NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

The escalating relevance of research in progress

As I began the journey of my PhD candidature, my main drive to proceed was a social conundrum. I wanted to explore and if I could, rationalise, the visceral empathy which at times many are affected by, when witnessing upheaval in the lives of those around us.

By Anna Van Stralen

As I began the journey of my PhD candidature, my main drive to proceed was a social conundrum. I wanted to explore and if I could, rationalise, the visceral empathy which at times many are affected by, when witnessing upheaval in the lives of those around us. The focus of my inquiry was the emotional connection I felt with the Syrian Civil war, interrogating the possible worth my response might have, as an artist and as a human. I began to write about the potential social value which ‘remote emotional connectivity’ might contribute to human culture, and how it might be thoughtfully expressed. I pondered whether an underlying understanding of our own tenuous relationship with personal wellbeing might account for the discomfiture many people feel when witnessing precariousness revealed in the lifeworlds of others.

The global pandemic was a harmonious if frightening addition to the breadth of experience I mined for my inquiry.

When COVID-19 swept through the global community at startling speed, I was stunned at the escalating relevance of my exegesis in progress. This relevance emerged visually, with its paintings of compromised spaces populated with vulnerable inhabitants, and in the written narratives pondering the underlying instability at the foundation of every individual. The global pandemic was a harmonious if frightening addition to the breadth of experience I mined for my inquiry. The impact this environment had on my personal life was much more destructive.

I have been fortunate as a mother and professional, to have the committed support of a kind set of parents who help care for my four-year-old son, giving me freedom to teach and to study. As lockdown came into full effect, and my parents, as vulnerable older people isolated themselves, I found myself required to learn how to teach remotely from a home in which I was also a parent, without the safety net of childcare. My studio at home is poorly ventilated, and I was unable to continue using the noxious chemicals needed for oil painting around a four-year-old child. These circumstances led to a derailment of my painting schedule, and difficulties finding time to work on my studies. I became continuously occupied with teaching and domestic chores, alongside relentlessly attempting to keep the boredom of an energetic little boy at bay.

Even now, as lockdown is hopefully past in Tasmania (for now), I am still scrambling to catch up from the delay that this difficult time instigated. The final 6 months of my candidature have so far been exhausting as I use every hour that I can to produce writing and studio work. It continues to be a lonely time – All of the heartening coffee breaks with likeminded colleagues have been trimmed away, and the size of my world is still, months after lockdown, the four walls of my house and its small rain-sodden garden.

My studio at home is poorly ventilated, and I was unable to continue using the noxious chemicals needed for oil painting around a four-year-old child. These circumstances led to a derailment of my painting schedule.

And yet, there is always an alternate view. Amidst all the difficulty of motherhood-academia, there has been the hint of a positive breeze blowing through my life as a result of this most unique and challenging time. I have been attending a number of classes and professional development opportunities which I would not have been able to attend previously, due to parental responsibilities. It is a rare prospect to be able to sit through a long event held in another city, extending my learning, while also being able to be with my family, and care for my son. Parenthood has long felt like being tethered to home, and the new trans-locational way that meetings and conferences have now been operating, is opening up many more possibilities for myself and others who are academics with young families. I hope that in future the flexibility to participate remotely remains an active process to involve and include a wider range of people with specific needs. In turn, we can contribute to academic and teaching excellence through these new avenues of access.


Anna Van Stralen is a local Tasmanian artist. After completing her Honours year in a Bachelor of Contemporary Arts, Van Stralen has been developing her practice through solo shows, teaching units at the School of Creative Arts in Inveresk, and by undergoing a PhD in Creative Philosophy at the University of Tasmania.

“My practice is concerned with the notion of precariousness. Using painting as a symbolic testing ground, I aim to utilize fragments of personal stories and experiences which are impacted by precarity and uncertainty. My painting practice attempts to assemble narratives into blended images which invite engagement with human concerns and broker different perspectives.”

More from this issue

More from this issue

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on how music is taught and practised, not least because the reliance of so many musical activities on physical proximity has been turned on its head. With virtual lessons and ensembles becoming the norm, the move to online has challenged music educators to consider how we might do things differently in the future.

As we find our way to a ‘new normal’ this is a good time to upgrade remote learning resources to support students who do not need to be on campus all the time, or even any of the time.

In the years leading up to 2020, the experience of studying my postgraduate degree had been highly anticipated. Having heard so many wonderful anecdotes from plenty of alumni students, I was thrilled to finally ‘have my turn’ and accept my position as a producing student at the WA Screen Academy in 2020.

COVID-19 has been a pivotal moment in my creative practice, pushing it in an unexpected direction. It has both challenged and inspired me in evolving my work … throughout this period of time my studio set up has altered drastically in not having access to the machinery that ultimately defines my work, a potter’s wheel.

It’s taken me a few days to start writing. My reactions are slow at the moment. I find it difficult to focus. I’m distracted; often glancing between my work, the Guardian live blog and commentary on Twitter. I think often of home – Aotearoa – and trust I won’t find myself in a position where I need to return on compassionate grounds.

By March 2020, after months of planning and organising, I was poised to enter the recruitment and data collection phases of my PhD research projects … studio practice had been identified as the key methodology through which I would test research questions and generate creative works.

Virtually all students have been affected by COVID-19 in one way or another. From the restriction of social distancing arose the transition towards online teaching, some courses were ready for this change while others weren’t.

Art for me has always been a process to make sense as I am a performance artist that utilises endurance to challenge the contingencies of space, time, and the body. The focus of my PhD research is precisely this.

Continuing to study the arts in isolation required self-motivation, perseverance and the ability to think, even further, outside the box. The sudden shift from practical exercises to the confines of a screen was … frustrating for professors and students alike.

The portal is closing, and the artists in Australia have managed to seize control of their sector. The career ladder has broken down into snakes and slithered away. The old models of making and presenting have shed their skin, to reveal new ways.

To describe this semester as anti-climactic would be an understatement. For my cohort and I, this would have been our final year of music school. As the new semester approached, our anticipation to collaborate, create, and learn together for what would have been the last time at Monash was almost unbearable. We were excited to perform, explore, and to succumb to our collective desires to make art and music.

It begins with me buying two 10kg bags of bread mix. I think we might have to bunker down for a while even though my husband’s words “Don’t worry it will all blow over in a day or two” continually float around the house.

How has it been for the students, as we slowly and carefully manage the return to campuses across the country? There is no doubt that the impacts and challenges will be ongoing particularly for students entering the workforce and coping with extended study after deferrals, which some have indicated will come.