This content was published: October 5, 2020. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.
Profiles From a Distance: Jessica Beck channels her creativity to help art students thrive online
Story by Amy Bader. Photos by Christopher Gerth.
Since Portland Community College shifted instruction and operations to the virtual world, it’s been no surprise that the college’s art instructors have risen to the challenge, channeling their creativity to find new ways to make teaching and learning art online a positive and fun experience.
Jessica Beck, the Southeast Campus faculty chair for the art and psychology programs, has been leading the way in online innovation. Beck, who is approaching her one year anniversary at PCC, brings a wealth of experience to the art program and a passion for teaching. She has over eight years experience teaching art and art history at community colleges, as well as to youth through a variety of non-profit organizations.
She shared her story:
Did you face any issues when PCC moved to remote operations?
Jessica Beck: My main concern was space. Many students rent a bedroom and don’t have a space suitable for painting or drawing on a large scale. For in-person classes, I would usually only assign homework on small sketchbook-sized paper, and we would save the big drawings for classroom studio time.
Art at PCC
The college’s Art Program provides quality studio and art history classes, which play a vital role in a general liberal arts education, as well as training to become a working artist. Faculty are committed educators, working artists and art historians, active in personal, professional, and community development.
Many students also cannot afford an easel. When I learned we were transitioning to remote learning, I created a handout with a diagram demonstrating several ways students could set up a small space for drawing, using common items such as a cardboard box or a kitchen table.
I also offered some alternative solutions for my painting students to find more affordable options. For example, they could buy a canvas pad and tape it on a wall or stretched canvas and use a nail or push pins to hang it. I researched different options and tried to find affordable materials and easels for students.
How have you adapted that style to the online environment?
Beck: I integrate a variety of techniques in my classes, from the Renaissance through contemporary art, and I infuse styles I have learned at different types of art institutions: community college, four-year university and art school.
I also really try to give a lot of feedback to students about the physical aspects of painting. At the community college level, most students are beginning painters, so they often don’t know basic techniques. Without guidance on techniques and the qualities of the paints and mediums, for example, it can be frustrating for students because they don’t know how to identify what they might be doing wrong.
I continue to provide this one-on-one support to teach my students techniques online. I’ve been finding different ways to use technology to continue to really explore those physical aspects of the paint and mediums with my students. We are working through the barriers, and they’re doing a great job.
What are some creative solutions you have come up with?
Beck: Leveraging technology has been key and has made the visual experience much more accessible! One of the things that has made the biggest difference is pre-recording my art demonstrations. Students watch the demos on their own time, and we have communal painting sessions on Zoom. This way, when the students have questions I am right there, present and ready to help. I use Google Photos a lot as well to support my teaching. If a student is having trouble, I can ask them to show me a close-up image, or upload a picture into Google Photos so that I can give them feedback.
How have students adjusted to these new formats?
Beck: I want everyone to know that studio art classes have been adapting and are actually thriving during the pandemic! I taught figure drawing and painting this past summer, and I have really exciting examples of student artwork that have been made during quarantine. I’m so proud and impressed by my students.
Any silver linings to these times of online instruction?
Beck: I’ve learned that people are so flexible and can persevere in even the most difficult situations. I am blown away by the pieces my students are making. Spring term, I tried teaching painting asynchronously, and It did not work out as well as I had hoped. This summer term, I have really enjoyed the synchronous communal Zoom painting sessions. It’s nice to see students’ faces and their paintings, and I feel like I am getting to know my students in a way that is similar to in-person classes. I feel energized after class from seeing everyone accomplish so much!