Student artists, musicians describe their artistic process during COVID-19

BY Lucas Kuhnau   MAR. 6, 2021

The frustrations endured by artists across the country as a result of COVID-19 are exemplified by the experience of Brett Honaker, a high school ceramicist from St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, Texas. “It’s much more difficult, logistically, to do ceramics during COVID,” he said. “We might be on campus one week, and then the next week, we’re off campus. All your work is gonna dry out, and you will have to start all over again because you have to work while the clay is wet.” The unavoidable artistic setbacks that Honaker describes are themes expressed by student artists across the country.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have been forced to adapt to doing school online; indeed, student artists and musicians are adapting and continuing to create, even in difficult circumstances.

The loss of the physical aspect of school has challenged many students’ abilities to create art. Kate Taplin, a performing artist from Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass., is involved with a school play. The initial plan was to perform in front of a reduced audience; the actors were forced to alter this plan, however, due to changes in state pandemic guidelines. “The best thing about theater is being able to perform and then getting feedback to your performance,” Taplin said. “Feeding off the audience is a whole thing, and not being able to perform and have that feedback makes it feel like it’s not theater.”

Additionally, an increased challenge to creating high-quality art is something that Hilary Chen, a violinist from Northview High School in Johns Creek, Ga., has experienced. Her violin lessons were moved online in compliance with COVID-19 protocols. “There are so many factors that minimize the quality and efficiency of lessons, ranging from internet problems to subpar audio quality,” Chen said. Recently, Chen was able to move the lessons back to being in-person, and expressed a clear preference for the in-person lessons. However, the forced adaptation to online music lessons has enabled some musicians, like Alice Doresca, a cellist from Iowa City West High School in Iowa City, Iowa, to grow artistically. Doresca described how she learned to teach herself in order to adapt to the absence of in-person lessons, a skill that she will continue to use after the pandemic.

Technological challenges have not been the only obstacle presented to artists by the pandemic. Joseph Polyak, a performing artist from Iowa City West High School in Iowa City, Iowa, believes that the sense of community has taken a hit in its digital format. “Theater is a family,” he said. “That sense of family is definitely an intriguing part of the theater program and that's kind of been diminished by the pandemic.” This sentiment was echoed by Christine Kang, a cellist from Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Calif. “I definitely miss my orchestra,” she said. “Honestly, my orchestra is my favorite part of my entire life. I miss seeing my friends and having concerts in person.”

These compounded obstacles have taken a toll on artists. Before the pandemic, Sophia Date, a visual artist and fashion designer from Grant High School in Portland, Ore., drew much of her inspiration from “people-watching,” an activity which has been more of a challenge during a time when people are staying indoors. “I think for a while, (quarantine) definitely prevented me from doing art; it’s definitely been damaging to inspiration,” she said.

Daniel Uglunts, a choir member, actor and opera performer from St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, Texas, seconded the notion. “As artists, everybody needs to have that emotional investment,” he said. “So keeping everyone's mental health stable and having that passion that might not necessarily be there has been quite a difficult thing to have during this time.”

Yet the impacts of the pandemic have not all been negative. Chen highlighted the benefits of having concerts in the digital space. “I think virtual concerts are a great alternative because they can be shared an unlimited amount of times with an unlimited amount of people,” she said.

Ritvick Abrol, a pianist from Wellesley High School in Wellesley, MA, described the increased participation in piano competitions during the pandemic in a positive light. “A lot of competitions have kind of been on the rise or have been created because there's a lot more ease of getting people, because, obviously, you can host something on an international scale a lot easier,” he said.

Whether for a theater audition or a submission for a musical competition, many students now submit pre-recorded submissions as opposed to performing live. The ability to have multiple attempts allows students a greater chance to put their best foot forward. However, this opportunity has downsides. “I feel like the disadvantages of having a recording is that now you're forced to kind of seek perfectionism,” said Abrol, who has submitted videos to piano competitions. “If you're sending in a recording, the bar is automatically so much higher because it isn't what someone can do in the moment on stage, it's what someone is capable of at their best.”

While the pandemic has made it difficult for many artists to find inspiration from traditional sources, some artists have capitalized on the opportunity to rethink their individual creative process. “I was forced to think outside the box and that's what led me to use different and more unique techniques,” said Jerry Zhao, a photographer, painter and sculptor from St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, Texas. “That also eventually led me to develop my own love for trying new things out.”

Julia Ouyang, a visual artist from Northview High School in Johns Creek, Ga., evolved her artistic process as well. “I had a lot of time to think about my own identity and my relationship with how I present myself and how I express myself,” she said. “A lot of my art started tackling my issues with self love and the way that I see social interaction now. I started making pieces about consumerism and identity that before the pandemic I would’ve never thought that deep about.”

Artists across the country have had varying experiences with the impact of quarantine on their art. Some praise the opportunity to reflect and adjust, while others lament the missed opportunities. However, the value of art during this difficult time has been a near-universal perspective for student artists. Based on the research of Boston College professor Franco Mormando and Regis College professor Thomas Worcester, the increased value of art during a pandemic is not exclusive to COVID-19. A joint exhibit by both professors in 2005 highlighted the use of art as a means of coping with multiple outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Europe.

Katie Ng, a dancer from Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass., neatly sums up the appreciation that many student artists hold for their art at this time. “Something that really drove me during the pandemic was just being able to have that escape outside of everything [through art],” she said. “Even in such an isolated and controlled space, it was still there for me.”