NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Waving through the screen

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.

By Pie Bolton

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. I’m so sure. Notification that the campus is out of bounds hits hard and results in a flurry of phone calls and social media posts. “Wow, can’t believe it! This thing might be serious! Maybe a couple of months and all will be back to normal?”

Coronavirus disclaimers and explainers shout at us. Online a fluorescent banner circles every website, in real life a sanitiser greets us beside a taped square and directional arrows. Discarded gloves and masks appear in the carpark.

One of the most valuable gains is time, time to think, time to process, time to write, time to research online.

As HDR students we experience significant loss. We lose our precious studios, books, tools and equipment, casual encounters with colleagues, visits to creative hubs and workshops, Thursday night openings and associated gallery and pub crawls, spontaneous access to expertise, exhibition bookings, allocated residencies and grants. There are personal losses too through medical predicaments and the inability/inaccessibility to support loved ones. We all just have to make do. We all just have to accept the burden.

But we have also experienced gains – an appreciation that technical skills are difficult to translate online and therefore are all the more exceptional. We realise that face to face is not always necessary, travel time is wasted time, we upskill in the virtual realm, we find canvas resources, library books are eternally ours. One of the most valuable gains is time, time to think, time to process, time to write, time to research online. Our beds have become our desks, our floors are our shelves.

One of the greatest gains is the expansion of community through online connections – we smile and wave at each other through the screen as we appear. Old initiatives like TTP (Thinking Through Practice) and REx (Research Exchange) have been reborn through the conversion to online and new initiatives have been conceived. The implementation of an HDR weekly online coffee catchup has seen growth in attendance from a few tentative familiar faces to a solid core of about 20 students sharing and evolving new projects.

We are hopeful of some sort of staggered return to campus … but in Victoria this hope has just evaporated as the pandemic accelerates to another level. We know there is no ‘back to normal’ now.

The HDR coffee group creates more intimate connections with each other through sneak peeks into personal spaces and habits, via casual observation of backgrounds full of pillows, books, plants, art, pets, kids, domestic noises and accidental yelling through open microphones. This interaction inspires us to tour some of these backgrounds more closely. Our virtual studio tours provide insight into making processes, thought processes, unfinished work, discarded work, spontaneous critiques, the mixing of art and life, a scumble of reality, appreciation and commiseration. This is an inclusive and supportive space.

The personalisation of these encounters has made it easier for us to talk about ourselves, to understand our work, our simpler existence, our anxiety of the unknown, the escalation of our anxiety to uncontrollable levels; we talk about everything from the washing of our hands to the wringing of our hands.

As HDRs we have had to become versatile and flexible, reacting to changes and preparing for the next big disappointment – reading and writing, not making; massaging methodologies for a COVID-safe world; changing direction completely; abandoning ethics approvals; applying for grants to survive; travel bans denying us fieldwork; getting our heads around unexpected applications for leave; risk management; possibility of being unable to get back to university at all because of our health or age; being caught interstate or overseas without resources.

We are hopeful of some sort of staggered return to campus, with reassurances that studio access for HDR art students will be a priority but in Victoria this hope has just evaporated as the pandemic accelerates to another level. We know there is no ‘back to normal’ now.

We will continue to wave hello, smile, cry, commiserate, collaborate, include and support. I still have two 10kg bags of bread mix ready to go.


Pie Bolton (Dip.Cer., BSc.(Hons), MFA, current PhD Candidate) is a contemporary ceramic artist working on Bunurong country in Melbourne, Australia. Her work is grounded in the capacities and tendencies of materials with an interest in temporality. She has held solo and group exhibitions around Australia. Bolton has tertiary qualifications in geology, ceramics, completed an MFA and is currently a PhD Candidate in the School of Art at RMIT University and an active member of the TTP Team. She was employed as a Ceramic Technician, heading up ceramic workshops at Holmesglen TAFE and RMIT University. In 2019 Bolton founded The Kiln Room, a unique ceramic resource in Melbourne. The Kiln Room offers a specialist ceramic firing service, technical expertise, mentorship, artist studios and an International Residency Program.

More from this issue

More from this issue

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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.

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.

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.