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Collaborative Community

Asked how she could help her community, associate professor of scenic design Shannon Robert, came up with a simple idea that soon turned a group of virtual strangers into a small community.

On a normal day, the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts is alive with theatrical productions, music concerts and other cultural opportunities for students, faculty, alumni and community members. Last spring, with the industry shut down for people’s safety, Robert was one of the many people who brainstormed program ideas to help keep the community connected and engaged during this time. Her idea stemmed from studios that offer wine and paint nights.

Initially, Robert’s first Tuesday night paint night on April 21 began with current students but its success led to its expansion to the Brooks Center audience after an invite was sent out. Every Tuesday since, Robert has stationed her laptop in front of her home workspace and taught virtual class members how to create different works of art. Participants range in age from 12 to 80 and from student to faculty to alumni to Tiger fan.

Robert’s goal was to lead group painting sessions that were quick and relatively easy for those of any skill level. Robert said, “It became clear that people want to continue doing this, so I think we can probably learn something along the way.” She began to incorporate mini lessons on things like cubism, scumbling or impressionism. She also wanted to teach participants about the value of painting and to not be afraid — to just do it. Robert recognizes that most people are fearful to show their work or even begin painting because they worry it won’t look good. However, she reminds people that after sitting down to a first piano lesson, no one will walk away playing like Horowitz. She described it as “a process” and told the group to “just enjoy where you are in the process, and don’t be afraid. You have to be fearless when you are creating.”

Eventually, the Tuesday-night painting group turned into a small community of regulars who began to connect with each other, despite the virtual distance. Robert compared it to a quilting group, a fun space where people can sit around to chat and catch up. “I have bonded with so many of these people,” she said. “We talk about recipes, movies, television shows and music. It’s really nice to see everyone having conversations with people they would usually never talk to.”

There were, of course, challenges along the way. Most stores were shut down or, at the very least, limiting hours. Participants had to get creative with the materials they used and where they got them. Some had limited funds to buy the paint, paint brushes, canvases and palettes necessary. Robert also described figuring out the angle to position her camera as a learning curve. She wanted to be sure everyone could see what she was painting in as much detail as she could. Her paint-splattered laptop is proof of her dedication to making these nights as doable and fun as possible.

As the weeks went on, an idea began to emerge. With the number of regulars the meetings were soon beginning to have, Robert thought a collaborative project would be easy to accomplish. She painted a piece and cut it into 16 parts to send to 16 contributors. Each person would have no idea what the painting looked like as a whole, nor how their piece would incorporate into the final. Their task was to replicate their section as accurately as they could, in whatever medium they desired. The contributors ended up using charcoal, oil pastels, acrylic and latex to complete their sections.

The decision to create the piece in black and white was a practical one. Robert knew not everyone might have a color printer, and she knew painting in white and shades of black would be easier to color match for new painters. Painters completed their sections on their own or with the help of friends and family members. Robert said the message behind the piece is harmony. The work pays homage to the different disciplines within the Brooks Center in a way that “lifts them up and is aesthetically pleasing.” It contains a dancer, a light technician, a singer, a musician, and an actor — each performing. Robert wanted students who are studying in the building to look at the mural and “see themselves or see something that they connect with or relate to.”

After two joint paint sessions, the mural pieces were complete and ready to be displayed in their new home: the Brooks Center. Robert described the collaboration as a gift from each one of the contributors. They bought their own materials and gave up their time to produce something meaningful and beautiful that can now be shared with the whole Clemson community.

As difficult as these times are and have been, the shining light through it all has been people’s willingness to look out for each other while remaining connected and positive.