This spring, as secondary schools prepared to welcome students back into the classroom, the Barrick Museum of Art featured an exhibition of work from UNLV art professor Tiffany Lin. Titled Proof, the exhibition probed ideas around remote learning, an area Lin had been thinking about a lot since the pandemic shutdown in 2020 gave her and her colleagues a crash course in teaching art students online.
Curious to find out more about the world of pandemic-era education, the Barrick’s D.K. Sole introduced the artist to Rebecca Weeks, a local art teacher from CCSD’s William H. Bailey Middle School. Weeks had just received the 2021 Pacific Region Middle Level Art Educator Award from the National Education Association, partly for her ability to encourage positivity in her students while they were learning remotely. She describes her school as “Title I Turnaround,” meaning that it qualifies for federal and state aid to improve the performance of a student body that lacks the financial resources that would make remote learning easier.
Meeting across Zoom shortly before CCSD schools began their transition to hybrid instruction, Weeks and Lin talked about the similarities between middle school and college teaching, the problem of ensuring that remote art students have supplies, and how the popularity of digital technology has changed the practice of teaching art.
Rebecca Weeks: I would say the biggest challenge is getting them to show up. I have, let’s say, 120 students and I probably only see the faces of about 10 of them throughout the day. Even in adult professional development meetings, a lot of adults don’t turn their cameras on. So it’s not really a question of engagement so much as, I guess, motivating yourself as a teacher to keep going and to be enthusiastic on camera because you’re looking at black boxes with interesting profile pictures. And, because I’m an artist, I always notice when they change. I’ll greet someone and say, “Oh, that’s a really cool profile picture. Who made that?” Or “what cartoon did that come from?”
Tiffany Lin: I am curious about supplies. In my own experience, even at the college level, access has been a big problem. We’ve experienced budget cuts in the department, but there is still money to purchase supplies students can pick up. But I’ve also had students that are just like, “I can’t. I live too far away.” Or “I moved to Arizona. I moved to Texas.” But they still want to finish out their degree at UNLV. So how does that work at middle school level?
Weeks: My kids are Title I Turnaround, so they didn’t have a computer in their house at the start of the pandemic. They have a red pen and scrap paper. The kid gets a Chromebook from CCSD and that’s it. I always teach computer art and digital art, but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the rest of it so I came up with some pretty creative ideas for what could we use at your house. We painted with coffee and Kool Aid.
Those students that have had me before, they know that I keep huge boxes in the classroom, of funky things to trace. So, they had those habits in mind already from watching me do it. You know, you want to draw a circle, you don’t have a compass, you trace a bowl. You don’t have paper, you use the mail that comes to your house and just flip it over to the blank side. We did collages using those coupons that come in the mail every Tuesday. Knowing that, I had to be accepting of the fact that whatever we did with collage was going to involve whatever the Palmolive and Colgate ads were this week. I think I became more open to accepting their interpretation as a result. I was less rigid than I probably would be in a classroom.
D.K. Sole: Tiffany, you put together an online lesson plan for K-12 students as well a short while ago, didn’t you?
Lin: Yes, for the Wassaic Project. They’re a residency program in upstate New York. I had a residency there in combination with an education fellowship. Similar to what you were saying, Rebecca, it’s like trying to think about how to be really resourceful. Pieces of scrap paper, printer paper, cardboard, whatever you have lying around. But with Wassaic you could stop by to pick up supplies. Like, we’ll have a little kit for you. My online workshop dealt with shadows: casting your own shadow and tracing it. That is pretty accessible. I would say we all have a shadow.
Weeks: For the first semester, I had a suggested art list, so those who could buy supplies, you know, I said I want you to get this, this, this, and this. I took a lot of pictures in the Walmart of what those things would look like. To go back to what you were saying about kits, I worked a lot with my administration and eventually I was blessed. They gave me $25 per kid, which is my typical elective fee. And we bought two-gallon Ziplocs (to fill) for second semester kits. The art kit for Art II includes Model Magic, yarn, crochet hooks. I teach them fiber art. I teach them how to crochet.
Lin: I’m someone who has toggled between digital interfaces, digital media, and analog stuff. I still think there’s no replacement.
This goes a lot with my teaching philosophy in general, but I do think art-making is a full-body experience. And from a young age I think that should be cultivated. I think children are naturally inclined to do it. We lose it along the way. Some of it has to do with all these new technologies that make things more efficient but then focus all of our strengths on our fingers and our eyes. The tiny actions as opposed to gross motor skills.
In terms of the exhibition at the Marjorie Barrick Museum, my approach was to make a pseudo classroom in the museum. I was thinking about UNLV, but also more specifically about museums as a place of learning through art. And so, having this art piece that is a classroom, but also has to be interactive. That was something that was important to me. I knew that may be a challenge given the circumstances. But I’m actually pretty surprised at the number of visitors who have been able to write physically (on the chalkboard).
The physical touch of handling chalk, of hearing the rhythm, click-click-click-click, across the board — I think it does something to the brain to hear your making, and to feel it. The digital stuff is good, but it’s changing our relationship to the creative process. I get some students and it seems like they’ve never mixed paint before, I guess, because of so many digital shortcuts. What I found with a student after talking to him — we were trying to mix different colors — I was like, oh, because he uses the eye dropper tool on everything, right? He’s like, “I want purple.” Bam!
Weeks: I would liken that to a GPS. Because I’m hearing it and following the map on the GPS, I don’t have to notice landmarks and things in the same way that I did even 10 years ago. On the other hand, I’m a visual learner and a kinesthetic learner, so I ignore her when she tells me where to turn. And I don’t worry about it. I just turn around and go back but some people would be uncomfortable.
Lin: It’s that element of risk-taking. Being willing to do, regardless of age, right? There is a comfort in knowing the results are predictable. I think everything is so quick and easily accessible now with YouTube and all these tutorials. It’s like everyone just thinks, “Oh, it’s easy. I could do that. I could figure it out.” But the physical element of learning forces them to fail. I’ll assign a battery of assignments and some students are like, “Oh my God, this is so tedious.” But there’s a reason.
Weeks: How you explored art then is very different to how you explore art now, because of all those tools. I do allow tracing with Procreate in the classroom sometimes. Because artists do that. They steal, you know. But you have to have the foundational skills to begin with.
Like you said, it’s all building to something. First semester I had a virtual visit to Valley of Fire because I teach petroglyphs. I hooked up with a ranger up there and she videotaped a walk out up to the petroglyphs and then met my class online. We’ve had the gallerist Nancy Good take us virtually around the Core Contemporary Gallery and show them the cool masks that are on the wall. And those are things I would have done in person. I would have had those people come in. I had the artist Alex Huerta come in. But I can’t do that now. That doesn’t mean I eliminated these experiences. I just do them in different ways.
Tiffany Lin's work is among those currently featured in A Common Thread, a group exhibition featuring textile art by nine womxn artists of color from Las Vegas and other communities across the United States. The exhibition is a collaboration between the Barrick Museum and the Las Vegas Womxn of Color Arts Festival.