Teaching art amid a pandemic: Eastern Michigan University painting students immerse themselves in nature and campus as part of a distinct class format

Art student painting outside on campus

YPSILANTI – You could see them this month around Sherzer Hall, immersed in their creative process, in the solitude of nature and Eastern Michigan University’s beautiful campus. 

They’re students in Professor Amy Sacksteder’s 302/502 painting class. And, in a pleasant twist amid the unprecedented circumstances of this semester, they’re benefitting from a distinct class format necessitated by COVID-19 and the need to do most classwork remotely or outside and physically distanced. 

Sacksteder, a professor of drawing, painting and foundations, is teaching the course as a hybrid, combining a heavy outside painting component with video demonstrations, video lectures, and use of the Canvas and Google Drive platforms. 

“It’s interesting, and we’re really making it work,” Sacksteder says of the format, which works for both students who wish to come on campus and those who prefer or need to work off campus and only remotely. 

art student painting outside on campus
Students in Professor Amy Sacksteder’s 302/502 painting class are benefitting from a distinct class format necessitated by COVID-19 and the need to do most classwork remotely or outside and physically distanced. See an image gallery of students creating "en plain air."

Nature helps one cope

The outdoor painting “came about because I was feeling that nature was one of the things that was helping me cope thus far through the pandemic,” Sacksteder says. “I thought it would build morale if we could still gather on campus, and in my opinion, the safest way was to do so was outdoors.” 

The French call it “en plein air” that is, painting in the open air. Sacksteder drew upon her rich experiences painting outside as a study-abroad student in Provence, France; as an undergraduate in the urban setting of Dayton, Ohio at the University of Dayton; and as a graduate student in DeKalb, Illinois, at Northern Illinois University. 

“The students seem to be taking to it really well,” Sacksteder says of the class format. “It’s an interesting intersection of the use of and reliance on technology and the Internet and seeking refuge in nature, tempering everything that’s happening around us.

“EMU has a gorgeous campus. It’s been so nice to experience it in a slowed-down, observational capacity."

Adding to the experience is the fact that in the summer of 2019, Sacksteder took a workshop on safe oil painting practices in order to jettison all solvents and harmful chemical elements from her painting materials. She integrated this practice into her curriculum; thus, students can oil paint in class and at home without exposure to airborne toxic chemicals. 

Big help from GA Sonia Kraftson

The class proceeds in three modules. First is painting in the landscape, integrating still life elements. As the weather turns cooler, the curriculum and students move indoors into their own remote workspaces. Students work from personal still lifes, the view through their windows and interior spaces. The third unit involves making a physical collage and then painting from it. 

Sacksteder prepared for the course this past summer with graduate assistant Sonia Kraftson, who would come over to her house, set up in the yard and do video recordings of various demonstrations by Sacksteder. 

Those included an introduction to the class material, including a painting kit purchased for students from Blick, an art retailer in Dearborn; showing students how to set up an outdoor work space, and various approaches to starting a painting as well as approaches to mixing colors.

Now, Kraftson paints with students outside one day per week while Sacksteder conducts Zoom sessions with other class members from her office in Sherzer Hall. But Sacksteder is also able to work with the on-campus students, painting alongside them, on the other day that the course meets each week.

A bit of trepidation

The class is working well, although Sacksteder admits some anxiety this past summer.

“I’ll admit that I had a lot of trepidation about becoming an online art professor,” she says now. 

But, working with the Center for E-Learning at Eastern, which was a huge help, she “quickly became acclimated to Zoom, and to teaching online.”

Sacksteder says she now feels an immense sense of satisfaction as she sees her students set up and start painting, including integrating their own lives into their work. She told of one student who can’t come to campus, but plans to paint alone in the woods where she frequently hikes. 

“Nature is a reprieve for us,” Sacksteder says. “This painting process is meditative and highly steeped in observation. All of these things are so good for countering the sense of anxiety that’s permeating the media and our lives.”

About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves nearly 18,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

September 23, 2020

Written by:
Geoff Larcom

Geoff Larcom