Chris Sharratt talks to three Fine Art tutors about the challenges of teaching during a global pandemic.

Art education during the Covid-19 pandemic has been especially hard hit, as studio spaces closed and lectures and tutorials went online. But while so much comment has – rightly so – been focused on the impact this has had on students and their work, the other side of this educational equation also merits attention. Overnight, lecturers – many of which are also practising artists – had to rethink the way they teach, frantically attempting to replace what was lost due to Covid restrictions.

For most, the last year has been one of back-to-back Zoom/Teams chats and tutorials; screen fatigue has been a major issue. “Everything to do with making up for the lack of contact was of course done on screen,” says Ian Dawson, Lecturer in Fine Art at Winchester School of Art. “We found we were online so much that screen fatigue became a really unexpected byproduct which was hard to cope with.” In the end, to benefit both lecturers and students – who could be spending up to six hours a day on screen, with many of the students then having to make their work digitally –  a decision was made to drastically cut back the amount of online teaching. “We had to empty out the second semester of online content just to balance out the amount of time being spent on screen. The students needed their own time, too.”

While Dawson describes not being able to meet up physically with students as a “massive, massive hole that had a massive impact”, he also talks of the “unexpected bonuses” of moving online. For some students, for example, having on-screen rather than in-person crits has taken some of the anxiety away from the process. Dawson says it enabled a “safe environment” for discussion; students have more control over how they engage via an online crit, and some of the more stressful aspects of presenting work to peers can be mitigated.

This less fluid, more controlled environment also has its downsides, of course. For Dr Benedict Carpenter van Barthold, Principal Lecturer in Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University, part of what’s lost is the opportunity for the tutor to both broaden and deepen the discussion by drawing on “the haptic space of the studio, the tutor and student surrounded with the paraphernalia of artistic practice”. He adds: “One of the things that has been lost through the pandemic is the accidental encounter, the line of questioning that begins when the neglected object, the thing-under-the-desk, the half-made painting, is brought out by the tutor, and introduced to the conversation. What we have lost is the productive happenstance of richer, in-person studio conversation, when the half-made thing gets new and unexpected life breathed into it.”

Carpenter van Barthold gets to the very heart of why art education has been so impacted by the pandemic. There is so much about the process that is about discussion, experimentation, peer learning, accidental encounters. Without studio space and the freedom to interact in more hands-on, spontaneous ways, the lecturer’s role has, to some extent, been stifled. The sculptor Kenny Hunter, who teaches across the Fine Art department at Edinburgh College of Art, says that replacing studio practice has been a major challenge, citing the loss of the peer-to-peer learning that this usually enables. “So much student learning happens by proximity and the allegiances you build up, the arguments, the life that students generate for themselves in those spaces. Obviously that was not there.”

Hunter also mentions the idea of “thinking through making”. While of course students have adapted brilliantly and found many different ways to make work while being locked out of their studios, the process of this making has naturally been more isolated. Without the conversations, the sharing, the interaction that is activated through studio practice, some of the opportunities to finesse and adapt work have been lost.

It’s important to acknowledge here that it isn’t just the students who have lost out when it comes to real-world interactions, and the intellectual and social stimulation these can bring. Tutors, too, have been cut off from each other. And while there has been a proliferation of online discussions, lectures and screenings across the art world, these can’t replace those chance informal chats and social encounters – what Hunter describes as “the social lubricant of the art school”. He adds: “Staff relationships have become much more functional. You don’t get time for chats, going for a pint after work, that kind of thing.”

As the likelihood of a full return to face-to-face teaching and studio spaces in the next academic year grows, it’s clear that back to ‘normal’ can’t mean doing things exactly how they were done before. The experiences of both students and tutors over the last year will undoubtedly prompt new ideas, new ways of doing things. For one-to-one chats between tutors and students, for example, booking online and meeting remotely has worked well, in some instances increasing contact time – albeit via a screen. But as Carpenter van Barthold says, what needs to return as soon as possible is the dynamic mix that drives and enriches art education. “A good art school is like a healthy compost heap: a rich and diverse environment, full of life and fermentation. Teaching over the internet, by comparison, is more like a visit to the apothecary’s shop. You get a dose of what you need, but it is not quite as rich all the same.”

1. Anna Marris, Open pit mining from above and below the surface, 60x90cm, CMYK screen print, 2021. BA Fine Art, Winchester School of Art
2. Tom Cobbett, An Introduction, film piece 1.30 duration, 2021. BA Fine Art, Nottingham Trent University.
3. Natalie Godjamanian, Collage 3: the sage and the outlaw. MA Fine Art, Edinburgh College of Art.
4, 5, 6. Innes Clark, first year Illustration BA student at Edinburgh College of Art. Works created as part of Kenny Hunter’s School of Art Elective Course ‘Drawn from the City’:
“I started the project looking at houseplants and how it became a trend within the past year due to lockdown, as well as looking at the plant and garden community within Edinburgh. I mainly looked into how this was a positive distraction and outlet within all the madness. The contrast of the image and text tie together well and communicate the raw truth of how this pandemic has effected people’s lives.”