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MassArt student Bobbi Colburn wearing a face mask she created.
MassArt student Bobbi Colburn wearing a face mask she created.Bobbi colburn

It took a pandemic for illustrator Vicky Chen to find art in a lopsided cake. She’d never been much of a baker, but when all of her courses at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design moved online last year and she moved back home to Winchester, baking became another way to keep her hands busy.

Assigned to create a poster conveying the lighter aspects of quarantine, she thought back to the cake she’d made for her mom’s birthday, and her dog Geo, the kitchen “vacuum cleaner” always hovering at her feet for dropped morsels. Using digital illustration, Chen drew herself with a triumphant thumbs-up next to a frosted white layer cake and Geo in a crisp toque, all above the words: “Learn new things!”

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Chen is among a community of art students who have been creating under unusual circumstances. Many have been learning virtually for over a year now, while others have returned part time to classrooms and studios that have long lists of restrictions. They’re channeling their experiences into new and original expression. “There’s so much beautiful work that’s come out of this,” says Taylor Morales, an English and film major at Boston College who created a short film, Snap Memories, about leaving home during a pandemic. “With historical times comes great art.”

Chen’s classmates at MassArt have transformed routine objects of pandemic life into imaginative works of art, like a bedclothes fashion line by Yitong Liu titled “Working From Bed,” a face mask by Bobbi Colburn painted with the words “Let Us Breathe,” and an animation by Samuel Markey picturing life through the lens of a toilet paper roll.

This adaptable group of students will face a struggling arts sector after graduation. Since March 2020, 314 groups in Greater Boston’s culture sector have lost an estimated $423 million in revenue, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, while almost 3,000 artists and others in the Massachusetts sector reported nearly 68,000 gigs canceled and a loss of $30 million in personal income.

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Some students have become more financially savvy during the pandemic, says Tanya Crane, an artist and professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. They’ve had to make do with substitute materials and work without a studio and other resources they’d normally have available on campus. “They’re already shifting their thought process to ‘Oh, I don’t need to invest $10,000 in a studio in order to work. I know how to create from something that costs $10 instead of $100,’” Crane says. “So in some senses, they’re going to be coming out of this ahead of schedule in their artistic development.”

An illustration project by student Vicky Chen.
An illustration project by student Vicky Chen.

Self-taught computer skills have come in handy, too. Chen figured out how to illustrate using computer software on her iPad instead of her usual ink on paper. And Morgan Starner, a sophomore at Berklee College of Music, learned to digitally stitch together a music performance in the same vein as Berklee’s huge virtual ensemble cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Say Something.”

Abbie White, a senior dance major at Salem State University, turned a logistical challenge into an asset when her final dance performance last fall had to be staged on a vast field that allowed for social distancing. “I found myself almost swallowed whole by that huge, grassy area,” she says. “I realized that I felt so alone in there, and I attributed that to what I felt like in my life. And that kind of became a metaphor.”

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As much creativity as this year has spawned, students are feeling that post-pandemic life will be at least as productive. “I think that people will be so grateful for those opportunities to connect again,” music student Starner says. “A lot of beautiful art is going to come together.”


This story is part of a special report was produced in collaboration with an Emerson College writing and publishing course led by assistant professor Susanne Althoff, a former editor of the Globe Magazine. Jules Struck is pursuing a master’s degree. Send comments to magazine@globe.com