By Joey Phoenix
Since 1993, The Essex Art Center in Lawrence has been offering classes, events, and exhibitions to the public in an ongoing effort to inspire and sustain lifelong growth and learning for a diverse community of artists in greater Lawrence.
Their goal has been to provide opportunities for people of all ages to engage with art, whether that’s art-making, viewing art, or having access to have conversations with artists. In conjunction with that, they have also worked to take away the obstacles to accessibility, whether that’s financial or otherwise, and make it possible for people to have opportunities they might not have previously had access to.
But when the Essex Art Center had to close its doors on March 13 over health and public safety concerns due to COVID-19, they had to quickly decide what they needed to do in order to maintain those connections which had been a lifeline and sense of community for so many locally. .
So, they took the art center online.
“We value the community that’s built around our in-person events and classes that take place at the Art Center,” said Essex Art Center Executive Cathy McLaurin. “Pretty quickly after we had to close up our physical space on the 13th of March, we realized that we needed to come up with ways to continue to engage our audience and give them access to what, for many, was a core part of their daily life.”
With this goal in mind, Cathy, the Essex Art Center Board, and Peter Morse the Programs and Operations Manager, quickly figured out programming which would work well in a digital environment. There were multiple components which they felt would be a good fit for a virtual space including community outreach and educational artmaking opportunities and classes. They recognized that while the formalized training programs and in-person community outreach would be put on pause for the duration of this global crisis, they could start doing things that could potentially fill in the gaps.
They’ve also partnered with the public library in Lawrence who, through fundraising efforts, have provided 250 art supply kits to families and Lawrence. In turn, Essex Art Center is offering classes throughout the summer for those same families designed to use the supplies in the kits. Some of the classes include watercolor painting and drawing with charcoal pencils.
Challenges and Opportunities in Online Arts Education
In addition to their community outreach, the Essex Art Center is providing a virtual platform for ongoing arts education using third party services like Zoom. These classes are giving students not just things to look forward to each week, but also things that they can work on at home outside of class.
“We started by having some of our teachers create a sequence of free twenty-minute video lessons to be available on our YouTube page,” explained Peter. “They’re pretty basic and meant for an introductory student – whether that’s an elementary school student or even for adults who don’t have experience with that piece of art.”
Even with all of these online efforts, there were some challenges to closing down physical access to the studio that the arts center hasn’t yet figured out a way to completely overcome. One of which is the ceramics program.
“People need clay to make ceramic, and once they have that the work needs to be fired,” Cathy said. “And one of the possibilities we considered was having people order the clay themselves from the supplier that we use, but then the supplier had to close.”
But while they weren’t able to 1:1 replicate the ceramics program virtually, they have been able to introduce some workshops with teachers who have talked about special processes and technical information that they wouldn’t typically get to share in a clay class. They also were able to provide a Sgraffito clay workshop where the instructor put together a kit that was mailed to students who could send the completed work to the instructor who would then fire it and send it back to them.
“No one suspected that this would’ve gone on for this long, so we’ve had to really think more openly and creatively about how we could keep connecting with those students,” said Cathy, “especially when so many of them left work in the studio that they don’t currently have access to.”
“In some ways, we’re having to adapt our basic philosophy of teaching because there’s not as much that you can do with somebody when you’re not in person.. And I think the students that we’ve had so far really seem to have responded well to that,” Peter said. He also added that some of the work created by students during this time will be available for viewing in online exhibitions on the website.
He also said that a lot of this practice, because of how unprecedented this situation is, involves learning as you go. “[With each round of classes] we’re trying something out. And if it doesn’t work, then we’re going to adapt it for the next round of programming,” he said.
Yet, with the innovative steps they’ve taken coupled with the support from their community, they’ve been able to do much more than they initially thought possible. The success of a recent fundraiser also illustrated just how much the community in Lawrence believes in the art center’s mission.
“Over the last few weeks we have been really reminded of how many people over the course of the 26 year lifetime of the Essex Art Center and especially now are so invested in really seeing it thrive,” said Cathy.
“One thing that has been helpful for an organization like us, and will continue to be really important, is when our audience and our students really tell us what it is that works for them and what doesn’t. When our students are open with us and tell us what it is they really value, it helps guide us,” Peter added.
You can find out more about Essex Art Center’s ongoing programming at https://www.essexartcenter.org/ or by following them on FB, Youtube, and Instagram. You can also support them directly at https://www.essexartcenter.org/donate.