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Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight: How three graduate students adapted their research as COVID-19 closed art spaces

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By Emily Carman on December 1, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many art spaces – such as theaters, studios, and galleries – to close due to safety concerns. As a result, many of those working in the field have had to put their projects, performances, and/or research on hold.

Allison Hawn, Laurana Wheeler Roderer and Dylan Fitzgibbons were studying various art subjects when the pandemic abruptly interfered with their research. However, each of these graduate students found innovative ways to move their research projects forward despite the setbacks caused by COVID-19.

In October, the Graduate College asked graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to share the challenges they have faced as a result of the pandemic and the innovative ways they overcame those challenges. Now, we are highlighting several of these innovative solutions to create a resource that students, fellows and faculty can turn to for inspiration as COVID-19 continues to impact research.

Understanding tattoos as an art form

Allison Hawn is working towards her masters degree in communications by studying the culture of tattoo artists and the art of tattoos.

She is using the method of ethnography, the observation of customs of individual people and cultures, to research how tattoo artists communicate and establish trust with their clients and to understand tattoos as living pieces of artwork. 

“The goal of this part of my research is to help open up the world of "fine art" to a broader audience by breaking down the often classist barriers that keep many from feeling they can access art,” Hawn wrote.

As a result of COVID-19, Hawn had to “slam on the brakes” in regards to her research as many tattoo parlors were forced to close and she was no longer able to conduct her observations in person.

Additionally, three of the tattoo artists Hawn was collaborating with passed away, two of the shops she had connections with permanently closed and “the entire tattoo community fell into a state of chaos.”

“I am heartbroken for this vibrant and beautiful community, and for the loss of those who have passed,” Hawn wrote.

In order to continue her research, Hawn began conducting interviews via Zoom and has been able to reach tattoo artists across the country; from Arkansas and Idaho to New York and California. 

Though she is able to reach a wider group of subjects via Zoom, the cost of transcription services for over 700 pages of interviews is another unanticipated burden. 

Luckily, Hawn was one of ten awardees chosen to receive a $100 Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight Grant awarded by the Graduate College. 

Hawn hopes this grant will help her overcome the recent financial barriers to her research. 

Creating a “Zoom Opera”

Laurana Wheeler Roderer and her collaborator Kirsten Barker have been working since May 2019 to co-write, commission and produce an opera about global sustainability.

“We  have found that artistic collaboration provides a model for the kind of behavior we need to combat climate change,” Roderer wrote. 

The opera, titled "A Storm We Call Progress," was scheduled to premier live in April, but the performance was cancelled due to COVID-19.  

Roderer and Barker hoped they would be able to perform the opera live sometime during the summer or anytime before the general election in November. However, this was not to be.  

“When it became obvious that a live performance would not be feasible anytime soon, we began to contemplate other options for bringing this work we love so dearly to life,” Roderer wrote. 

Their solution was to create a “Zoom Opera.” 

With the help of director Diane Machin, each singer recorded their individual parts using an online recording software and with a green Zoom background. From there, the recordings were combined to create a master audio track and a virtual set was designed behind each of the singers.  

The virtual opera premiered on October 24 and can be viewed on YouTube.   

Because of her innovation in creating the virtual opera, Roderer was also awarded a $100 Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight Grant.

Developing alternative power sources for ceramic design 

Dylan Fitzgibbons is studying ceramics as a masters student in ASU’s School of Art. 

As part of his graduate education, Fitzgibbons is researching how to incorporate alternative battery sources into his ceramic designs. 

“The goal is to get rid of the need for outlets when incorporating electronics into the ceramic work, but also having the batteries be unconventional and a part of the visual impact,” Fitzgibbons wrote. 

When the pandemic moved classes online and closed the ceramics studio at ASU, Fitzgibbons project was completely postponed. 

However, “through online, self guided learning I was able to progress a particular aspect of my ceramic research, specifically the involvement of electronics through Arduino programming, as well as alternative battery sources/designs,” he wrote.

As studio spaces reopen and Fitzgibbons has access to clay again, he is beginning to incorporate these new designs and electronics into his sculptures.