Art professor gets creative with spring assignments

May 07, 2020

Salvador Dali once said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” And isn’t imitation the best form of flattery?

Shannon Johnston, Newman University professor of art and director of the Steckline Gallery, was hoping her students would discover the art of imitation when she assigned two special projects for her students during a time of online-only learning.

First, she challenged her students to recreate famous artwork — a challenge inspired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

“Most recently, very much in light of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles issued the challenge in late March,” explained Johnston. “Tons of individuals, artists and not, jumped on board and museums, schools and galleries across the country have shared the challenge. Working it into my art appreciation classes just made sense, as the main goal of the course is connecting non-art students to the art world, past and present.”

A second project assignment challenged her art appreciation students to interpret their coping skills and daily lives during the COVID-19 pandemic with self-portrait photography. This project, titled “Quarantine Habitat” was inspired by artist Kat Wilson based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The idea is to take a self-portrait within one’s self-isolating space surrounded by items that have helped them through their time at home.

Johnston said, “Both of these projects force students to participate in the art world. Both require them to use tools and techniques we’ve been discussing in class, elements and principles of design, for example, color, line, texture, balance, rhythm, unity, etc.

Online learning has been an adjustment for all involved. Students had to find a new rhythm, learn new organization methods and time-management skills.

Johnston said she has spent her entire academic career as both student and professor avoiding online classes. Her philosophy and classroom approach focuses on developing a spirit of collaboration and generosity with her students.

“Learning that I could not be with my classes for the remainder of the semester broke my heart a little bit and shook my identity as an educator,” explained Johnston. “The challenge for me became translating that teaching approach into an online format and recreating the spirit of collaboration virtually.”

She spent her spring break rethinking the remainder of her spring semester, transforming her assignments into flexible, stress-free projects her students could adapt to their daily lives.

Thankful that the first half of the semester in which she teaches technique was not affected, she said both she and the students have adapted well, and everyone is learning and using the current pandemic as a creative opportunity.

“Artists are always and have always responded to current events. We see artwork about pandemics as early as the 14th century. By making discussions and assignments relevant to what is happening right now it honors the student’s experience and opinions, it gives them a way and place to process things, which is motivating.”

Johnston said being a part of a bigger, even nationwide challenge is one way to help students feel connected to others in a time when they aren’t able to live their normal, social lives.

“Especially in these times, I think it’s important to look at the bigger picture. How we, here and now, connect to the past, as documented in art history, and to what is going on around the world. There is something about participating in a project that connects to others that is especially poignant right now.”

Using encouraging videos, quick weekly assignment outlines, and an instant communication app, Johnston said she was continually impressed by her students’ work and persistence.

“I think it’s important to realize that everything takes more effort right now. There are more distractions at home, family responsibilities have changed, for everyone. I have been reminded that all of us are creative and creativity can thrive under difficulty if we let it. I have learned a lot — both positive and negative — about online teaching.”