Using Art to Cope With a Pandemic

How a CNM instructor encouraged her students to use mixed media and photography to reflect on COVID-19
May 12, 2020

CNM instructor Rachel Popowcer likes to point out that if we didn’t have art the world would be really bored right now. Now more than ever, she says, art has proven its value to everyone across the globe.

Art has also been extra important for her group of students. This semester she taught an Art Practices class where students are asked to work with mixed media and think broadly about the power and meaning of art. For the final project, she asked the students to build a specific word that helped them define their experience during COVID-19 and then photograph that word in a meaningful setting. 

“The project acted as an outlet,” she says. “Students had a way to communicate their feelings in a very visceral way that might not have translated to any other medium.”  

The words students chose were varied. Some were positive including “unity,” “hope,” and “patience.” One student, however, chose “uneasy” and cleverly chose to place the word in the middle of the street for their photograph. 

Photo of Uneasy installation

Rachel asks all her Art Practices students to create mixed media words in class—whether there’s a pandemic or not—because she thinks art helps students think more deeply about communication. We often take language for granted, she says, but art helps slow everything down and forces students, and viewers, to think about communication in a different way. During the class, she says students look at everything from advertising to protest signs and then think about the consequences of those words. 

“Most importantly, I want them to investigate communication and also think about the consequences of communication,” Rachel says. 

It was a challenge to switch her Art Practices class online because so much of the class is about feedback and about viewing the media in person. But she also found clever ways to keep things going. To help students understand the more complicated techniques used in class, Rachel created an entire YouTube series where she walked students through the steps. She also had photos of student work from previous classes that she shared. 

Rachel says she’ll be happy when she and her students can return to the studio. Normally her classes run three or six hours to give students plenty of time to work through their projects and those long blocks can be hard to recreate at home. Nonetheless, she’s also glad students had the opportunity to use art as a way to weather the current moment. 

“For the students, art has been cathartic and also a positive distraction from the really difficult things going on in the world right now,” she says.

Photo of Patience installation