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In Conversation: Michael Hall

WDWDN is excited to bring you conversations with Higher Education Fine Art & Design Instructors. In this inaugural conversation, Claudia Morales McCain, an artist and educator from Santa Rosa, California talks with Michael Hall about his practice and experience converting to online instruction during the Covid-19 pandemic. Michael is an artist and Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing at California State University East Bay, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He started one of the many online instruction resource groups on Facebook, which has grown to over 15,000 members since March.

Michael Hall's work finds “empathy and complexity in often polarized and oversimplified situations... [Creating] nuance through painting and video work, he looks to achieve a necessarily critical, but discordant conversation.”

Seeking support for their instruction during the pandemic, Claudia and Michael met through the Online Art & Design Studio Instruction in the Age of “Social Distancing” Facebook group. The conversation below took place in July 2020.


CMM: What classes are you teaching this semester?

MH: I am teaching three painting classes and a color theory class. These include advanced and intermediate sections.

CMM: How are you adapting your teaching for remote instruction?

MH: I want my courses to be the least impactful on my students. So, I am aiming for something more basic, and so I am scaling way back.

Instead of trying to inundate people with a lot of assignments, which is usually what I do, I am going to go for something that is not a very stressful amount of work for them.

CMM: What are you doing to prepare for this semester as we speak?

MH: I am starting to put together a more thought-out demo area in the studio and figuring out the best and easiest way to do this.

CMM: What have you figured out?

MH: I tried out a lot of different things and some stuff stuck and some stuff didn’t. But, when doing demos, there's a lot in my head. . . especially since I've been looking at a lot of shared posts on the Facebook group. I bought a mic stand recently, and I am going to build a video/audio rig off of that. Technically, I’m doing two cameras - moving back and forth between my laptop camera and an off-brand webcam I was able to purchase (they are sold out everywhere!). In Zoom you can toggle between the two cameras easily with keystrokes (cmnd-shft-N). I‘ve spent a good deal of time figuring out the technical aspect of recording and delivering the content, and now have to actually generate the content.

I am creating projects that follow a loose theme of “proximity” for my painting 2 and 3 combined course -- that way, intermediate students can work from a more technical, skill-building set of exercises, while my advanced students can find more individual space to develop concepts and hone their skills. We will also be working with the idea of limitations, since no two students will have the same set up, space, materials, etc. My watercolor course will also address this, though it will be more focused on skill-building with the medium. And for my color theory course, I will incorporate new assignments involving students responding to color through objects from around their immediate surroundings and making color from materials other than the paint kits they will purchase.

CMM: Teaching painting was my biggest challenge last semester. I ended up simplifying projects and giving students more time to complete their assignments. What was your experience?

MH: Oh yeah, having more time to work on their projects and having time to interact with each other via Zoom was important. I think painting was definitely my most challenging class as well.

And it's interesting [painting] is also one of the least talked about areas in the Facebook resource group. It seems like there's a lot of stuff on drawing. Drawing is a lot more manageable and a lot easier to do demos for, in terms of space. The painting material issue is a real challenge, because we usually teach oil painting. I am not going to do that this Fall, because I don’t think most of my students will have a safe place to paint.

CMM: Are you switching to acrylic paint?

MH: Yes, we are going to try some acrylic, maybe water soluble oils, but my upper division painting classes will be able to choose their media. So, they could choose to paint with watercolors, if they like.

CMM: How did your advanced painting classes go last semester?

MH: It actually went okay. I had some pretty great students who were already self-disciplined. Last semester really showed who had passion for it themselves and who was just kind of doing the assignment.

But you know, I think it was the class community that helped. I really try to encourage community and emphasize community-building in my classes. We share with each other all the time. I'm always trying to push the point that they learn so much from their peers -- as much as they learn from me, as the instructor. We share and learn amongst each other. It is less hierarchical.

You know, students surprise me all the time with things they figure out just by doing something. So, [if I] tell them there is only one way, then I'm actually depriving them of figuring something out for themselves.

CMM: How did you enrich the class community experience online?

MH: I created discussion boards so students could post their work in progress and share along the way. Honestly, that didn’t get a whole lot of traction, but I am still figuring this out. We talked a lot. Students did presentations on artists who worked through some sort of limitation too.

CMM: Yah, the discussion boards didn’t work well for me, either. Instead, I created individual portfolios for the students and invited them to use these pages like blogs. They could write out their ideas, post historical or contemporary references, and post photos of their work in progress.

MH: That is a great idea! I was looking at doing something akin to that in my classes. The issue is that we use Blackboard and it feels counterintuitive. It is designed for students to upload papers, and I am always tweaking the design to try to get something more out of it. It is like squeezing blood out of a stone.

CMM: Yes, yes! It is true, I was constantly trying to find a workaround. The students definitely liked feeling more connected to seeing the evolution of another person’s process. I mean, isn’t this what we loved in college?

MH: That's what going to art school is all about! True that you get some old fogey like me who has worked through a lot of these issues and you get to learn a couple of tricks. But, it's that dialogue with your peers and little tricks they’ve been figuring out that is essential. Personally, that is where I learned the most as a student.

I had a group of peers and we just carried each other through. And so, I really strongly feel this is a component that can't go missing, so I'm trying desperately to find a way to continue to bring that [sense of connection and evolution and process] to the class.

CMM: While we are on the topic of the importance of community. Talk to me a little bit about your initial decision to create this “Online Art and Design Studio Instruction In The Age of Social Distancing Group”.

MH: Well, my thoughts were that I have inklings of ideas of how to do this. But, I don't know how to do this entirely, you know, going online. Early on, our university online department sent out emails with information and links to tools, but they were all geared towards lecture-based classes.

I wasn't really seeing anything dealing specifically with studio-based instruction, and I know the way I learn is through sharing and crowdsourcing.

The ways that I learn more about teaching are by talking to other teachers, so, I thought, well, I don't see anything like this. So maybe I'll just put it out there. I'll contact my peer group and we'll start sharing stuff. And we'll all figure it out together.

I never thought it would balloon out like this. So it's become a really amazing resource.

CMM: We have both harnessed the power of social media and Zoom to connect and learn from a community of educators. What technology did you use in the classroom to foster a sense of community amongst your students?

First day of class, I used introductions as opportunities to bond. As the semester progressed, I actually started to like the Zoom breakout rooms. And I think those became pretty active areas for us.

As an icebreaker, I had them draw portraits of each other and post their drawing to their profile icons.

I am thinking I will bring more diverse topics to the group [next time]. I will have students do quick five minute presentations on artists they really love, or maybe have them teach us about a specific material.

CMM: That sounds like a really good idea. Then, they don’t have to listen to us all the time.

MH: True, it's also good because I get excited and have a tendency to give very long presentations. I put a lot of bells and whistles in the presentations and try to include artists, techniques, new resources, and new research opportunities.

But, what I'm hearing from the university in terms of best teaching practices is [to do the] opposite. They recommend we don't go over 10 minutes in presentations.

CMM: That is really difficult with art instruction.

MH: I think it is ok if students zone out during presentations. They eventually circle back and catch up. That’s how we do it in life, so I am ok with it. They won’t have five minute presentations their whole life!

CMM: True, plus they won’t have time-lapsed presentations either. I often wonder if I am sending the wrong message by choosing to time-lapse my demonstration videos for their viewership comfort. Time lapse videos don’t give them a good sense of the time and dedication it takes to complete a project.

MH: Isn’t that the beauty of a painting studio? Especially a mixed-level painting studio where students get to walk around and see what they are all up to. They get to learn from each other's mistakes in real time?

[Online,] we definitely miss out on the opportunity to be there in the moment. We miss out on seeing the decision-making in real-time or the wild and varied responses within preset constraints.

CMM: Creating demos felt very restrictive to me. My lessons became formulaic and felt like they were all about teaching a technique. I have to admit, it felt a little bit painful to edit.

MH: But, it is hard to avoid in this arena because it is by definition, more structured.

We miss out on the beauty of art instruction. The myriad opportunities that happen in the classroom when students are working within a preset constraint. What students do with color, form, and their decision-making is most rewarding.

It is important for them to be given the opportunity to free up from a kind of formulaic instruction, like the Bob Ross method; which, I adore Bob Ross by the way, and am not bad mouthing at all.

But, there is a huge difference between Art [and] simply having a satisfying experience painting something that somebody has set out for you.

CMM: How are you structuring class format and your availability for students?

MH: I have a one year old and no childcare, so I have to implement a more rigid schedule in terms of when I'm going to be available for students.

I will have a mix of asynchronous and synchronous classes. My plan is to introduce a project which will have a technical component with lecture or demo, followed by open sessions with regular check-ins.

So, I will have some synchronous meetings where students can zoom in, ask for specific advice or feedback on a project.

I will keep these sessions open so that all can benefit from listening to the individual critiques. Though, they won’t necessarily need to be fully present and watching a screen the whole time. This way, they could be listening in and drawing and painting at the same time.

This setup puts more responsibility on them to have time management; which I think is a really important skill. They will need to think through their process and deadlines.

CMM: One synchronous meeting a week sounds like a good idea for work/life balance.

MH: Yes, part of this has to be the preservation of our sanity. Remote instruction is a lot more time-consuming. It's a lot more technical. It requires so much more setup.

We don’t have the benefit of a studio with all the supplies there and neither do our students.

Last semester, many of them were living with family and it was difficult for them to find a space that was private. For some students, it was nearly impossible to get that kind of space, especially if they had younger siblings around during our class time.

So I will offer them an opportunity to participate at a time period more conducive to their life schedules. It will require them to have better time management. This is the structure I keep going back to.

CMM: How did you navigate stacked level classes?

MH: The first half of the semester, they had similar assignments. Later, the assignments varied in concept and execution depending on the level.

CMM: How do you think the institutional expectation for us has changed?

MH: Back in March, the institution was sending out reminders about just doing our best. I am not hearing this anymore. The expectation is higher. They are expecting we have used the summer to train and that we are now tried and true professionals of the online teaching community.

But, I don’t want this to be the norm. I am going to make this as meaningful for myself and my students as possible, but I am not going to make this so that they can take our classes online.

I am going through tenure, so I definitely feel a higher level of expectation on teaching.

CMM: Is there a silver lining in this experience of emergency remote instruction?

MH: I have been really impressed by the Facebook group.

I am really heartened by the level at which educators have been willing to share. I was not expecting such openness.

People are sharing syllabi, lessons, experiences, videos, links. Now the group has grown to over 15K members. It is astounding.

CMM: This communal space is really encouraging. I feel like I have a cohort again!

MH: Yes, it is a communal space that mimics what we are trying to build in our classes, right? It is nice that we are living by what we are trying to teach.

Michael Hall. left & middle: Notes on Belonging, 2020, watercolor on paper stretched over panel, 12”x9”. right: Crumpled (Notes on Painting), 2020, watercolor on paper stretched over panel, 12”x9”.
Michael Hall, 2020. Watercolor, 9in x 12in. left & middle: Notes on Belonging. right: Crumpled (Notes on Painting)

CMM: Since we were just talking about practicing what we preach... We always encourage our students to continue to make work despite their circumstances. Talk to us about the work you made for your recent show titled “Belongings”.

MH: The show at Catherine Clark Gallery, SF got modified because of COVID-19. It actually grew as a result of it. Originally, it was going to be a backroom install of work, and it turned into a solo show. So, I was making work right up to the day of the install. Luckily, I had been working on this series since before my son was born, before COVID-19, and was working with watercolor, so I didn’t have to account for drying time.

CMM: Has this given your exhibition more visibility?

MH: Well, I think, I have to credit Katie Clark and her staff--they really did an amazing job responding to the moment with COVID-19 and also in their responsiveness to BLM protests and the conversations about equity coming to the fore--granted, much later than we should have. But, you know, it's good we're all talking about it now. The gallery and I both agreed to donate a percentage of the sales to five organizations that support BLM causes and social justice.

They responded pretty agily--they created online catalogs, online shops, offered ways of seeing work under safe guidelines. Of course, these guidelines were changing all the time, so they kept readjusting them. They were really on top of it. They are so community-minded and they just ramped up and figured it out.

CMM: How did you deal with your University gallery and the graduating senior shows?

MH: We used Catherine Clark gallery, amongst other galleries, as a model for creating our own online gallery, we called At A Distance Gallery. The students posted work and we had an award show for our university gallery on the site.

CMM: How did the students feel about having online shows?

MH: I think they would have preferred an in-person show, but you know, a number of students felt like they owned that space. I tried to give them as much ownership of creating the online gallery and so it worked.

The students are listed founders and they all took on different parts, in terms of gallery responsibility. Roles like PR, writing, uploading images, or working as artist liaisons to help students prepare for their shows. I thought it was a very successful project.

CMM: Are there any other innovative possibilities for online instruction?

MH: I’m really hoping I can actually hoodwink more people into Zooming into my class for studio visits. Maybe collaborate with other institutions on these visits.

I think we are all building new skills as educators that we will be able to work into our pedagogy. I don’t believe this is an ideal platform for teaching studio-based art, but working within constraints and creative problem-solving is our strength as arts educators.

Some great developments will come out of this. Hopefully, our community and our willingness to share solutions with one another will continue on.

As educators, we get to reexamine our teaching methodologies and look at the kind of pedagogy we push and try to eliminate ingrained, racist structures and some hierarchal spaces that aren't necessary.

It is exciting and exhausting.


Check out more from this article:

Online Art & Design Studio Instruction in the Age of “Social Distancing”

At a Distance Gallery is an online gallery for students to exhibit their work in a new and unconventional way. This space was conceived and created by students in the Art Department of CSU East Bay in response to the Covid-19 crisis and the cancellation of Senior Exhibitions and University Art Gallery Exhibitions.


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