For almost 40 years I have been teaching the basic skills of drawing to adults who wish to learn to draw. No matter where I have lived the rhythm of my week has been held together by the beat of these regular classes, that see groups of kindred spirits flowing in and out of my studio. These spirited gatherings have enriched my life immeasurably and all of my students have become my friends, brought into my life by a shared appreciation for creativity.
The Joys of Teaching
One of the great joys of my work is to see students move from a place of uncertainty and anxiety, where they don’t believe that they can draw, to a more positive place of realizing that they can. Most people who come to my classes, arrive as absolute beginners, drawn here by some yearning to be creative. In some cases there is a wish to rid themselves of a critical voice from their past, to defiantly overcome the fear and do some drawing anyway. Others come for the companionship of a creative community; a place where they can experience support whilst learning a something new. For others it’s purely therapy, an escape from the left brain grind of their high pressure job, or a brief escape from the responsibilities of being a mum. There are many reasons for coming to drawing, but one thing that most students will agree upon is that what they experience in my studio, is far more than just a drawing class.
Something magical happens in these sessions. Something I could never plan. As soon as people enter this studio, we are enveloped in a spirit of camaraderie. Within every group, there is a sense of care, mutual support and trust. A feeling that allows us to exhale.
I often hear people say that they find it so much easier to draw when they’re in my studio during a class than they do when they are on their own at home, and I’ve wondered about that and why this should be, but think it’s something to do with the energy of the group and the confidence that comes from knowing that they have support and guidance at hand.
Part of becoming an artist, however, is to be able to work alone, to find the strength and motivation within oneself to get to the drawing board no matter what day, mood or weather. This is something that is difficult for me to teach, as it’s something that resides within the spirit of an individual and develops organically through need and circumstance.
In early March 2020, in my twentieth year of running my Grahamstown studio, things were going well and I had a warm sense of achievement after each and every class. My sessions were buzzing, all at capacity and everyone seemed to be energized and happy. Intuitively, I knew I must savor the moment, and fortunately I did, for as so often happens in life, things were about to change dramatically, in a way that none of us could have predicted.
The Winds of Change
Within the space of two weeks, we had gone from hearing about a virus that was spreading through China and Europe to realizing in horror, that Africa was on its itinerary. After a few days of confusion that followed the President’s speech, I leapt into action and made plans on the run as to how I could keep the classes going. With the announcement of the pending lockdown, everyone bomb-shelled as they ran for shelter, stocking up their nests for the coming storm. I crammed in some last minute extra classes to help those who had only just begun their drawing adventure with me, and at the same time was learning about social distancing and the best disinfectants to use to keep everyone safe.
Everything happened so fast that week, and before I knew it, the students were gone and it was just me, my dog and the silence of my empty studio.
A New Way of Being
Like so many art teachers around the globe, I had never even heard of Zoom, and would not have thought it even possible to teach a hands-on subject like drawing, remotely. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I did know for sure, that I wasn’t going to panic and I certainly wasn’t about to abandon my classes. Having been through a war, those old survival instincts kicked in, and one way or another, I would make a plan.
Whatsapp was my first port-of-call and I quickly established two groups into which I placed my students according to their level of experience. This was to be our portal for communication during the lockdown. It was important to me that this be a safe space, a place to retreat, to share our drawings and to draw inspiration and strength. It was to be completely free of the virus, and memes, death tolls and horror stories were banned. I simultaneously moved to email and sent out detailed class instructions that would serve as a guide for what drawing to do next. I spent hours creating new sets of illustrated notes, and quickly learned how to make videos and shared a few short demonstrations on techniques. In their respective homes, my students were busy clearing dedicated art spaces from where they planned to work. We were getting onto our feet and gradually we all got into the spirit of how to be in this new reality.
A few weeks in and I was starting to regain my balance. I even took a X-Fit class to learn how this Zoom thing worked. I still couldn’t quite see how it would work for a drawing class, but was willing to give it a chance. I attended another session and slowly began to relax into this somewhat uncomfortable way of communicating. I thought a little more about it and after a month of being apart, decided to offer it to my students as a way to check in and say hello. I had a few takers and we met at an appointed time. It was wonderful to see them again and I knew after that session that this would be a very good way to keep our community connected. So I planned a few drawing exercises and the next time we met, I offered them an option to draw a little, which they accepted and turned out to be a lot of fun.
Since then, a weekly Zoom session has become the new norm for those who are able to connect and we now have three very active groups. I even got new recruits, who live in different parts of the country, so started a completely new session for them. Much to my surprise, these remote teaching sessions have become the highlight of my week. I am enjoying the challenge and so enjoying watching everyone’s progress.
Many of my students have commented that the drawing has really helped them get through this difficult period of lockdown. It has become an anchor, their calm in the storm and that seeing the familiar faces each week, has provided a sense of normality. To be part of a creative community, has helped to break the sense of isolation.
As a teacher, I am quietly pleased at the unexpected benefit this surreal situation has brought us, for it has provided my students with first-hand experience of what it takes to be an artist. They have learned what it is to work in isolation and have had to be willing and motivated enough to carve out time for their art, to show up at the page, despite being alone, without an audience and confronted by enormous challenges. Some of my students have found it very hard because they have families to take care of and now have the pressures of home schooling in this abnormal situation. I am immensely proud that they have set up the necessary boundaries that allow them to continue with their art; making it clear that mum’s art is important, that her needs also count and that sometimes she needs time for herself. In my opinion, children can only benefit from that.
What pleases me most is that in all cases my students have shown a willingness to push on regardless of how successful their drawings are. They have quietened their inner critic and drawn for the pure joy of drawing, and for the peace and fulfilment that it brings.
What I have found, much to my surprise, is that it is possible to teach a practical subject in cyber-space, and that not only is it possible, it can be very satisfying.
Over the next few months, I will be sharing a selection of the drawings that my students have produced in the comfort of their homes, with my guidance from afar. I will begin with a series of drawings of buildings that we had just started working on when the virus forced us into hiding.
Looking at these, I am sure you will see why I have every reason to feel proud.