The pandemic hit the U.S. right around the midpoint of the Spring Semester of my first year of graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design. The messy unknown of the remaining semester was a blur, but by Fall Semester, I was eager to return to the “classroom” from my little apartment in Providence. At first, I played remote-learning musical chairs around the house with my partner, who’s also an MFA student at RISD, scrambling from living room to bedroom to couch with our laptops and notebooks in our arms, scoping out the best locations to attend our Zoom meetings without disturbing the other.
As we settled into our virtual grad school routine, I found myself sketching the other individuals in the Zoom meetings. As I listened to the dialogue taking place, I’d also take note of the other participants in the meeting, passively watching their screens or nodding along with the speaker. In the past, the only time I’d experienced an entire classroom facing me was when I was the instructor, but with Zoom and the gallery view option, everyone’s face stares ahead and the structure of a traditional classroom is subverted. Participants are free to observe others in the meeting while harboring the knowledge that they themselves are displayed over the camera as well. This tender experience of being both on view and also of watching felt like a two-way mirror.
I contemplated this fascinating phenomenon as I studied the forms of my classmates’ faces, watched them clutch their coffee mugs, and shush their dogs from barking. I considered what might be hidden outside of the rectangular frames and what we each were trying to conceal in our lives. At times I know we really didn’t care because we were just trying to understand the reading or make it through the crit. Even as my eyes would grow tired of the bright screen, drawing the other participants helped me to focus on the class lectures. I’d trick my mind into engagement through observation of my colleagues and professors, peering out of their little rectangle on my screen. The Zoom call has been a fascinating subject to approach through drawing. Each individual is framed by their little box, allowing a preview into their personal lives, the intimacy of their living room, or their bedroom decor behind them.
The rectangular frames seem to bring awareness to everything omitted, the clothes on the bed, the mail that’s strewn across the counter, the roommate waving and making faces from the other side of the computer screen. We are cognizant that each of us has curated what we’ve chosen to reveal. Often a cat will jump onto a student’s desk, blocking their camera; you might hear a baby cry or even a toilet flush—sometimes the virtual background insists on popping into the foreground. My drawings are tangible meditations on the digital space we never knew we’d spend so much time within. The rich pigments in my colored pencils are soft and they wear down quickly as I draw. Faces are presented on the screen in a gallery yet it’s unclear if we are performing our role in this exhibition. As I scratch my paper until the pencil tips get dull, I sharpen them and start sketching again.