Teaching Tactile Art Online

Guest Post by Skye Lewis

Screenprinting from Scratch is an online course on the basic principles of screen

printing, designed to provide space for community and artistic expression for

racialized youth. This course was all about starting from scratch and making our

tools and materials in order to better understand the essence of each step of the

process. Making our materials and equipment also helped the artists to understand

that they don’t have to be limited by expensive store-bought art materials. We

would make our own screens, coat them, and print our designs - all using easy to

find, lower cost materials. Our screens were nylon fabric stretched across

embroidery hoops. Our squeegees were made from cardboard and duct tape. For

screen filler, we used mod podge. We created our own ink using household

materials like spices and gel. A course like this is a pretty ambitious idea at the best

of times; it was even more so in a virtual space during a pandemic.


Unsurprisingly, our incredible artists rose to the challenge. During a time of

uncertainty and upheaval, they continued to show up and make a great space for

learning and connection. I can’t thank them enough for their investment in this

shared experience. The course presented new possibilities and challenges for all of

us, myself included. I’m sharing some reflections here, hoping they may be helpful

to other artists who are also using hands-on materials in a virtual space.


Materials


Despite a simple and fairly common materials list, many items were sold out and

many stores were closed. Before applying for funding, I ran a test pilot with

volunteers who sourced their own materials from a list. When they ran into issues,

we discovered that it was more difficult to problem solve, because their materials

were all a little bit different from mine. These differences made it harder to

pinpoint issues as a remote facilitator and choose the right course of action. I was

amazed to realize how much of my artistic problem solving comes from seeing,

touching, hearing, smelling materials in person.


Based on feedback from the pilot, we created kits with all the same materials for each participant. This was valuable for facilitator problem solving but it was also very valuable from a financial accessibility standpoint. Kits made it possible for racialized youth to participate without any financial barriers, and also without having to scramble and find specific materials during a pandemic and, for some, without access to a vehicle. I was

grateful to our pilot testers for working through these kinds of issues before we

finalized the program design, and I would recommend this to anyone going virtual

for the first time.


Tell, Don’t Just Show


I was surprised by how hard it is to explain tactile concepts using language instead

of physical demos. In person, I could say, “This is how the consistency of ink should

be. Everyone try stirring this around and you will know what to look for.” Online, it

is very hard to replicate this. If you are doing online arts instruction, you might want

to brush up on your comparisons to everyday household materials. Your

homemade screen printing ink should be like thick pudding...kind of.


Visuals for Demos


It is really helpful for people to have a top-down view of demos. Anyone running a

hands-on class that includes demos should aim to have multiple camera views -

one on your face (straight on) and one on your material (from above). Because I

didn’t have a camera rig, I used scrap wire to attach a smartphone to a swing arm

lamp. This phone was our hands-on demo camera, looking down at the desk from

above. Our other camera was my laptop, setup to look straight at my talking head

as usual. Both devices joined the meeting and showed up as two separate video

feeds. This was a basic, no-frills way to get two camera views without buying any

new equipment or stands. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.


Pacing


For this course, we included sign language interpretation by the brilliant

professionals from FLIC. Working with a sign language interpreter, I did need to

remind myself to pause more often. The artist using the interpreter’s services

needed to watch the interpreter and me, basically at the same time. I was shocked

to realize how much and how quickly I speak during these classes, and how helpful

it is to just pause in silence while everyone gets up to speed. This kind of pacing

benefits all students in the class, not only those using an interpreter. It’s helpful to

cut back on instructional content in order to have more reasonable pacing and

much more time for questions and answer.


Responsive Design


A small class size was helpful so that we could have room for lots of questions and

problem solving. These things take more time than during an in-person class.

During an in-person class, it’s a little easier for participants to follow along or ask

someone beside them. Online, we need to create more space for direct questions

and then responses from the facilitator or other participants. And this is a big part

of what made this experience special. Because of space for dialogue and exchange,

the class had a community feel to it, with supportive space to try new things, mess

up, and try again.


It was a pleasure to work with these artists as they took creative risks, developed

technical skills, and found new possibilities for creative expression. I am looking

forward to seeing what they get up to next. This class has certainly opened up new

possibilities for my own screen printing practice, and has sparked a new

enthusiasm for material innovation, scrappiness, and problem solving.


Despite -or maybe because of - many new challenges, the process of moving this

work online has been engaging and fun. I would love to hear from other artists who

have moved their hands-on arts practice online. What have you learned through

this process? What do you feel is gained, and what is lost? As we all move through a

steep learning curve, I hope we can share our experiences and learn from each

other. Feel free to email me (skyelouis@gmail.com)or share your experiences in the comments!


Photos courtesy of Skye Louis

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