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UC Irvine Art Department: Recontextualizing Instruction During Changing Times

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The visual and performing arts inspire and enlighten us. They provide solace, help us rise above difficulties and uplift our spirits during times of change and confusion. “Art is essential to the well-being of individuals and society,” explains Stephen Barker, Ph.D., dean of the UC Irvine Claire Trevor School of the Arts (CTSA). “We have an obligation to play a central role in bringing people together through these times.” 

When the statewide shutdown occurred in March, the four CTSA departments — visual art, dance, drama and music — formulated new teaching models (within two weeks), employing this curricula through the end of the Spring semester. Several models proved so effective that the art school plans to use them in the Fall and into the future. Barker adds, “As artists, we have vowed to do everything we can to exploit the limitations imposed on us by the current shutdown, the lack of audiences and in-person classes. We are exploring new hybrid interactions, multi-site performances, and widened audiences to reach technologically.” 

A black and white photo of a pigeon among palm trees by UCI Art photography student Brenna Chiaramonte. Taught by art professor Shelby Roberts. | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts
A black and white photo of a pigeon among palm trees by UCI Art photography student Brenna Chiaramonte. Taught by art professor Shelby Roberts. | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts

UCI’s Visual Art Department was particularly inventive, devising student-on-student interviews for its Undergraduate Honors Thesis Exhibition. Allyson Unzicker, associate director and curator of the University Art Galleries, explains, “During the interviews, students discussed their thesis projects, their processes and concepts and how the pandemic affected their work.” Kevin Appel, professor and chair of the Department of Art and director of the University Art Galleries, says, “I think this idea [the interview model] will stay with us as it has the potential of increasing both exposure and art discourse for our students.” The Gallery’s Instagram account describes its mission and activities.

UCI Dance's "A story of roots in four parts" by Claire Goldes | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts
UCI Dance's "A story of roots in four parts" by Claire Goldes | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts

Appel adds, “Art Professor Juli Carson mentioned that never before had the stories of how artists have lived and worked through dark times been more prescient and inspiring. ‘We professors and students alike will always remember this bittersweet moment,’” Carson told him early in the pandemic. He also references Art Professor Simon Leung’s seminar on AIDS activism, identity politics, critique of power/state, mourning and ethical/political content in art as being timely during COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests.

The university’s Dance Department was equally resourceful. Molly Lynch, professor and chair of the Department of Dance says, “Normally the Dance Department hosts a ‘Physical Graffiti’ undergraduate choreographed concert in the spring quarter.” This year, they presented Physical Graffiti Online,” expressing themes of community, family, isolation, childhood, love and unity. 

The performance, Lynch explains, began with an introduction and explanation of the newly envisioned dance presentation by Artistic Directors Lisa Naugle and Lindsay Gilmour. The following hybrid performance included dance, video, animation, collage, poems and sketched images. Inspired by the success of this multi-faceted recital, created by video conferencing using iPhones, computers and other technology, the Department plans to use these methods for its “New Slate Online” iteration in the fall, to be choreographed by MFA students.

UCI Art Thesis Cohort Interview Series featuring Cristina Barragan, Joanna Koo, Kelsey Aileen Kuykendall, Gabriella Salinardo, Ryan Wang and  Lily Welling. | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts
UCI Art Thesis Cohort Interview Series featuring visual art students Cristina Barragan, Joanna Koo, Kelsey Aileen Kuykendall, Gabriella Salinardo, Ryan Wang and Lily Welling. | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts

Donald David Hill, UCI’s Department of Drama chair, discusses the drama school's previous performances in UCI theaters and the Irvine Barclay Theater. This past Spring, they instead presented “Improv Royale,” a comedy referencing difficulties encountered on Zoom, which they showed on Zoom. The department also produced an old-fashioned radio play, “Listening Party.” Both of these successful online models will be employed in the Fall.

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Hill discusses the enjoyment his students experienced in previous Spring semesters, having traveled to New York City to attend the Tony Awards, to work as assistants in theatrical productions and to meet with agents. With these options unavailable, the students taped monologues and recorded songs, presenting these to a wider audience than in previous years. As this effort enabled many more students to sign with agents this year than in previous ones, Hill plans to utilize this intense, early recording model in the future.  

UCI Dance's Piper Bockstahler choreographed "Lost in the Soft Light" | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts
UCI Dance's Piper Bockstahler choreographed "Lost in the Soft Light" | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts

UCI’s Music Department students considered performing in groups via Zoom, but that method did not work well for them. In a phone conversation, Stephen Tucker, the university’s chair of music and conductor of the UCI Symphony Orchestra, explained that instead, the students played individually during online classes. Then, they discussed their performances, the origins of the musical pieces and the functions of the instruments.

A screenshot of a UCI Dance Adapting Ballet Class. | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts
A screenshot of a UCI Dance Adapting Ballet Class. | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts,

The department also initiated instruction in orchestration, the art of analyzing symphonies from the conductor’s point of view. Most students were excited to be taught orchestration, with many of them learning about this discipline for the first time. Tucker hopes to continue teaching this art form even after in-person classes resume. For its year-end performance, the music department presented its UCI Opera Salon live via Zoom. The event featured arias and songs, followed by a discussion on the music performed with its composer, Lori Laitman.

Observing the UC Irvine art school faculty and students manifesting their artistry in innovative ways is to see the unfolding of new cultural models to last into the future. As art school dean Barker says, “We intend to come out on the other side of this pandemic having learned new ways to create art and to be impactful and fully relevant.” 

Top Image: UCI Dance's Piper Bockstahler choreographed "Lost in the Soft Light" | Courtesy of UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts

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