn how to capitalize on virtual spaces to attract an audience.
In addition to teaching students how to frame and hang their work, his seminar this spring also had to focus on how to make it look good online.
That process is more challenging for some forms of art than others. Senior MaKenzie Reed, for example, has two major components of her final art show: A video project and a 3-by-4-foot embroidery piece.
The video translates well for people to see at home, although she imagined it being projected onto the wall of a gallery, not 3 inches wide on someone’s phone screen, she said.
But she’s disappointed people won’t be able to see the embroidery in person, as the layers of detail and texture aren’t as visible online.
“I want it to be against a white wall, with all the lights pointing on it; I pictured it in this gallery space, and I’m trying to recreate it on this living room wall,” Reed said. “When you take a large photo — a picture of the whole thing — you can’t really zoom in that far; it loses the quality.”
Still, she’s hopeful the online show will bring wider exposure to the art, reaching people who wouldn’t visit Fairbanks.
With campus studios closed, some students were cut off from certain media altogether, including print-making and woodworking.
Senior Kate Quamma, a painter, said the big challenge for her was setting up a studio in her home.
“We have a beautiful painting studio for advanced painters, where we all have our own areas, and mine was very established and set up,” she said of her campus workspace. But once she transformed a second bedroom into her painting area, she realized she’s lucky to be learning how to do this now, prior to the massive transition of graduating college, finding a job and a new place to live all at once: “This is giving me a head start.”
Senior Jacen Doebler, an illustrator, has given new meaning to the term “studio apartment:” His entire space is covered in black tarp with canvases and full-size wooden doors sprawled across the floor. He can’t exactly throw paint around the way he’s used to in such tight quarters, and while it’s convenient to have his work so close at hand, the proximity also means he feels guilty when he’s not working.
For him, losing the solo West Gallery exhibition was a bigger hit than the class Fairbanks show, because he’s been dreaming about his display since freshman year.
“Every time I walk past that room, I look at it and think about what are the sizes; what’s the orientation of the things I want to put in there,” he said. In contrast to the deliberate act of visiting a gallery, he said, Instagram users often scroll quickly through their feed and individual posts get lost in the shuffle.
But he’s hopeful about what Instagram could become, especially for future art students: “It’s exciting and just really going into the unknown.”
Nigon feels the same way. He said he’s starting to feel badly for past students, who never got the opportunity to show their art online or get creative with virtual delivery.
“I think it’s a positive thing. The more people are exposed and can interact with art, the better,” Nigon said. “Art has existed long before art galleries, and it will exist long after. Artists are always finding new ways to get their ideas out into the world. It’s just a new challenge that we’ll adapt to.”
Follow this link to see a video of students' at-home creative process and discussion of how it altered their senior year.
About the OSU College of Liberal Arts: The College of Liberal Arts includes the fine and performing arts, humanities and social sciences, making it one of the largest and most diverse colleges at OSU. The college's research and instructional faculty members contribute to the education of all university students and provide national and international leadership, creativity and scholarship in their academic disciplines.