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As California plans for a reopening come June 15, the following college art programs have been reflecting on all their accomplishments this past year despite being unable to meet in person, whether that be for class, a rehearsal or even a performance. 

More Colleges

In February, Voice of OC published its first story on colleges adapting during the pandemic. In that story, we covered Orange Coast College, Santa Ana College, Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine.

This is a continuation of that story.

Having invested so much time, money and effort into these virtual projects, and seeing the benefits of increased accessibility as a result, many, if not all, of these art programs will be continuing their use of technology to reach audiences all over the world. 

But while these innovative ideas have given the Orange County college art scene a space for individuals to continue learning and sharing art, the live element of engaging in any type of art can never be replaced.

Saddleback College

Laura Haight, a ceramics professor and co-chair of the fine arts and media technology division at Saddleback College, said one of the biggest challenges with engaging in this type of art form virtually, among others, is making up for the equity gap.

“What our ceramics department has done is we actually sent home our wheels to our students so that they could have basically a ceramic studio… . And then we would do a pickup and drop off every two weeks,” Haight said. 

Despite the art department’s efforts to create an equitable space for its students at home through the exchange of equipment and materials, Haight acknowledges that not every student is lucky enough to have a home environment in which they can also work and learn.

Haight said the availability of a studio space is symbolic of their learning environment, and that having a dedicated space to go to for ceramics, or whatever subject it may be, is beneficial because there are no other distractions such as kids or landlords in their space.

Like the other art programs within Orange County, Haight said their department is going to come out of this pandemic more resilient and innovative than they’ve been before. In one example, Haight and other professors have quickly learned that recording lectures or demonstrations is extremely useful for students who traditionally may have a hard time learning in a physical classroom.

Furthermore, the accessibility of online engagement allows for more frequent guest lecturers. Not only does this open the door for students to become exposed and make connections to professionals in their field, but these lectures could also be recorded and accessed by students for use down the line.

William Francis McGuire, chair of Saddleback’s theater department, said his department had to quickly and creatively think of a solution that would allow theater to continue — just not live. This rapid change comes after a devastating cancellation of what was supposed to be a glamorous production of “Heathers” last March.

“They were ready to go and we shut down. So we got together and brainstormed,” McGuire said. “We’re about problem solving, that’s really what we do. We’re constantly engaging, and finding creative ways to work around things that come up. This came up and we said, ‘Well, we have to do this, the students have to perform.’”

An issue that is especially detrimental and specific to theater is that performers lose the immediate feedback of live, in-person performances. McGuire said theater is a communal event and, as an actor, you feel their experience as part of yours on stage.

When a performance is filmed, actors don’t have to be as energized in front of a camera as they have to be on a stage. But what students are still gaining despite the loss of the live element of theater, is that they are able to polish their film skills.

“We are, what, 30-40 miles from Los Angeles, which is the biggest film production place in the world,” McGuire said. “So they’re learning about that technology, which is totally valid, because if you live in this area, and you work in theater, or in the performance professions, you will work on camera. It’s part of what you do.”

Barbara Holmes, art faculty member and director of the art gallery, said she had a gallery full of student artwork that was ready for a reception when the pandemic came and shut everything down. 

Instead of faltering, Holmes said they bought a 360-degree camera that allowed them to shoot all the artwork in the gallery, creating a virtual reality experience through the use of technology, which was something they’ve never done before.

“Necessity is the mother of invention, you know. It just kind of made us look a little bit differently at how we can bring different content to our students in our community, and in different fashions,” Holmes said. “Hopefully, as people come out of COVID, they’ll still be interested in some of this virtual content. But I just think it’s kind of fabulous new tools that we have at our disposal for the future going forward.”

As Saddleback wraps up its spring 2021 semester, arts students are gearing up for the spring showcase, which is an annual exhibition of student work, including different categories of art, such as photography, animation, sculpting, painting and more, in addition to an opportunity for students to be recognized with awards for their artistic achievements. 

“Due to it being a virtual exhibition this year, it was really nice for me to not have the limitation of space, and I was able to include everybody. So it’s a great show. But there’s a lot of artwork in it. We had just over 100 submissions.”

Holmes said the pandemic has given everyone a rough year and to show more support through inclusivity, every submission was included in the virtual exhibition, which is available through May 15 on Saddleback’s website. 

“As challenging as it has been for us, it has also been really rewarding in many ways,” McGuire said. “I have to say they have really risen to the occasion. I’m really impressed with all the students and it’s just been an incredible experience, humbling really.”

Vanguard University

Susan Berkompas, Vanguard’s theater department chair and producing artistic director, said the department has integrated more technical skills into its programs as well. With the necessity of filmed performances versus live ones, there has been a shift in the classroom to learn about film in addition to what it brings to theater. 

“We feel a real solidarity with all the other artists across the world, all the performing arts, artists across the world that, you know, our day is coming again, and it’s coming soon,” Berkompas said.  

Berkompas acknowledged how the students have really risen to the occasion. While they could have taken a leave of absence to avoid struggling with remote learning, they are instead engaged and present.

From learning editing software on Adobe Premiere, one of the film industry’s standards for film editing programs, to practicing acting techniques through Zoom, the students’ motivation to continue their coursework has been nothing short of uplifting and hopeful for Berkompas. 

“Kind of the only thing that’s gotten me through this is the students that are continuing to want to learn, you know, and to drive forward through the depths of this abyss we’ve been in, but it’s all starting to slowly open up, and we’re very, very hopeful,” Berkompas said.

Christine Butler, an African American professional actor, is working on a project with Vanguard’s theater students of color to produce a piece about the racial hate, which is happening in conjunction with the recent Black Lives Matter movement and the anti-Asian racism.

“This is really about who we are as people who say we love God, and God so loved the world but do we? So that’s the title that it ended up being, it’s God so loved; do we?” Berkompas said. 

Cypress College

Maha Afra, chair of the dance department at Cypress College, said her dance students virtually collaborated with three other departments to put on a virtual concert; they were the photography department, the media arts department and the music department. 

“Dance students in the classes came up with their own choreography,” Afra said. “Then the media art department, they edited artistically. And then the music department had compositions by their students, which was added to the choreographies. And the photo department had background photography.” 

The collaboration ended up being an amazing learning moment for the faculty, Afra said, and they were so proud of how the virtual concert turned out that the departments decided a collaboration piece is something they would want to do every semester, whether it is virtual or in-person.

“It’s a way to feel a sense of normalcy within the special circumstances ongoing,” Afra said. “Students need to be seen, to be heard, to be performing, you know, people who are in the concert, meaning they need this. They want it, they don’t have to do it, but they need it.” 

Just like how the pandemic restricted a studio space for Saddleback College’s ceramics students, it also made clear the equity gap of Cypress College’s dance students as well.

Afra said she lives in a two-bedroom apartment where she is currently working from home. While she could have bought a ballet bar for herself to teach at home, she deliberately did not purchase one because she wanted to feel what her students might be going through dancing at home as well.

“So when I teach a ballet class, I hold on to the back of a chair, I have what I call my ballet chair. And when I do Latin dances, I just don’t teach partnering, you know that you can do things by yourself,” Afra said. “Floor work has to be adjusted too and I always tell the students if you’re on a carpet, you do what what a carpet permits.”

Afra emphasized the importance of making students feel empowered in their own space. Even if these students don’t have the resources or equipment to perform certain dances, at least they still can dance.

“You have to be very aware of the spaces the students are in and make them feel comfortable, make them feel empowered to use the space to their advantage, not think of it as a disadvantage. At least we do have space, which is good,” Afra said.

Concordia University Irvine

Jeff Held, the assistant dean for Concordia’s School of Arts & Sciences, said the music department heavily invested in audio and video equipment for numerous projects.

Back in February, Held said the women’s choir and men’s chorus performed their popular annual Valentine’s concert virtually, and used video streaming to make their concert available to their audience at home.

“And that’s about the best we can do to keep our students really feeling sort of like they perform. It’s a real loss we’ve experienced in the last year, there is no replacing the human connection in music and the other arts,” Held said.

These types of performances require students to be in the same room. But with COVID posing too great of a threat this past year, the recitals have had to take place with the reformer and accompanist in separate rooms, which Held describes is “a huge compromise.”

Fortunately, Concordia opened the Borland Mansky center last year, which is equipped with the finest audio recording equipment, similar to that of the Los Angeles Philharmonic or major European orchestras.

Held said that while he has not had an opportunity to record the whole orchestra, he has already recorded its string ensemble, as well as smaller concerto pieces like Baroque music.

“Stepwise, we get better and better and closer to the performing ideal. As, hopefully, we’ll be able to start the fall with a regular type of music ensemble experience. That’s our plan,” Held said. 

One of Concordia’s biggest projects, a beloved Orange County concert, was the annual Christmas concert that used to be held at Segerstrom Concert Hall. From selling out twice in one day to no longer having a space to host the concert, Held said they decided to try for a longtime goal of theirs to air their Christmas concert on PBS. 

When Held and his team pitched a made-for TV special to PBS, it ended up airing in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego County a total of six times during the week of Christmas, garnering about 60,000 on-air viewers with an entire audience also streaming it online.

“We’re able to turn out a product that was very appreciated by a lot of people. And so the good news for us is that it was so successful that some administrators of PBS have suggested to us to pitch it to a larger affiliate audience,” Held said. “So that’s very exciting that we can do that and get our brand out there more.”

Looking ahead, Held said he is excited to be back in business come June 15. He said he hopes by then, the music department can start holding spaces at Segerstrom Hall for their big concert performances in December. 

“So we’re slowly moving back into the world we want to reoccupy, which is live music making and that really important human interaction,” Held said.

Now that the pandemic restrictions have lifted enough for the students to practice indoors, Held described the stringency with which they follow the safety guidelines.

“Instead of standing in front of the hall, on risers, they sit in the audience seating and spread out and take up pretty much the entire space. And you see that across the nation, it’s kind of the way that all choirs are rehearsing now,” Held said.

Even though the university and its staff and students are grateful to be able to perform and make creative projects come to life, Held acknowledges that a computer screen cannot replace the victory of being together.

Concordia’s streaming activity is accompanied by a generous audience, showing its support from a distance. For a college art program, having any viewership at all during this pandemic is a blessing on its own and Held said the streaming technology they have invested in will definitely be used to continue reaching broader audiences in the future.

“Music is a very communal activity. It’s done in real time. It is intrinsically artistic, down to a small detail that is lost when you’re on a computer. So too, it’s also lost when you’re singing through a mask,” Held said.

Kim Pham is a writing fellow for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at kimhphm@gmail.com.

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