Creating art is typically a solitary activity. For Black Hawk College students this spring, it was more isolating than usual, as they worked together – while physically apart – to produce a 36-page art magazine.

ArtFusion magazine is produced every other year by and for BHC visual communications students. It features essays, digital drawing, photography, painting and other student works.

When the college’s Art 248 – Production and Prepress class (about 14 students) went completely online in mid-March – because of Covid-19 — creating the collaborative, full-color publication became a challenge, said art professor Zaiga Thorson. The magazine was aptly renamed “ArtConfusion” by the students.

The cover of Black Hawk College’s ArtFusion designed by Skyler Cooke

“That’s one of the things students really missed – not being able to at least meet in person to brainstorm ideas,” she said recently. “But they all had already given each other their cell phone numbers and they were communicating that way.”

“I think it was a lot of perseverance. Sometimes people would just be very honest with how they were feeling. They’d be feeling very isolated, and I gave out my cell phone number to students more than I ever have,” Thorson said.

“I remember dealing with 9/11 and Y2K; there was a need to reassure them that we will get through this and things will return to normal at some point.

“Keeping our sense of humor and reminding people to take care of themselves, too,” she said. “Just talking to each other on the phone was really helpful as well.”

Thorson wrote in the magazine introduction that in her 21-year Black Hawk teaching career, this was the hardest ArtFusion edition to brainstorm, discuss and design. “Navigating how to complete the course and still create an innovative and student-driven editorial magazine became quite the challenge,” she wrote.

“Part of what’s lost is just the camaraderie – communicating with the students. They really just miss being with each other,” Thorson said in the interview. “And what’s always so wonderful, I instruct and show them how to do things, they come up with the ideas. Just the ease of being able to bounce ideas off each other.”

“It seemed that things were certainly more cumbersome; you didn’t get that immediate feedback. They learn so much from each other, they really do,” she said. “I just love it when students in a classroom aren’t coming to me, but they’re bouncing ideas off each other, making suggestions and that’s just wonderful when they are making the learning happen. It was just a really great group of students, too. Just very supportive of one another, but also able to give constructive criticism and think critically.”

Zaiga Thorson

“We tried to keep things lighthearted in our communications,” she said. “We tried to keep some of the humor going, and that’s how the name ‘ArtConfusion’ happened. It’s typically called ArtFusion and one of the students said, ‘Well, it feels more like ArtConfusion right how, and somebody said, ‘My God, we should call it that’.”

Students installed Adobe software on their home computers and posted work in an online content-management system. One student, 19-year-old Abigail Kongkousonh of East Moline, was more comfortable working from home since she was home-schooled during high school.

“Overall, it was a really positive experience,” she said recently. “The hardest part was definitely communication, specifically with other students we were supposed to work with…Zaiga, she was really patient and responsive. I was really happy with how she handled everything as the instructor.

“My favorite part, honestly, was working on things by myself. I am very independent; I’m not very good in group projects, even though I would have been fine doing that if we were in-person. Since we were at home and we had to work on our pages by ourselves, I was able to get it done quickly, and I would ask people for feedback. I would work on things by myself again. It was really almost like I was reverting back to homeschool in a way. It was a comfort zone thing for me.”

“Even though we weren’t working in the same location, we were still able to give each other feedback on the spreads we were creating via our course management system,” said Lillian Smith of Rock Island.

Patience, the students learned, was part of the process. “Zaiga Thorson was extremely patient with all of us,” Kongkousonh said. “She gave us feedback as often as possible and did her best to make our situation as light-hearted as possible.”

Digital photo composite by Abby Kongkousonh

The class came up with a mantra – “Keep calm, wash your hands, and keep designing!”

“The humor was still there,” Thorson said. “And the students were able to feed off of one another’s ideas, suggestions and encouragement.”

East Moline’s Kaylee Hanger said adjusting to off-campus classes was not easy, but the whole class thrived. “We all would encourage each other and provide moral support,” she said.

Hanger was in charge of producing the digital photography spread and the first page of the magazine. “Those spreads were a lot of fun to complete,” she said.

“We wanted to make this magazine the best it could be, and teamwork is an important part of making that a reality,” said Smith, who designed five of the pages.

The coronavirus pandemic certainly gave the art students a unique learning experience.

“I learned so much this past semester,” Kongkousonh said. “This magazine showcases how Black Hawk students create. It shows how we can work together apart.”

Self-taught student thrives

Kongkousonh, who has a younger brother, went to Moline’s Temple Christian School during elementary and junior-high, before being home-schooled her high school years. As an artist, she said she’s basically self-taught, and most enjoys working with watercolor and colored pencils.

One of her pieces in the magazine is a painting called “Mind,” in which a brain appears like a tree, as a wind and figures swirl through a cemetery, with symbolic hands framing the scene.

It’s part of a series she’s working on concerning times of loneliness, struggle and identity.

“Mind” by Abigail Kongkousonh

“That’s been something I’ve had to wrestle with in my own personal life, especially during the coronavirus pandemic,” Kongkousonh said. “There’s a lot of time you have to spend alone with yourself and I had to really work through things that way, and art helps me do that.”

“Mind” was done for a drawing class at BHC. “The brain that’s coming out from the ground is my struggle with trying to listen to my head, and I also have a piece that goes with it that has to do with my heart.”

“I struggle a lot with listening to my heart and being more practical, and I end up choosing my head over my heart a lot of times, which isn’t bad, but it’s something I’ve had to work through,” she said. “My piece “Mind’ really helped me come to the conclusion that it’s OK to listen to my head or my heart.”

It’s set in a cemetery because, “I feel a lot of times when I do choose my more practical side, I end up giving up a lot of things that might have had more opportunity with me if I’d just taken a little more risk,” Kongkousonh said.

Her artworks are depictions of things she’s gone through, including depression, “not knowing what the next step of my life is, as a college student who doesn’t know what they want to do after they graduate,” she said.

“A lot of people think homeschool is your parents teaching you things, but homeschool is really you teaching yourself things,” she said. “I took it upon myself to study whatever I wanted in high school.”

The hardest part transitioning to a structured school was waking up really early, Kongkousonh said, and remembering to put her name on papers.

An even more impressive piece she did for the magazine is a 1,800-word research paper – put into an art-filled spread she wrote and designed on legendary graphic designer Saul Bass (first done for a class she had taken in the fall). For that, she had to put it in a magazine-

Saul Bass

style spread, “which helped me this semester, when we had to put it in an actual magazine.”

Everything in the four-page spread was designed and written by her, including all the logos and movie posters he designed.

“I didn’t know his name, but his work is really well-known,” Kongkousonh said of Bass (1920-1996). “I’ve been familiar with his work all my life. I really like older movies, so I was familiar with him but didn’t know anything about him until I wrote that paper. It was really good to understand more of my love for other types of design, especially – Saul Bass is known for more minimal designs and he would take away different aspects of his designs until it was left with the bare necessities.

“I really appreciate that, even though it’s not my design style. I have definitely been inspired by him for a long time,” she said.

Her magazine piece is called “The Lasting Impact of Saul Bass,” noting his work on several Hollywood films (including with Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese) and many indelible logos still in use today (such as for the Girl Scouts, United Way, Kleenex and AT&T).

Saul Bass movie poster for “Vertigo”

“Saul Bass was impressive, to say the least. He was intelligent, bold, audacious, inventive and determined,” Kongkousonh wrote. “He deconstructed a concept, found its soul, gave it a blocky form, wrapped it in primary colors, and presented it to the world with poise and self-reliance.

“His work is recognizable to virtually every designer in the past seven decades. SB has gone down in history as a brilliant designer and his work will continue to inspire new designers for decades to come.”

The student designer also put a colorful piece in the magazine’s digital imagery section, done for a Photoshop class last fall. That assignment was to make a creature blending three or four other animals, trying to make them realistic. She combined a kangaroo, frog and an eagle, in a jungle scene.

Kongkousonh said she and the whole class were pleased with the finished product.

“Considering what we had to work with and the obstacles that were put in place, I am super happy with it. Especially because a lot of the other students we were working with, they had a lot of things on their plate. They had to work, they had to do other things. Some of them had kids, babies, they were really bombarded with a lot of things during this time and they still got their stuff done, and it looks really great.”

“A capstone class”

Thorson said the students really learned perseverance and cooperation in these unique circumstances.

“Life doesn’t always go as planned. With some creativity and problem-solving, we could still make things work. I think for a lot of students, it was scary. They’ve never dealt with anything like this.”

Digital drawing by Jae Corales

This project was part of “a capstone class” – alternating each year with a graphic-design class – where students are generally advanced and have taken our other software classes, the professor said. Any student at Black Hawk can submit artwork for it, and usually students work in teams to come up with a cover concept and sample layout.

“They would present their ideas to a panel of professionals in the community, to hear them pitch their idea,” Thorson said. “That’s an important part as well, knowing how to convey – not only visually but verbally – what your thinking is.”

“With the Covid outbreak, we didn’t get to do that. We had just left for spring break, and within a week, we knew we couldn’t come back,” she said.

“The fun part for me is that it is student-driven,” Thorson said. “We do try to highlight the various classes we have and I tap into our art-history instructor, Sherry Maurer, to pick two or three art history papers she believes are well-written and the design students will take that and find the appropriate imagery that goes with that.” One essay, “Moonlight,” concerns a painting at the Figge Art Museum, from a student in an art-appreciation class.

In the 2018 edition, students wrote about their art trip to Chicago, and took photos, writing about their experiences.

Digital photo by Cheyanne Cortez

Some students this spring were upset they didn’t get to see the mag being printed at Union-Hoermann Press in Dubuque, Thorson said.

“To me, that’s a real light-bulb moment, when they see these large four-color presses, and they get to go up there and see the different color towers, understand why it’s important to set up the document correctly, electronically,” she said. “That was a big disappointment for them, but that’s just the situation we were in.”

“They usually get to talk to the pre-press people; we get to see the various departments. We’ve had a really good relationship with them for several years.”

The print copies are now available at the BHC welcome desk, in Building 1, and Thorson will bring copies to Quad City Arts, 1715 2nd Ave., Rock Island, and the Figge, 225 W. 2nd St., Davenport.

“We use it a lot as a recruiting piece. So when we have high school students that come in, or we go and do some portfolio days at the Figge Art Museum, some of the other high schools – it’s one of the pieces that we hand out,” Thorson said. “It’s really nice to have a piece like that, where you can say, ‘Here, this is what we are doing and the type of work our students are producing.”

The cover design was done by Skyler Cooke, which uses toilet paper in the background and wraps around to the back cover, that includes a drawing table and window with hearts on it.

“It was very much timely, and really reflected how she was feeling and how a lot of other people were feeling at the time,” Thorson said.

“It was a really talented group of students. That’s what’s so fun about teaching – they come up with an idea or a suggestion I wouldn’t even think of. To me, that’s just so enjoyable, and their capacity for creativity and doing it, not in a competitive way but a really supportive way, is really fun to be a part of.”

You can see the magazine at bhc.edu/ArtFusion2020.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.