On Fridays, I teach a color-mixing class to five artists, aged 11 to about 75. They bring a burst of light to my week, piercing the gloom of my current shut-in/shut-down life.
At the presidential inauguration, poet Amanda Gorman, resplendent in her sunshine yellow coat, similarly pierced the darkness many of us have been feeling for far too long. That’s the magic of the arts. In easier times, art can feel like a luxury. But in dark days, when we ask, in Gorman’s words, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” The arts are a good place to look.
Teaching art on Zoom has been a lifeline for me. Last March, I began to self-quarantine, suspecting that COVID-19 would make short work of me due to underlying health conditions. Soon, my calendar was black and blue with cross-outs: summer raft trips, camping in Utah, Aspen Music Festival concerts, Green is the New Black, a Beethoven’s birthday concert at Red Rocks, my art shows, the watercolor classes I taught at CMC.
The walls started closing in. I could feel my lifelong enemy, depression, beginning to gnaw darkly at my bones.
To keep my blues at bay, I decided to offer a free, online drawing class. When I’m drawing or painting, I lose track of time. My left brain — the scolding hemisphere that worries about money, my to-do list, politics and viruses — dozes off. I can feel myself drifting into my right brain, my right mind. Afterward, it’s as though I’ve had a mini vacation. It’s good therapy.
I taught my first-ever Zoom art class on April 9, a beginning drawing class based on author/artist Betty Edwards’ classic book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” That day, I posted online, “I had a delightful day, COVID be damned. I loved, loved, loved doing that … A great way to celebrate my one-month anniversary of self-administered house arrest.”
My classes soon caught on and my students weren’t just Boomers forced to be Zoomers. I earned tips enough to pay for professional Zoom and a document camera. I was soon asked to teach paid classes beginning with a retreat for a law firm.
Next, my neighbor Megan Currier made a request. Megan has long celebrated a yearly summer reunion with high school friends. When COVID cancelled it, she asked me to teach watercolors online for the group. “Nicolette’s online art classes allowed me to reconnect with childhood friends and their children during COVID,” Megan wrote. “By taking an art class (and not just having a casual Zoom), we were able to engage in creative and playful ways across generations.”
For a couple years, I have taught in-person art to two girls, now eight and 11, who are homeschooled. Until COVID came along, I didn’t know that they were part of a “Willowpond” learning pod with other kids. My students’ fine work soon prompted another Willowpond mom to ask me to teach.
Of course, there are downsides to teaching on Zoom. I miss hugging my young students and I can’t always see their work as well as I’d like. Space limitations are my biggest downfall — literally! Even though my painting desk will accommodate “double elephant” paper (26 by 39.5 inches) plus paints, palette and brushes, it’s difficult to also juggle my computer, mouse and a document camera. When my cat “Zoom bombs” the picture, his paws and my language can become quite colorful.
But teaching on Zoom has kept me connected.
Students have joined my art classes from as far away as New York and California. A friend I knew in San Francisco joined my drawing class from her home, which is now in Texas. I remember standing in a ladies’ room with Natalie, stifling laughter as we listened to her daughter, Isla, locked in a toilet stall. Isla, little more than a toddler then, had insisted she could “do it herself” — and what she was doing was singing: “Rocka’ my soul in da’ buddum of Abraham, rocka’ my soul …” I was stunned to discover, via Zoom, that Isla is now a teenager!
Online classes have also allowed me to keep in touch with locals that have moved away.
Ruth Putnam Young, a friend I once worked with in Aspen, is one of them. Ruth told me she needed to “reboot” her drawing skills; she had recently retired to Arizona and had time again for art. “The online class allowed me to work at home, and somewhat at my own pace, without the disruption of packing up my supplies and going somewhere. I also appreciated the Zoom aspect of working alongside other students, to see and appreciate their skill and approach.”
Meaningfully, she adds, “I didn’t feel so isolated, while in isolation.”
Me too, Ruth.
There’s more light somewhere, beyond these four walls. If I can’t travel to Utah to see it, I’ll paint it and, as Amanda said, try to BE it.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Between November and December, Nicolette had multiple eye surgeries that paused her online art classes. She’s now back with 20/20 vision and color acuity she can’t believe.