Feature · arts
Creative Class of 2020: From New York to Tokyo, art students share what it's like to graduate during a pandemic
Finishing school during lockdown introduced a particular set of challenges for this group of final year students.
By Hena Sharma, CNN
Updated 14th July 2020
Hena Sharma, 22, is a recent graduate of history from University College London (UCL). She is currently interning with CNN Style and hopes to pursue a career in journalism, using her cultural lens to bring under-reported stories and voices into the mainstream.
For universities and students around the world, this is an uncertain time. While many schools are planning to have some in-person classes come fall, a number of questions remain around what the ongoing threat of Covid-19 will mean for higher education.
In the months leading up to summer break, Zoom lectures, online exams and virtual graduations were the reality for many students. And for final year arts and fashion students, who normally rely on campus studios and equipment to complete their final projects, trying to finish school during lockdown introduced a particular set of challenges.
Online exhibitions, like the Virtual Parsons Festival, replaced physical degree shows -- where students' final projects are showcased to professors and industry scouts, who often attend in search of new talent -- which meant students had to rethink what they made and how.
Some students used the time working remotely to pick up new digital skills, like learning how to create video games or to edit video -- which allowed them to build virtual galleries in place of canceled shows.
Others were not so willing to accept the situation as it was. In April, students at the University of Arts London, who believe that remote learning is incompatible with studio-based degrees, founded #PauseorPay, a campaign lobbying universities to pause classes or offer partial reimbursement during the pandemic. Three months on, however, students in the UK are still required to pay course fees in full.
Beyond the practicalities of trying to finish a degree right now, the professional landscape that graduates are walking into is complicated. Where do new job seekers fit into a creative industry that faces its own crisis? According to a recent report by Oxford Economics, in the UK alone, 406,000 creative industry jobs are considered at risk as a result of Covid-19.
The creative Class of 2020 has been irrevocably shaped by the global pandemic. Below, students who graduated this year share their experiences and perspectives on how they have managed to adapt their work to lockdown restrictions.

Tianyu Li: MA Menswear, London College of Fashion

Credit: Tianyu Li; CNN
Tianyu Li, 23, was in the final months of his Master's degree, in London, when lockdown began. He has since returned to his home in Beijing where he has set up a makeshift atelier:
"Coronavirus has absolutely had some impact and influence on me as a student, but I can still do the work. Lockdown has given me time to research more deeply into my design concepts and learn some new technology. For my project, I deconstruct and reconstruct textiles and use these in my design work to show the feelings of someone with OCD. Now that I'm staying at home (in China) I see my mum disinfecting everything and having anxiety.
"While at home I've made my own studio, but my sewing machine is small and slow. Because of that, I've been inspired to try and use more hand-stitching in my work. If you review history, whenever humans go through war or trauma it leads to new ideas being developed. In my opinion, the creative industry will emerge to a new era -- I hope so."

Sara Shishkova: MA Fine Art, Central Saint Martins

Credit: Sara Shishkova; CNN
London-based Sara Shishkova, 28, had planned to create installations for her final show by piecing together everyday objects with her sculptures. Her practice is influenced by the idea of duality:
"Everyone has been affected hard (by recent events). Many of us invested a lot to try and do this degree and it feels like the universities have tried to save themselves and sacrifice 2020 graduates. It was just assumed that we could continue producing work from home, which is not the case and is not what we paid for.
Online learning can never substitute studio time
Sara Shishkova
"I was fortunate enough to be able to photograph some of my stuff after they announced the university was going to be closed -- some students didn't even have the chance to do that. I joined Pause or Play Pay because I felt like universities were not accommodating students. Online learning can never substitute studio time and for many of us, the mediums we use are not compatible with being shown in a virtual way. Every sculpture has its own feeling and that perhaps has been the hardest bit for me -- how do I translate that online?"

Myles Loftin: BA Photography, Parsons School of Design

Credit: Myles Loftin; CNN
Myles Loftin, 22, was based in New York for his degree and spent a year abroad at London School of Communications, but has returned to his family home in Maryland. He traveled around the US to photograph Black queer communities for his final project prior to lockdown:
"Most of my work is about challenging and expanding people's ideas of the world and what is beautiful. My thesis project focused on capturing intimate moments between Black queer people. I just try to create representation so that people like me feel more seen in an accurate way.
"I started the project while studying abroad in London, and when I got back to New York photographed some people there and in LA. I posted some open calls (on social media) to see if anyone was interested in being part of the project. Usually I would meet someone, and they would introduce me to their friends -- now I can't do that. A huge part of my project was traveling and meeting people.
I think this time is going to make us expand our minds in new ways
Myles Loftin
"(Lockdown) has gotten me back into self-portraiture which is something I was doing when I first started photography. And in terms of work, it hasn't 100% stopped because some companies are still reaching out and trying to commission work from home. People are going to keep finding new ways to create, so I think this time is going to make us expand our minds in new ways."

Mai Sudo -- Fashion Design BA, Bunka Fashion College

Credit: Mai Sudo; photos by Miki Ogu; CNN
Mai Sudo, 21, is based in Tokyo. She designs clothing that explores how humans have affected the environment:
"My designs present a scene in which polluted seeds grow and bloom. I focus on how people's desires have worsened the environment, making it difficult for other creatures to survive. As life becomes easier to live in for humans, the environment, in turn, deteriorates. I expressed this idea in six looks, but unfortunately as we were preparing and in rehearsal for our graduation show, we were told it was canceled by government instruction.
"Suddenly we didn't have class anymore and we graduated without seeing our friends and teachers. Instead of graduation, my university reposted our graduation works on Instagram and Twitter. I feel it is necessary to adapt ourselves to the situation. Certain companies developed a facemask that is antibacterial, another company began making clothes which are easy to wear at home. (These companies) made use of their special abilities and show how the creative industry must adapt to continue growing."

Sam V. K: BA Fashion Photography, London College of Fashion

Credit: Sam V. K; CNN
Sam V. K., 23, is based in London. During lockdown, she returned to her childhood home and looked into her family history. This research fueled her final project, which was based on the theme "family" and explored through documentary-style photos:
"Photography is very interactive. On shoots you have stylists, makeup artists, you -- the photographer -- and directors all collaborating, so we've all been affected. Not having access to research material in the library and the studio is what's changed the most, in addition to not having as much interaction with the outside world, which usually serves as inspiration.
"Luckily for me, the source of inspiration for my final project has been my family, looking into my history and asking my parents -- who are immigrants -- the questions I've never asked them. Right now, we have the opportunity to look at the people closest to us and find out more about them, even if that's picking up a camera and documenting them cooking food or capturing what's happening in the moment, unfiltered."

Yuxin Huang: Fashion Design BA, Bunka Fashion College

Credit: Yuxin Huang; photographers: Ojima and Tao Ma; CNN
Yuxin Huang, 23, moved from China to Tokyo for her degree in fashion design. Her multicolored garments embody the happiness that love can bring:
"In my final year project 'The Colors of Love' I use many bright colors to express happiness when meeting someone you love. (Because of lockdown) I lost my graduation show and my hair and makeup sponsor. Our final show and our graduation ceremony were both canceled. I felt sad during that time but immediately adjusted because Covid-19 is a big problem that the whole world must face together.
"At my university, the students and teachers made a fashion show without an audience before school was officially closed. I also displayed my final project on the school's Instagram account, and we uploaded our projects online. Recently, I have begun to think about the future development of fashion -- the virus changed the world and maybe some people have changed their values and interests in fashion. It has altered our lives and changed our aesthetic. In this unknown situation, I cannot say what the creative industry will become in the future (but) this time has reminded me to think about how I can contribute as a designer."

Jesse Egner: MFA Photography, Parsons School of Design

Credit: Jesse Egner; CNN
New York-based Jesse Egner, 26, uses photography to showcase a diverse range of queer bodies. Since lockdown, he has been focusing more on self-portaiture:
"For my thesis I've been studying queer disabled bodies, fat bodies and bodies of color and how they've often been rejected from even gay and queer spaces. I was meeting tons of people and was really using that to fuel my work. It was very collaborative. Just as I began figuring out what I was doing and was getting excited about it, everything came to a halt and we were told to work from home. I have, however, been able to reimagine my final project.
We're starting to see the value in digital spaces
Jesse Egner
"I think that by being challenged the creative industry is going to come out a lot stronger. We're starting to see the value in digital spaces which is going to make art a lot more accessible. That's something which is important to me because my work deals with disability and class. I hope some of that sticks around even when things go back to 'normal'."

Lo Cheuk Yiu Antonia: BA Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University

Credit: Antonia Lo; photos by Dingli Stone Group; CNN
Lo Cheuk Yiu Antonia, 22, is based in Hong Kong. She creates figurative sculptures to comment on the importance of achieving dreams and stepping outside our comfort zone. Due to lockdown, she designed a virtual exhibition for her final project:
"While I was making my sculptures for the degree show, the outbreak of the virus began. I use stone and a lot of steel but as there's no space to create physical work at home, I've been using modeling software instead.
"My university quickly accommodated to students. The videogame software, Unity, wasn't originally part of the course, but it was added so we could learn how to build a virtual gallery. This is now what our final coursework is graded on. While sculpture in the virtual space is acceptable for me, I'd also like the audience to feel it in person. (Nevertheless) the art of sculpture is shifting very rapidly and I think that the incorporation of technology and sculpture has the potential for further development."

Christian Rodriguez: BFA Fashion Design, Parsons School of Design

Credit: Christian Rodriguez; photos by Jacob Ferreira; CNN
Christian Rodriguez, 22, designs bulletproof utilitarian-inspired garments. Rodriguez was based in New York but returned home to San Diego once his university went into lockdown:
"Right when this thing began getting out of hand, I had just finished my collection and went back home. I intended to be here for a week and now I'm still here.
"With my mom working for the mayor and wearing a big and clunky bulletproof vest, I came up with the idea to create something lightweight with better functionality. I was looking forward to showing my work in person at the Parsons Festival, as it's a chance to get your foot in the door and network with potential employers. Plus, some of the jackets I made show actual bullets being stopped inside the clothing. Though I can show that digitally, it's much better in person.
"(Still), a lot of great companies come out of crisis so I'm brainstorming right now to see if I can bring something great out of this. It just sucks because we just graduated and are trying to find jobs in (one of the) worst job market in history."
Graphic design by Max Pepper