Art classes cross borders via technology

Artist Milos Tomic speaks via Skype from his home in Belgrade to a class taught by art professor Elizabeth Demaray (left) at Rutgers-Camden.
Artist Milos Tomic speaks via Skype from his home in Belgrade to a class taught by art professor Elizabeth Demaray (left) at Rutgers-Camden. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 12, 2013

Taking an entire class to Germany, Australia, and Serbia would have been, well, difficult. So Rutgers-Camden art professor Elizabeth Demaray brought contemporary artists from those countries to her class.

Kind of.

"Hello? Milos, can you hear us? Hello?" Demaray asked last week, leaning in toward her laptop screen, where Serbian artist Milos Tomic's face had frozen into a jumble of pixels.

Tomic was the third and final artist in this semester's videoconference lecture series, a continuation of the SkypeOnArt series Demaray began in 2010 to bring international artists to campus without the costs associated with physical travel.

The artists are paid a small stipend for the lunch hour Skype sessions, which are integrated into Demaray's classes.

"It has increased my capacity as being a conduit for the exchange of information tremendously," Demaray said, describing the interaction between the creators of art and the students who study it: "When a student has a question about an artist or an artist's work, I can Skype in with the artist and ask them. The students can ask them directly, so it's accelerated the exchange of information."

And the lectures are cheaper than an in-person workshop, without airfare, food stipends, and lodging. Tomic has never been to the United States.

Demaray uses the Skype lectures in her classes, including this semester's conceptual art class, though they are open to the public and other students and faculty members often attend, she said.

As an experiment in using videoconferencing technology to reduce barriers, the SkypeOnArt lectures have been successful, Demaray said.

"I have a better idea now of what works and what doesn't work . . . I haven't worked out the kinks, but I do have a list of best practices," she said, "so it's getting progressively a little easier to do."

Tomic himself had not been worried about the connectivity. And, while a Skype lecture was a new experience, he said before the session, he was more curious about what was happening in Camden.

"The strangest thing for me, more than Skype, was this is the lunch-break time. For me, that was interesting, that they would sit there and have lunch and during that lunch it will be a kind of lecture," Tomic said. "That was the most funny thing."

His main concern was not even his connection, though he did warn Demaray beforehand that his Internet service could be spotty as he Skyped in from the kitchen of his home in Belgrade.

"I feel pretty relaxed, other than the fact that soon my family will come and my 4-year-old son . . . will he jump into this lecture and ruin everything, or make it charming?" Tomic said, laughing. "I don't know."

(Tomic's son never made an appearance, though students enjoyed watching him in some of the short videos on Tomic's website, milostomic.com.)

The session with Tomic got off to a rocky technological start - calls dropped several times, and Tomic often called for an increase in volume for his stop-motion videos - but once a good connection was established, students were able to watch the videos, hear Tomic's explanations, and later ask him questions.

And asking questions directly means finding out that, sometimes, your interpretation is not quite what the artist had in mind.

Tomic replied in the negative when junior computer science student Alyssa Stone asked him whether he had intended to design a piece years ago to resemble thought bubbles. The response was "sort of surprising," Stone said, because she saw the thought bubbles as obvious.

Still, hearing an artist's explanation is illuminating, she said: "It's actually pretty cool because you get their point of view and the thinking behind it," Stone said. "I'm getting to see, like, 'Oh, this is the meaning behind this.' It sort of gives you a better understanding, especially for a non-art student."

Another student, Victoria Widener, asked Tomic about his doctorate. As a senior art student who has a minor in ecology and works on interdisciplinary pieces she describes as "environmental sculpture," Widener said later, she finds herself asking the featured artists about their experiences.

"My question almost every time is, 'Where did you go? How did you do it?' Because I'm trying to apply for graduate school now, and it's really hard to find somewhere where you can combine the arts and science," Widener said. "It was really inspirational for him to say when you care about something enough, you go out and sell it to somebody, and you say, 'This is why I'm going to do it, and this is why it matters, and this is why you're going to let me do it.'

"For me, that's the biggest part, even more than the art - and it's great to see what people are doing and what people are passionate about and producing - but it's scary out there with an art degree, so it's really nice to see how other people have gotten through it," Widener said.

Demaray said she did not initially anticipate students would ask the practical questions of life as an artist, but she understands the desire and has welcomed it.

"It's very interesting because once I had a Skype artist and students asked a question or two, they had a connection with that artist. And oftentimes later they will e-mail them questions or clarifications," she said. "I think it's marvelous because these SkypeOnArt lectures allow me to support my students in unintended ways."

Demaray also plans the lectures to fit her curricula. Having just experimented with stop motion themselves, students said, being able to watch Tomic's videos and hear about their creation was enlightening.

"We're doing projects that they have these masterpieces out of. So that's really influential, to be able to see an artist who's successful in something, when a lot of art students feel like they're kind of under the boat, they're never going to get out," said Kristie Anthony, a senior art student who is Demaray's teaching assistant for the class.

"It's nice to be able to be hands-on a week prior and then listen to someone describe to you that making something like this is actually worthwhile," Anthony added. "We're not just in here doing arts and crafts, we actually are making something for a reason."


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220

@elaijuh

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