Faculty and students in Winthrop University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts are employing their critical thinking skills and creativity like never before due to the campus’ closure because of COVID-19 and the move to remote instruction.

Kelly Ozust, assistant professor of dance in the Department of Theatre and Dance, has faced the unprecedented challenge of virtually continuing her dance technique classes, which typically require immediate feedback, partner work and a hands-on approach.

“I have been inspired by how the students are rising to meet this difficult challenge,” Ozust said. “None of this has been ideal, but it has shown me the resilience of students who are truly passionate about their majors, and want to push themselves to get better, even if they have to dance in their hallways, bedrooms and backyards.”

Ozust used a variety of methods to continue teaching dance techniques, including a platform called FlipGrid that allowed her to film herself dancing at home, share it with the students, and then get response videos from them performing the technique exercises. 

The biggest challenge, Ozust explained, was finding a balance between continuing the course while also checking in on her students’ mental health. In addition to students who may struggle from chronic anxiety or depression, some students were challenged by internet access. 

“I have one student that didn’t have reliable internet at all, Ozust said. “He had to drive to a hotspot or the library to complete his work, so we came up with an alternative schedule of due dates to make it work. He turned everything in, and was one of my students who came up with exceptionally creative choreographic responses.”

“Comforting beyond measure”

For students in the Department of Music, carrying an instrument between campus and their homes wouldn’t sound like a challenge on the surface level. But for one piano major, it isn’t as easy to pack up her instrument. Through the use of university contingency funding, student Savannah Gaymon was able to get an upright piano rental at home, which was necessary to continue her coursework.

“Amidst all of the current uncertainties, I am extremely grateful that finding a place to practice is no longer one of them,” Gaymon said in a thank-you email to university administrators. “As a piano major, music is a place of great comfort and peace to me, and having sure access to a piano may seem insignificant, but is comforting beyond measure.” 

Other music students taking required piano skills courses received keyboards at home, without which it would be impossible to complete their coursework.

The shows must go on 
At the end of each academic year, seniors in the Department of Design hold their “Senior Show,” often at an off-campus location, to present themselves as professionals ready to tackle the creative community. From the branding to promotion, students work together to develop a look for the show and spend much of the spring semester promoting it among both the Winthrop and creative community in Charlotte and beyond.

The event, which was slated to take place at the Mint Museum in Uptown Charlotte this April, not only serves as a way for graduating students to show off their portfolio to their peers, family and faculty members, it also provides an opportunity for them to meet with potential employers in the area. 

“The biggest challenge I have faced is the question, ‘what now?’” said Jesse Weser, assistant professor of design. “The seniors look at the event as their passage into the professional world and it opens up a lot of opportunities for them. They keep asking me how to apply and get jobs now, and I don’t have an answer for them. It’s new to me too, it’s new to everyone. I am pushing them to make (when they can and feel like it) and get creative in promoting themselves and connecting with the creative community.”

In lieu of a physical event, students have been featured in individual spotlights on the Design Senior Show website.

Similarly, in the Department of Fine Arts, senior B.F.A. candidates have had to transition their exhibition “What Was & What Will Be” from within the walls of the Rutledge Gallery to a virtual exhibition. Assistant Professor of Fine Arts Claudia O’Steen and Department of Fine Arts Chair Karen Oremus believed that having the exhibition online was important, even though the exhibition is planned to be open in August for visitors in-person. “The students have worked really hard to reach this point in their careers, and we wanted to make sure that their work was seen,” O’Steen said.

Inspired by other galleries who were adapting exhibitions to view online, students’ work was photographed within the space to give the viewer the chance to understand the scale and imagine how the work exists within a physical space.

Alongside the artwork on display, students recorded digital artist talks that were posted on YouTube to share their research process with the audience. “The students have been amazing,” O’Steen said. “They are, of course, disappointed, because this exhibition is supposed to be a celebration of all of their hard work and accomplishments, but they also understand the need to come up with alternative solutions that keep people safe.”

Going digital was not without its challenges, however. Part of the grade students received for the class included installing the artwork within the gallery while adhering to social distancing guidelines. O’Steen worked with Oremus and the Winthrop University Galleries to allow students to come to the gallery one at a time for a few hours to finish installing their work.

“Each student only had a few hours to install, which required them to plan ahead and work quickly. After the installation was completed, the department hired a photographer to document the work. Everyone worked hard to make this happen, and it was really exciting to see the exhibition images.” 

The exhibition is viewable online now and will be open for public viewing this August in the Rutledge Gallery.

For more information on the College of Visual and Performing Arts, contact Whitney Hough, director of communications and community engagement, at houghw@winthrop.edu.