Columbus College of Art & Design adjusts to life amid the coronavirus

Andy Downing
Remote work by Dani DeBolt, a student in Mary Skrenta's jewelry course at CCAD

Grace Oller long looked forward to graduation and all of its accompanying traditions.

The senior in Fine Arts at Columbus College of Art & Design (CCAD) had previously attended commencement ceremonies for her two older siblings, and she’d hoped for a similar experience, walking across the stage in a cap and gown to receive a handshake and diploma as classmates, friends and family members cheered her on. Furthermore, Oller said she viewed graduation as a turning point in terms of her own identity, a chance to finally shed the “student artist” label she’d long operated under and simply be known as an artist.

“I am an artist now, and that’s how I see myself, but I think ‘artist’ has sort of taken a back seat, and the identity of ‘student’ has taken precedence,” Oller said recently by phone. “And I kind of felt like graduation was going to be the threshold for that [‘student’ label] to be forcibly taken away.”

While this transformation still took place, the ceremony itself wasn’t anything like Oller had previously envisioned, with the Downtown art college’s May 9 commencement taking place virtually amid a coronavirus spread that has now shut down large portions of the city, country and planet for the better part of two months.

The pivot to online graduation is the most recent in a series of adaptations that CCAD has been forced to undergo as the virus evolved from a distant threat to a more immediate concern, finally shutting the campus and moving all instruction online beginning March 23.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

CCAD President Dr. Melanie Corn said the school’s emergency response team started meeting about the coronavirus early in the year, issuing its first communication to the CCAD community on January 28, which warned faculty and students to be cautious of travel.

In early March, the team, which consists of around 15 members representing the full spectrum of departments and disciplines, started meeting as often as twice a day, the weight of its directives growing exponentially with the COVID-19 threat. Initially, CCAD opted to extend its spring break by a week. The decision was then made to temporarily move to online instruction, which led to the semester being completed digitally and 2020 graduates logging in to commencement from home via an assortment of webcams, tablets and cell phones. More recently, the group has continued discussions about what things might look like on campus in the fall, planning for a variety of to-be-determined scenarios.

“That decision [to close the campus] was challenging in the moment, but as things have unfolded over the last couple of months, clearly it was the only decision to be made,” Corn said. “It was a little bit of trial by fire, for sure. … Because this was all happening last minute, this was not a sort of seamless [process], like, ‘Here’s the one way all students and faculty will work together online.’ It was a little bit of a hodgepodge in terms of how different faculty wanted to approach it, and we gave them a lot of freedom to decide what would work best for them.

“I don’t want to say we’re unique. I know there are medical schools and biology labs and many others dealing with similar challenges, but we have classes that are using glass-blowing facilities and ceramic kilns and 3D printers and woodshops, as well as things like high-end animation software that not every student has on their laptop because it is expensive. So I think what our faculty really had to do was think about what could be adapted to these new learning environments.”

To an outsider, CCAD Professor of Industrial Design Dave Burghy might seem like an unlikely candidate to adjust quickly to the digital world. Dean of Undergraduate Students Tom Gattis said that Burghy has been a campus fixture for so long that he’s known to most of the students as either “dad” or “pops,” and he certainly looks the part with his robust salt-and-pepper beard.

“I don’t do a lot of teaching with computers; most of my classes are pretty hands on,” Burghy said by phone in early May. “So when that first week came, honestly I was pretty concerned, because my classes range from 12 [students] up to 60 in my collaboration class, and it was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work or not. It could be a big crash and burn.’”

But while the first week was filled with expected adjustments, Burghy said that both he and his students adapted quickly to the new environment, overcoming expected hurdles like spotty internet connections and the inability to engage in hands-on instruction. Like others interviewed, the professor credited this ability to the traits that attract many to an art education in the first place: creativity, independent thinking and a learned ability to work with the materials one has on hand.

Oller, for instance, found herself at home with little more than molding materials with which to work, having had less than a day to pack up her on-campus studio. As a result, she narrowed her focus, homing in on the various doorknobs in her apartment, considering our relationship to this once-innocuous object in the age of the coronavirus. She then started to make molds of them, casting the knobs in soap as a darkly humorous commentary on the hand wash protocols that have become a principal means of countering the viral spread.

“As an artist, it’s been tricky to figure out how to respond to this pandemic without appearing blase. I haven’t had the virus— I know people who have had it or been affected by it — but I personally haven’t. So how do I respond to this in a personal way that still relates to my art practice?” said Oller, who colored the knobs with food dye and scented them with essential oils. “This project was a way for me to do that. … We’re all washing our hands after touching doorknobs. That’s something that we have to do, and it’s something that’s becoming common practice. And what if doorknobs were made out of soap? That would take that problem away.”

Oller said much of her previous practice took inspiration from public spaces and architecture, so the current home studies she adopted for her sculpture class felt like a natural extension of her earlier work, scaled to this new domestic setting.

Adjunct faculty member Mary Skrenta, jewelry studio coordinator in fine arts, said her students displayed similar adaptability in crafting pieces from whatever they had on hand, which also forced many to reconsider the Western idea which equates jewelry with wealth or status. “It was like, 'OK, you don’t have metal and you don’t have a soldering torch, but you do have paper, cardboard and glue, along with anything else you can get your hands on: twist ties, food wrappers.' I gave them a list of all of these outrageous things they could use,” Skrenta said. “We really started to blow things up … looking at the boundaries between jewelry and wearable art and delving into these investigative ways to look at the subject matter. And I think once the students realized it wasn’t just going to be busy work, and they were still going to be engaged and learn about jewelry, then they really opened up. … A lot of them created projects that were important to them and spoke to things like identity, and some even created work that spoke to the current crisis.”

For other students, the work functioned as a necessary escape.Meredith Swortwood, an MFA student focusing on Illustration, moved her practice from her campus studio to a light- and plant-filled Clintonville apartment she described as calming, which has helped her maintain focus. At the same time, Swortwood said she is eager to return to campus in the fall, describing her last visit to CCAD in mid-March, when she walked through the normally teeming animation center, struck by the stillness that had settled into the usually lively building. “For me, CCAD is my home in Columbus, and I couldn’t imagine not being there in the fall,” she said. “It’s almost like I need CCAD more than ever now because of how different life is.”

Both Corn and Gattis said plans are well underway for the fall semester, with administrators focused on three scenarios: a return to campus, albeit one that will look significantly different than in the past, a continuation of strictly online education, or some combination of the two, should a fall viral spike again force school closures.

At the moment, a return to campus in some form is the most likely scenario, according to Gattis, and the school is already making a number of preparations. Class sizes are likely to be limited to half, which will necessitate adjustments to instruction (with most classes taking place twice a week, Gattis envisioned half of the students attending each day, with the other half taking in the class remotely), and there will be a mask requirement for faculty and students. Gattis said the university has already developed a prototype, and the school plans to manufacture masks from a laser-cut, neoprene-like material for each of the roughly 1,000 students, plus faculty and other on-campus staff. Plans are also being made to clean and sanitize all shared equipment after each use. Regardless, some classes will likely continue online-only, such as a podcasting class that Gattis said instructors felt worked better on the digital platform.

Concurrently, administrators are refining CCAD’s approach to remote learning, working to put more universal plans in place, such as settling on a common instruction platform so that students don’t have to navigate using Zoom for one class and Google Hangouts or Microsoft Team for another. The school is also discussing the potential to provide internet hotspots to those students who lack home wi-fi, or who are saddled with a slow connection that makes group instruction challenging.

“I think if this situation has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be prepared for whatever comes in the fall,” said Gattis, who described the situation as fluid, a point echoed by Corn.

“It’s going to take a lot of work, and we’re planning for a lot of scenarios, understanding that even if we return to face-to-face instruction, which is our preferred outcome, that things will look different,” Corn said. “So the question is: How do you create a studio environment here on campus, a residential environment [and] a student activity environment that is safe for students and staff, and that will present the best learning outcome? So for now we’re making sure we’re doing all the work so that we’re prepared for whatever may come.”