Arts & Culture

Taking GSA Online: UK Alumni Faculty Share Insight

photo of Aubrey Nibert seated in her studio with laptop to teach GSA visual art online
Aubrey Nibert Brice demonstrates painting and drawing techniques from the comfort of her home to her GSA Visual Art students.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 13, 2020)  Like sports leagues, camps and vacations, Kentucky’s Governor’s School for the Arts looks a lot different this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of a second summer welcoming more than 200 of the state’s best young creatives to the University of Kentucky campus for three weeks of immersive arts instruction, talented teens across the Commonwealth are pursuing their passion online.

Since 1987, more than 6,400 young rising high school juniors and seniors have descended on a college campus setting to immerse themselves in an arts intensive environment, with cross-discipline learning, guest artist performances and lectures, and the opportunity to access college scholarships. Instruction is offered in nine disciplines: architecture and design, creative writing, dance, drama, film and photography, instrumental music, musical theater, visual art and vocal music. But this summer, GSA students have been literally plugged in to the experience since June 29.

To find out more about how the change to a virtual format is going, UKNow caught up with a couple of UK alumni on GSA’s faculty this summer. Artist Dan Bernitt, a 2008 arts administration graduate and Gaines Fellow from Austin, Texas, and artist and Bryan Station High School teacher Aubrey Nibert Brice, a 2008 art studio and English graduate from Lexington, are teaching creative writing and visual art respectively.

UKNow: You both attended GSA as teens. What made you interested in working with GSA this summer?

Bernitt: I joined the creative writing faculty in 2013. GSA holds an important place in my heart and in my creative development, and when I heard they were hiring, I wanted to see how I could contribute to the program as a graduate and a playwright, a writing form I didn’t have a chance to learn while attending GSA.

Nibert Brice: This is my first year with GSA, and it’s a program I’m proud of on so many levels. What I love most though — is how GSA gives students this amazing experience during their formative years, where they get a glimpse into the many ways of seeing and engaging in the world.

UKNow: GSA looks quite different this year. How has going online impacted GSA in your opinion?

Nibert Brice: Initially, I was so disappointed for the students. But the entire world is facing disappointment. Of course, I hope we’ll meet in person next year, but as far as holding class on Zoom, in my mind, this has been a model for how online education could work.

Bernitt: The students are missing out on a huge social component by not being able to live in the dorms. When I attended, that felt like a chance to step into how I wanted to be as a person. In terms of curriculum, we had to cut down on how much we were able to teach the students because we also have fewer hours of class time. I can’t speak for other disciplines, but creative writing has been able to translate very easily into the virtual space.

In some ways, participating in a virtual writing program is more beneficial. It’s much easier to focus on the writing process when you’re alone. We’re also able to hear each other more clearly on Zoom than we ever did in a classroom. I believe they’re also able to take the time and space in their own homes to go deeper into the exercises and create new work. The work we’ve heard so far this year has been riveting.

That also has its trade-offs: you can’t immediately hear the snaps and claps of approval when you write a piece that moves people, you can’t walk together to lunch or dinner while complimenting each other’s work and making new friends, we won’t have a celebratory sharing of readings and chapbooks.

UKNow: You teach quite different disciplines — writing and art. What does your class look like in this virtual space?

Bernitt: We hold our creative writing classes on Zoom, and everyone has their video camera on. We also have a social environment on Slack, where students can instant message one another.

Nibert Brice: My painting and drawing class happens via Zoom. Students work alongside me while I give short demonstrations, and then they work independently. Initially, I’d imagined students would work by themselves offline after the lesson, and then we’d meet back. It’s turned out that we stay on Zoom together, sometimes work silently, sometimes chat — it has been so much better than I’d anticipated. 

UKNow: What do you hope your students take away from your classes?

Bernitt: How to listen to one another, and how to listen to themselves. 

Nibert Brice: I hope students leave my class with confidence that they see more clearly, and translate more precisely.

Drawing and painting are practices of translating the world, both the outer, and our inner worlds, onto two dimensional surfaces. As children, we translate trees as lines with circles on top. This translation is completely appropriate when we’re beginning to make sense of the world, but it’s not what a tree looks like. As we grow, we can either continue to depict the world in an overly simplistic way, or we can begin to see nuance. This is not to suggest that art should be “realistic,” but it is to suggest that when we begin to see things as they really are, then we can identify the cliches, stereotypes, and oversimplifications that shape us. Only then, when we have defined our blindspots, can we authentically express ourselves. 

Authenticity looks different for different people, but authentic expression is universally understood. As artists and as humans, adjusting our lens to see with nuance is not a place to arrive — it’s a lifelong practice. I hope students leave my class knowing this. 

UKNow: Do you think it was important to continue GSA this summer, even if it had to be virtual?

Nibert Brice: The writer Johanne Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” It may seem students are coming to GSA to get a giant dose of their own “language” but the reality is, GSA exposes these young people to a world of foreign ideas. 

I also suspect most everyone has seen art’s importance during this pandemic. We’re either consuming art (thank you Netflix) or making our own art — whether it’s cooking, yard work, the creativity put into designing a more frugal budget, or a new business plan — the world needs art and artists.

Bernitt: Art is the most accessible way to express the emotions we didn’t know how to deal with when we were thrown into isolation. We’ve had to be alone with ourselves. For many people that’s terrifying. Artists are able to sit with that feeling — that unease, that discomfort, that frustration, that anxiety — and transform it. Artists help define and express the ways out.

UKNow: And, what will you take away from your GSA experience this summer?

Nibert Brice: That as humans, we are incredibly adaptable. We need art, even if it’s virtual. And as always, when I teach, I learn.

Bernitt: We’ll make it through.

GSA is a public/private partnership inaugurated in 1987 by The Kentucky Center (now Kentucky Performing Arts), The Commonwealth of Kentucky and numerous private supporters. Today, the vital funding required to make GSA a reality is provided by the state through the leadership of the Governor’s Office and the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, as well as The Kentucky Center Endowment Fund, Toyota Motor Manufacturing and more than 300 corporations, parents, educators, alumni and friends of GSA.

The mission of Kentucky Performing Arts is to build lifelong relationships with the arts. As an integral member of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet, Kentucky Performing Arts, along with the other agencies, seeks to preserve and promote the history, heritage and arts of the Commonwealth.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" two years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.