Sculpting in the Virtual Classroom

Odette James, an undergraduate student of associate professor Arny Nadler, built a climbing wall and cast her own hand holds.

Posted by Melissa Meinzer April 27, 2020


How, exactly, do you move a sculpture class from the studio to the screen? Can you practice blacksmithing in a residential kitchen? What kind of context are we really living in, after all?

Sam Fox School faculty and students were presented with a real-life, real-time design problem when the pandemic forced all classes—including those that work in three dimensions—to move online. Unsurprisingly, they responded with nuance, creativity and wit.

Senior lecturer Noah Kirby’s fabrication class shifted focus from building a sculpture for a city park to the planning and budgetary aspects of the project. They are still building models and pricing out supplies for the full-size work.

Silicone molds made by students in Noah Kirby's foundry class.

Few students have access to a foundry setup, but making molds is a crucial part of the class so Kirby sent silicone mold-making kits to his metal-casting/foundry class. They molded delicious artworks like popsicles, fudge and peanut butter. The Corona Candygram, he calls it—something sweet out of a sour situation.

Chocolates cast by students in Noah Kirby's foundry class.

Blacksmithing students are submitting ladle designs, which Kirby will make in his own studio. They are also working with polymer clay to create approximations of Damascus steel or mokume gane patterns.

Professor Jack Risley is working to move students outside their comfort zones—after all, he says, limitations are an artist’s best friend.

"The Void in My Room" by Ryan Erickson, an MFA candidate and student of Jack Risley.

Each of the juniors and seniors in his Methods and Context class wrote an inventory of what they had available wherever they were and shared it with a partner. The partner then wrote and illustrated instructions for making a piece with the listed items.

The students will also create a domestic intervention and document it in a single photograph. Art, Risley says, always has a connection to its historical context. And with social distancing not going away any time soon, much of remotely viewed visual art will represented by single images.

"Until the Glasses Empty" by Jordan Lee, a student of Jack Risley.

The first-year students in associate professor Arny Nadler’s 3D Design course are continuing the assignment they began in person, though their material has changed to what’s available. They’re working on fictional prosthetics, addressing a chosen current issue—social distance bubbles, anyone?

For Nadler’s second-year students in the sculpture studio Materials and Culture, the task has been to create environmental interventions, and the assignment remains even as the environment has changed. One student is rearranging roadside garbage. Another is leaving old-timey price tags with messages of (perhaps) longing and loss all over his city. The attic in one student’s family home is the site for a large-scale woven structure, and the farmlands of another’s are the site for bark-inspired earthworks.

Grace Bristow, an undergraduate student of Arny Nadler, rearranged garbage found along the roadside and documented it through photographs.

In Juan Chavez’s 3D Design class, students are continuing with modified versions of their original assignment. Initially, the class was going to work on a project called Eco-Survival Guide. Chavez had planned to take a field trip to Goodwill to scout materials for a beekeeping suit and bee smoker.

Survival suits created by students in Juan William Chavez' 3D Design class.

In the current context, the assignment seems even more trenchant—they are creating an Eco-Survival Suit and Tool Kit. Each student created an inventory of available materials on hand at home—eeing new potential in dormant sleeping bags, sunglasses, boxes and bags—then designed the suit and kit. The students have documented how the suits work through photographs and video.

Senior lecturer Lindsey Stouffer’s 3D Design students are working on entirely new tasks—the fully articulated insect models they’d been working toward couldn’t continue remotely.

Haiku on mending by Yoko Ono and Nina Katchadourian’s mended spiderwebs inspired a project, “Emend,” interpreting the action of mending. Rather than literally fixing something, Stouffer’s students are improving, adjusting or changing the function of an object.

Sculptures by Abbey Rose, an undergraduate student of Lindsey Stouffer.

Another assignment is “To Make an Art in a Box,” a la Joseph Cornell’s assemblages and the Fluxkits of the Fluxus artists. Ideas of scale, elements of surprise and the concept of a container were up for discussion—one student’s toy airplanes cast in Jell-o and hung in the trees seem to be mystifying his family.

Each instructor praised their students. Chavez brought up their innovation and character. Nadler stressed that the situation of working remotely was incredibly difficult despite how well his students were performing. Risley is enjoying open-ended discussions on student-generated ‘questions of the day.’ Kirby called his students proactive and sought their input on changing the class. And Stouffer says she’s impressed by her students’ intensity, care and grit.

While the materials and facilities may have changed, the instructors are still demanding high levels of quality and rigor. And, as always, the students are rising to the occasion.

Kale Day, a student of Arny Nadler, created messages on old-fashioned paper labels and distributed them throughout the city.