For many people, social and work life is happening online. Over the past six months Dr. Leslie Gates, a Millersville University art professor, has been capturing moments of what this new world looks like through Zoom.
On May 6 Gates started a series of drawings that feature her Millersville University colleagues taken through Zoom meetings. These meetings had been going on for about two months when she started the drawings. She says she started at that point because it was the first time for her where Zoom didn’t feel quite as strange. Gates was then overcome with the idea to draw this interaction. Due to it being a Zoom call with just one other person, it wasn’t conducive for her to sit down and draw them in the moment. Instead, Gates took a few screenshots. After each meeting she picked one that she felt showed exactly what it was that she wanted to capture in the drawing.
After choosing a screenshot, Gates would print it out to about the size of the paper she was working on and then develop the drawing from the print out. She mapped out the drawing to get the composition established. Once Gates starts a particular drawing, she tends to continue working on it in one sitting until it’s finished.
“I would describe the idea as kind of like this drawing impulse that I just learned to listen to,” Gates says. “I think that one of the things that is true for many artists is that we draw to understand something, and so sometimes I feel prompted to draw something that is happening or something I’ve seen. This is something I offer back to the community.”
There are multiple aspects that go into how Gates decides which of her colleagues she wants to draw. Sometimes a background will stick out to her, the way someone is sitting or if they are doing something that is quintessentially them.
“One I did because the background was so attractive to me. The thing that made me want to start taking screenshots was actually what was happening in the background behind a person,” she says.
Figuring out what someone is doing that is quintessential to who they are is easier for Gates to understand if she’s been in lots of meetings with these people or if she knows them well. Sometimes a moment will just feel like an important time for Gates to start documenting.
In a Zoom meeting discussing MU’s budget, there was something happening and she wanted to capture this person’s demeanor or response to the situation. Gates has multiple drawings where she could pick out exactly what meeting they’re in just by looking at it.
“I think another reason I chose someone is that there are people that I just spend a lot of time with, and it just feels like, to not have them included would seem like the series wasn’t complete,” Gates says. “I felt like they needed to be in there because of the amount of work we do together.”
Artists throughout history have acted as a mirror to the world. They create work about the times that they’re living in to help people understand that world. According to Gates, that’s true in all art–literature, music, dance, and theatre.
“This is why these people exist in the world,” she says. “The tricky part for me is that I’m really acting like a mirror and it’s sometimes hard to look at yourself in the mirror. I care about what these people think, and I do feel like this is, in some ways, a gift to our community: to have chronicled this experience.”
She explains that these are not glamor shot drawings. Gates is not trying to catch them at their “best.” She talks about how she’s sensitive to the opinions of the people she has drawn in ways that she’s not typically sensitive to how people perceive her work, because it’s of them and not about ideas that she has.
“So, for that reason, that’s been really difficult for me to just kind of negotiate my autonomy as an artist and accomplish what I want to accomplish, but realizing that some of them might not actually be happy with the way that they’re pictured,” Gates says.
Some of them really love the drawings, but one person commented about having COVID hair and felt self-conscious about what they looked like. Similar to seeing yourself in a photo, you may not always like what you see.
Over 25 drawings and hundreds of screenshots later, Gates will be having her series featured in the January edition of the journal Art Education from The National Art Education Association.
“It will be exciting to have them go to a wider national audience,” she says.
Dr. Gates submitted these when the journal put out a special call for COVID related work. There were short written pieces, visual imagery, and other forms of artwork. Her Zoom drawings were then peer-reviewed and accepted into the journal.
“One of the things that is interesting to me about the drawings is how they read to people who don’t know the folks,” Gates says. “It’ll be interesting when they get published in January to see what the response is nationally, because I think we are all in this Zoom world. Everyone is teaching through rectangles, so I think that there is enough commonality that people will respond positively to them, but I think they are especially interesting when you know the people in them.”
This series was more nontraditional than the rest of her work over the last five years. Gates hopes that people will at some point get to see them in person because, as she states, a lot of sensitivity is lost in even really high-resolution photographs. Once we finally return to campus, she hopes she can find somewhere where the drawings can be put and people can view them in person.
All of the Zoom drawings can be found on her website: https://lesliegates.wordpress.com/portfolio/zoom-drawings/