By Judith Dierkes
What classes were you taking your last semester at the University of Memphis this spring? How did they change after spring break as a result of the pandemic?
I took Thesis Exhibition and Ceramics I. I also took Fundamentals of Accounting 1 and Business Compensation (but I guess those don’t matter as much for the purposes of this article).
At the onset of the pandemic, our ceramics teacher had to come up with basically a new class within one week, and she did very well. She provided us with resources that allowed us to continue making ceramics at home when we lost access to clay, wheels, kilns, and other tools. We had to set up a home studio, develop a budget, and plan for a theoretical showing of our pieces including a timeline for building and how to package and transport pieces. She also sent us home with clay so we could continue building at home. It was a struggle, but I think that was the best possible solution our teacher could have come up with. I definitely feel more prepared to continue ceramics from home if I so choose.
My thesis exhibition class changed drastically. At the beginning of the semester, we were split into two groups, and the first group was on the verge of installing their work when the shutdown began. They were supposed to exhibit right after spring break, and my group was supposed to exhibit April 17th. Neither of those shows happened. I went from seeing and working with my friends almost every day to not seeing them at all. We switched to Zoom meetings, but the life was really gone from the class. I think we all kind of knew the rest of the semester was a bust. My group continued finalizing our promotional materials (poster and postcards), but after that we switched to working on our websites.
The new plan for the class included both an online component for the show and development for an in-person exhibition at a later date. Neither teachers nor students were thrilled about this. Many of us had work that was important to see in person, myself included, so an online show really didn’t fill the gap well. But it was all we had. Thesis meetings became very relaxed in content, which at the time was probably for the best. We went from busily working on finishing projects to mostly readings and discussions. Our teacher could tell we needed something to lower the stress level while still learning and growing, so that was the solution: kind of letting us have more control over completing what work we could handle.
Many of us had a lot of support from teachers (in my experience this included all of my professors) – constant contact and checking up to see how we were doing in all aspects of our lives, not just schoolwork. However, I knew several students who were having trouble getting their thesis committee members to email them back. I know students weren’t the only ones struggling, but it felt like some of my classmates were hung out to dry when they needed support the most.
We continued to have committee meetings, but because some of us were unable to continue working, we weren’t always focused on the thesis show, but more of our art direction in general. During my last committee meeting, I don’t think we talked about my thesis work at all; we talked about another project I was starting.
Did you get to fire and glaze the clay you took home?
After the semester was over, we were scheduled to pick up what we had left in the ceramics studio and drop off what we had made at home. Only one student could be in the building at a time, and we each had about 30 minutes to get everything. I had made about seventeen objects (not including chops and molds) before the shutdown. Of those, three of them are glazed, but on one of the cups the glaze messed up, so it’s not functional. I have all of those at home now. I dropped off five pieces to be fired, and they should be contacting us pretty soon about those. They wanted us to pick them up and glaze before the fall semester starts, so our stuff isn’t in the way of the incoming students. I don’t know how that will go.
What happened with your thesis show? Will it be happening sometime later? Describe the theme and some of your work for the exhibit.
The online component of the show went up on May 13th. We all shared our websites on social media, and the art department shared on their pages as well. It was fine, but about as lackluster as I expected it to be. I’m proud of the website I created, but it’s not the same as completing my thesis project.
Here are the art department links:
And here is the link to my website:
The current plan is for our exhibitions to happen early in September. Nothing is set in stone, and it’s a very real possibility that they will get postponed again. They are trying to find ways to let us on campus safely to finish our projects. I am one of the students who needs on-campus resources to finish my project.
What specific resources do you need on campus?
I need the computer lab, because my image files are too large to effectively edit on my computer at home. They slow my computer down and eventually crash Photoshop. I also need the large printers to print my photos. I need the woodshop to create the “boxes” that will display my images. They’re large and must be custom made because they are not traditional frames. There are images on my website that show what these boxes look like; I was able to finish about half of them before the shutdown. I need the hot press in the darkroom to attach the images to a surface that will attach to the boxes.
My work is a photography series about perception, specifically the distortion that happens to reality when we view our surroundings through the lens of our memories, experiences, upbringing and other personal elements. I worked with landscape photography– deconstructing and reconstructing scenes to create new versions of those spaces that don’t exist in real life, but more accurately represent my perception of those spaces.
I saw your graduation pictures online. Was there any kind of ceremony at the University of Memphis?
There was no in-person graduation ceremony. We were all given the option of sending in a photo and writing a short message to be displayed on a slideshow (I did both), and after the virtual ceremony we would be given access to those slides to share on social media. Graduation for me was sitting in the living room with my mom, my brother, and my nana watching the online virtual graduation. Each person’s slide would come up and their name would be spoken. When my slide came up, my mom and my nana shouted in celebration. A little later I saw on Facebook that my dad had shared my slide and written a message for me (we talked on the phone not long after that).
I did take graduation photos with my cap. My brother was my photographer for the day. We walked around a deserted campus taking photos of me with several of the tiger statues and the art building. When we were photographing near the tiger at the corner of Patterson and Central, several people honked in celebration with me and yelled their congratulations from their cars. I felt very supported, but also very lonely. I’d imagined taking photos, graduating, and celebrating with my friends, but I wasn’t able to do any of that. For us, the semester didn’t end in May after graduation. It ended abruptly in March – no celebration, just a sudden absence of my friends.
I remember you working on adding more commercial photography to your portfolio after an interview in last Fall. Have you had anymore interviews?
I have not had any more interviews technically. The company that was hiring me to shoot commercial photography could not do so because of the pandemic, but they’re keeping me in mind for the future. I had a couple of opportunities for photography jobs that fell through for various reasons such as unexpected budget changes. I’m currently working for a friend that is developing a freelance resource space. Right now, I’m doing odd jobs to help set up his building, but eventually it will have a photography studio. I’ll be able to utilize that for my own projects while working for him and his business. Two of my University of Memphis friends are also working there, so it’s been a way for us to reconnect after not seeing each other since the shutdown.
Would you like to share the name of the freelance resource space and more details? I find this very exciting for you, but also for me.
My friend’s new business, called The Machine, will include a photo studio, darkroom, large format printer, a small ceramics studio, and a space for music production.
I’ve had a hard time motivating myself to make work since the Pandemic. How about you?
It’s been extremely hard to motivate myself to create art, so much so that I didn’t touch my camera after graduation in late July. I’ve seen several of my classmates (via social media) continue to make new work and, while I’m happy for them, it makes me feel like I’m failing right off the bat. I know we’re in extraordinary circumstances, but that doesn’t make the block in my mind any easier to deal with. I also know I’m not the only one from our class feeling unmotivated. Some of my teachers have mentioned how they are feeling unmotivated as well, although some of them seem to be pushing through and making art anyway.
Judith Dierkes is a visual artist currently working on Lets Glow in the Dark, an interactive installation in her back yard in Memphis. She teaches art appreciation online.