CIA’s Mission: Keep the Learning on Track

Fiber works by Destyni Green

The Cleveland Institute of Art has always touted the problem-solving skills of its artists and designers. Coronavirus gave the CIA community a dramatic chance to prove it.

When the virus first hit Ohio in March, state restrictions on public gatherings affected everything from the education of its bachelor’s degree students to delivery of continuing education and Cinematheque films in the Peter B. Lewis Theater.

Operations changed, but learning and making kept right on happening.

“We were committed from the start that the education of our students simply had to stay on course,” said Grafton Nunes, president and CEO.

In mid-March, Nunes announced that all classes would be moved online and that students would not be allowed access to CIA studios, classrooms and shared fabrication spaces.

Faculty immediately began adjusting course plans for online delivery. Freshmen, who were not required to have their own computers, were loaned laptops and tablets if they needed them. IT staff worked with vendors to make software available to students who would no longer have access to the college’s computer labs.

As it became clear that state restrictions would continue beyond the end of the semester, the college announced the cancellation of in-person gatherings for hallmark educational events, including Spring Show and BFA Week. Plans emerged to turn the May 15 Commencement exercise into an online celebration.

“We would not have chosen to experience the semester as it unfolded,” Nunes said. “It presented a host of struggles and grief over the loss of some of our most cherished traditions, especially for seniors.”

“But the crisis also presented the choice as to whether to be defeated or to let experience be the mother of invention,” Nunes added. “What we saw overwhelmingly was faculty, staff and students leaning into these new circumstances.”

Sculpture + Expanded Media student Destyni Green switched the course of one project to make it more relevant to the times. Hunkered down at home with family in Maple Heights, she taught herself to knit for a fiber-based work. For a course in jewelry settings, she had been looking forward to seeing her final designs materialize. Instead, she and her classmates worked in CAD to make 3D models they hope to be able to make on a 3D printer.

Green said the stay-home order made her appreciate what she gets from sharing studio spaces with her peers during normal times. And it helped her to loosen her anxious grip on routine and perfectionism. “It’s odd that it took a quarantine and being away from CIA to accomplish that,” she said.

For Drawing major Nicholas Birnie, the move online posed few material difficulties. “I don’t use toxic materials, just graphite and gouache,” he said. At his family’s home in Massachusetts, he used his mom’s scanner to share his work with faculty and fellow students.

Originally, he said, he worried that being separated from the studio and in-person class gatherings would take a toll on his motivation. “But then I saw it as an early introduction to what life would be like after we graduate. If you can’t motivate yourself to make art without being in school, how can you make a career out of it?”

As it turned out, one of the hardest parts was home confinement itself. Long days within unchanging scenery were strangely exhausting, Birnie said. On the other hand, his artmaking process loosened up. “It’s been kind of an enjoyable release, where I can give myself more time to go down rabbit holes and explore what artmaking means,” he said.

Faculty expressed similar experiences of challenges and victories. From the beginning, they shared online resources, prepared video demonstrations, and generally got creative with how to teach art in a virtual world.

Benjamin Johnson, chair of Glass, arranged for his students to receive a kit for turning powdered glass into a claylike material for executing their projects. Nancy Lick, an adjunct faculty member in Illustration, assigned students to make a self-portrait that suggested a narrative about the effects of the pandemic.

Dan Cuffaro, chair of Industrial Design, noted that online communication was at times taxing. Missing were the visual cues that normally alert faculty that a student wants to speak. On the upside, he added, students benefitted from access to industry professionals working from home, who were happy to spend more time on project critiques.

Lane Cooper, chair of Painting, said one of the difficulties was conveying to students that faculty—who normally control so much of the class environment—couldn’t fix everything in the COVID-19 era. “It was hard for them to understand that we couldn’t just say, ‘Our mistake, you can go back into your studios’,”she said.

“Some days were good, great even. Some days I felt like I was making a difference, that I was really helping by working with these emerging artists to find their way in the midst of this,” Cooper said. “And some days I felt a bit lost and very sad for the world.”

Reinberger Gallery—a big player in CIA’s educational mission—had its own challenges. T ITL E TB D, an exhibition curated by Meghana Karnik, was set to open in the gallery on March 26. With virtually all of the works gathered in the gallery, Director Nikki Woods was, as of April, “still hoping to be able to open this very relevant exhibition in the near future.”

When that might be is still in question along with so much else. In early April, Ohio extended its stay-at-home order until May 1, and it was unclear how the spread of coronavirus might affect summer programs. Up in the air at CAN’s press time were four weeks of pre-college for high school students, a ten-day residency program for high school art teachers, the 2020 Alumni Exhibition, a host of continuing education classes and a slate of films at the Cinematheque.




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