Creative outlets help students weather the chaos of 2020.
By Jen Kuhel
Adults turned to everything from breadmaking to exercise to binge-watching “Tiger King” as distractions from the disruptions of 2020. But what could high school students, who are still very much in the throes of emotional development and whose lives tend to rely on social experiences, do to escape?
In the spring of their junior year, Shaker Heights High School visual and performance art students Emie Coffman, Max Carroll, and Isaiah Finley experienced the pile-on of navigating a shift to remote learning, dealing with social isolation, and accepting that the college tours, sports seasons, and school plays and concerts just weren’t going to happen.
“It was a rough transition for me,” Coffman admits. But since March of last year, Coffman, Carroll, and Finley have made it to the other side and, even better, learned something about themselves along the way. And they say that’s due in no small part to the role that art and music plays in their lives and in their social-emotional health.
Pictures that Tell Her Story
At the start of the pandemic, Coffman was thrown from her routine.
She was used to a daily schedule of school, followed by several hours of crew practice and homework, then dinner, then bed. Suddenly, that was gone and Coffman was spending time alone in her room, on her bed, and, like most teens, staring at her phone.
School was different, seemingly unorganized, and Coffman’s habits followed suit. She lost motivation and felt untethered. And then in April, she decided to paint her feelings in her painting class.
Coffman painted an Edward Hopper-esque picture of adults from her family, seated around the kitchen table. The overhead lighting is harsh and unsettling. “It’s more of an outsider view of my family and it shows the stress we felt and the overarching anxiety,” she explains. “I could see the tension around me, back in April, we had no idea what was going on. I painted this in the height of the not-knowing.”
As time went on, Coffman became more comfortable with discomfort and with being alone. She realized that her busy schedule had never allowed her any alone time, which, she discovered, was something that she actually enjoyed.
Her usual activities had always dictated her schedule, so Coffman created her own schedule. She started getting up at 7 am to work out. She began journaling. And at the start of the school year in September, she started writing things down in her planner to stay organized. Things came together. So did a plan for her senior portfolio class.
The class, taught by Shaker Heights High School art department chair Karen DeMauro, requires that students create a series of five pieces. “I encourage students to use their art to express their feelings and their passions, even in a typical year. It’s a chance for them to find their voice,” says DeMauro.
Several students opted to use their portfolio this year to show their range of feelings over the past year. Emie was one of them, and her portfolio illustrates her transformation through quarantine.
In the first of two self-portraits she painted, her skin tone is bluish and her expression is pensive. A busy background of yellow, orange, and red triangles conjures up feelings of anxiety. In the second, everything is flipped: Coffman makes a silly face, her skin is a sunny orange-yellow. The triangles remain because some anxiety is still there. But the color has changed, just like the intensity of her emotions.
Thanks to her painting class last year, portfolio class this year, and the isolation of 2020, Coffman realizes the impact that art has had on her life and the role it can play in expressing herself. And without the physical presence of her peers in art class, she now relies on her own feelings to determine how she feels about her work.
“I’ve become a lot more confident in that regard,” she says.” Plus, she’s had more time to dedicate to painting during remote learning. “It’s been a weird feeling to sit on my bedroom floor on my own for three hours instead of the usual 50-minute period, but I like being able to paint for longer periods of time. You have the opportunity to talk to the teacher if you
want to, and you have the freedom to work on your art when you want for however long you want.”
Coffman has also decided that she wants it to continue to be a part of her academic future, with a possible minor in art in college. “I can definitely see art being a part of my career,” she says.
The Keys to Success
When Max Carroll was a fourth grader at Fernway, he drew an interior model and exterior elevation of his home to scale. In the lower corner of the elevation he noted, “3/16=1’.” Carroll took his time and the project seriously and, clearly, had an aptitude for detail.
Last March, as the state entered a lockdown during Carroll’s junior year, he found that his ability to devote himself to a project, combined with his passion for music — specifically piano, drums and oboe — presented him with an ideal way to pass the time, and to do so with impressive results.
“Music really helped me through this,” says Carroll.
Like Coffman, Carroll admits that early in the pandemic, when school went fully remote, he wasn’t as organized as he could have been. But his mother made sure that was a short-lived phase.
“I had so much extra time and sometimes it would slip away. My mom didn’t want me to get ‘summer brain.’ She made sure that I wasn’t just lounging around all the time,” he says with a chuckle.
Carroll started to think about his goals and made a checklist. One of the items was to play the difficult third movement of Ravel’s piano Concerto in G Major. Ravel’s modernism appealed to Carroll, a jazz enthusiast who also plays in the High School jazz band and the Tri-C JazzFest Academy program.
With more free time, Carroll started to practice two, sometimes three hours a day. As someone with a penchant for analyzing patterns and focusing on details, Carroll committed himself to purposeful practicing.
Each day, he’d play a section of the piece. First, he’d play it slowly to learn it. Then, he’d work until he could play it cleanly. Finally, he’d pick up the tempo to play it up to speed. By late May, he’d learned the piece and performed it flawlessly, accompanied by his teacher, for a virtual concert. (The performance is available online at youtu.be/H1HCcd6iSbU).
Carroll was pleased with his performance and says that the pandemic and his hours spent practicing gave him a new perspective on music, especially live jazz performances.
Prior to the pandemic, Carroll regularly collaborated with fellow jazz musicians at the High School or at Tri-C. When the state shut down, he was played solo. This fall, the Tri-C program opened back up with a hybrid schedule for music students on Saturdays.
“I was so glad to get back to playing in person. Going back to it, I realized how much I missed it,” he says. “And now the time that we have in person is really valuable. I think I took the live aspect of music for granted.”
The pandemic has also made him more aware and grateful for his relationship with music, especially piano. “If I have a lot of homework ahead of me, sometimes, I’ll stop and practice for a few minutes,” Carroll explains. “It’s a good segue between relaxing and doing homework and a good way to get my brain moving again.”
With only five more months left of high school, Carroll has his sights set on what’s ahead. A successful student — Carroll is a National Merit Semifinalist who also self-studied his way to a perfect score on the ACT — he plans to study biology in college.
But music, he says, will continue to be a part of his life. “When I started playing music, I didn’t know I would come this far,” he says. “It’s shaped me more than I possibly could have expected, and I know it’ll stay with me through my life.”
Creating Through Chaos
Isaiah Finley was supposed to be in the final week of rehearsal for the Shaker Heights High School production of the musical “Rent” when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the show.
Finley was to play one of the show’s main characters, Angel, and was disappointed that he and his castmates would never have the opportunity to perform the show for an audience.
“It was really weird for me,” Finley remembers. “And it was stressful. Emotionally, I was so sad.”
But as a devoted student of theater and vocal performance, Finley wasn’t going to let a pandemic stand in the way of the things that brought him joy.
So he pivoted.
“I started to write and record music, and I put that at the forefront of my plans,” he says. “I knew that I had to stay creative.” He wrote songs that he says were “my truth.” He tried to focus on the future and better days ahead.
“Writing music was a release for me and it validated my feelings,” he says. “When you put your feelings on paper, then emotions like pain don’t resonate the same anymore. It felt like therapy, a release. Writing songs was my way of unpackaging the trauma.”
In April, when his Drama teacher, Scott Sumerak, reminded the students that he was looking to them to set the tone for the rest of the year and that the upcoming show “New Stages,” a series of student-written short plays, would be performed virtually via Zoom, Finley approached it with an open mind. “I thought, ‘I can do this. This can be my future for a little bit.’,” he says. “It was an interesting experience to have.”
That growth mindset led to additional virtual performances over the pandemic and, eventually, when COVID-19 cases began to fall in the late summer, in-person work.
He performed in the Mercury Theater Company’s junior production of High School Musical Freaky Friday, attending in-person rehearsals for nine hours on Saturdays. The shows were recorded last month and are available for viewing. “People would ask me if it was hard to rehearse for nine hours in a mask, but if you want something to happen, it’s not that bad,” Finley says.
Moving forward, Finley says he wants to study music in college and embark on a career in music.
“I think that 2020 really gave us all a time to self-reflect,” he says. “When you have to sit with yourself for a period of time, you have to find the positive. And for those of us with creative minds, that just means we have to keep creating.”