A Celebration of Artistic Innovation

During the 2020-21 academic year, programs across the arts and humanities overcame challenges due to COVID-19, ensuring that Bethel students received the opportunity to refine and develop their crafts. Professors and student leaders explored innovative venues to share their work and embraced opportunities to try new things.

By Katie Johnson ’19, content specialist

May 27, 2021 | Noon

Professor of Theatre Meg Zauner directs Sophocles’ Antigone outdoors in adherence with COVID-19 guidelines.

Professor of Theatre Meg Zauner directs Sophocles’ Antigone outdoors in adherence to COVID-19 guidelines.

As the world adapted to the reality of COVID-19 last year, Bethel University continued to provide a world-class education by holding nearly 85% of classes in person, keeping the COVID-19 positivity rate consistently below 1%, and hosting several on-campus student events per week. Those events represented various aspects of the student experience—including Homecoming, residence hall gatherings, music and theatre performances, gallery exhibitions, and all-night efforts to meet print deadlines for The Clarion, Bethel’s student newspaper. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and numerous faculty members involved in the arts and humanities have incorporated innovative methods to make sure their students still received the best of Bethel, even during the pandemic. Here are a few examples of how various programs celebrated the arts during a time people needed them most. 

Unique Music Performances

Nearly 300 students are involved in musical activities on campus, and throughout the 2020-21 academic year, the Department of Music and Theatre provided innovative opportunities for student musicians to build and refine their talents—starting with the 64th Festival of Christmas: "For God So Loved the World." Seven music ensembles ushered in the Christmas season through a pre-recorded performance that aired on Bethel’s Facebook and YouTube channels. The department had not independently recorded a performance on that scale before, and one significant highlight of offering festival virtually was that people from all over the world could tune in. “Bethel alumni who had not seen Festival of Christmas for years got to experience some of what it looks like today,” Manager of Music Organizations Kevin Shull says. “We are excited that we have a broader reach with it.”

Inspired by the broad reach and relative success of the virtual Festival of Christmas, the Department of Music and Theatre decided to produce a Spring Music Festival to premiere online in May. They centered their pieces on the theme, “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace,” according to the St. Francis of Assisi prayer. Professor of Music Jonathan Veenker composed a new setting of the prayer, and the same video production crew recorded and edited the performance. Shull encouraged the students to imagine the cameras recording them in Benson Great Hall were their audiences. “Your parents, your friends, your family, and your colleagues and professors are going to experience this for the first time. Perform as if they're in front of you right now,” Shull told them. “The students did a wonderful job springing into action so to speak.” Over 3,000 individuals have viewed the performance on social media.

Along with these virtual performances, the department took advantage of a different aspect of the recording process. Director of Jazz Orchestras Jason Harms headed the initiative to produce an Extended Play (EP) record, performed by the 5:40 Jazz Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra strings last December. Listeners can find “Bethel University Jazz with Strings, Volume I” on any major music platform—allowing students to easily share their work with family, friends, and potential colleagues. Harms hopes to continue exploring music’s other venues, now that they have experienced this intimate recording process firsthand, to produce further volumes or even create pieces so far unimagined, like a soundtrack for gaming or scores for animation shorts.

Innovative Art Galleries

Over the last year, Bethel’s Olson Gallery, the Brushaber Commons Art Wall, and the Johnson Gallery consistently displayed work by internationally-renowned artists, the local Twin Cities art community, and current art and design students and faculty. Gallery Director Michelle Westmark Wingard ensured that the six exhibitions during the pandemic would be available to the public through in-person appointments as well as virtual tours and artist talks. “When other galleries and museums have been closed, our students have still had actual in-person access to nationally-known artists,” Wingard says. “To have access to new ideas inperson during this time has been a special thing.”

And while she’s grateful to provide that special opportunity to experience new art first-hand, Wingard also appreciates how the virtual events have connected art and design alumni to current exhibitions. For Professor of Art Wayne Roosa’s last exhibition as a Bethel faculty member before he retires this spring, the department filmed Roosa’s personal tour of “Mattering the Soul” and invited Bethel community members to his virtual artist talk—which had 120 people in attendance and 95 views so far. Professor of Art Kenneth Steinbach led a virtual tour of “Constructed Mysteries,” featuring 10 artist or artist teams whose spiritual practice infuses their art. Wingard and Steinbach also received a Bethel University Alumni Association Faculty Grant to produce a catalogue examining each piece to help students explore how their faith intersects with their own work. “Faith isn't separate from artistic practice,” Wingard says. “‘Your faith is still in the work even if you're not making liturgical art or work that includes more of a narrative iconography.’ It’s been a really exciting thing to see the exhibit come together.”

Art and design students have also received numerous opportunities to share their own work. The annual exhibition Raspberry Monday featured juror Alex Buffalohead, the Arts and Cultural Engagement Manager at the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) and All My Relations Arts Gallery in Minneapolis. And, for the first time ever, the art and design senior show appeared in all three exhibition spaces, overlapping with graduation so students’ families could witness their hard work over the last year. “Our students are so resilient and I'm proud to see how they've continued to work through a really challenging year and a half. We just do the best we can and put the best of ourselves into the world that we're able,” Westmark says.

Creative Problem Solving in Theatre

While theatre consistently presents the opportunity to adapt and to hold expectations loosely, the pandemic added unprecedented challenges as Professors of Theatre Meg Zauner and Brent Adams focused on keeping students safe. “As challenging as the year has been, that reality of getting creative and collaborating with like-minded people who are willing to come alongside us, that's been very encouraging,” Adams says. “Like Meg was saying, how many people have been able to say they produced four shows in a pandemic?”

The 2020-21 theatre season started in February 2021 with 1940’s Radio Hour—a musical written by Walton Jones, presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals for the interim course Producing and Performing a Musical. Due to the production’s creativity and commitment to safety, Bethel was thrilled to welcome live audiences to campus. Audience members and performers were required to use face coverings, there was no intermission, and understudies were prepared to sing major songs in case an actor was required to quarantine. The show’s success paved the way for further in-person events this semester. 

After having originally been slated for spring 2020, How to Achieve in Business with a Phantom on the Roof premiered in Benson Great Hall two months later. Adams wrote the musical mashup’s book and lyrics, while Professor of Music Jonathan Veenker adapted the music—a collaborative process which began five years prior. The entire cast returned to perform this spring, even an actor who had graduated last year. “I felt like it was really a sense of closure for the actors, and for all of us on a certain level,” Adams says. “Just to be able to do these shows this spring, when they had originally been scheduled last spring, was so heartwarming.”  Four students who had been cast in Sophocles’ Antigone, directed by Zauner, also returned to perform outdoors near Bethel's Lakeside Center for two weekends in May. “They students were so creative,” Zauner says. “Really, they were a joy to work with, and I'm really proud of them.”

Last summer, Adams also wrote a show to creatively accommodate COVID-19 protocols, Sure-Locked at Home: The Quarantine Caper, which was workshopped with Bethel alumni and members of the Twin Cities theatre community. Professor of Communication Studies Nickolaus Swedlund helped film and edit the performance this spring, and as of May 15, 2021, the video-recorded theatre production is available to the public on Bethel’s YouTube channel.

The Clarion's latest issue and Emma Harville '21 and Zach Walker's '21 last as staff leaders.
Empathetic Approach to Journalism 

Innovative storytelling for Bethel’s student-led newspaper, The Clarion, began even before the pandemic really spread through the United States. Last January, a group of journalism and art and design students traveled to Haryana, India, to create the full-length magazine Textura. As students adapted to completing the project from afar last spring, their energies were primarily focused on how to tell their sources’ emotional stories well. 

Editor-in-Chief Zach Walker ’21 and Managing Editor Emma Harville ’21 infused this empathetic approach to storytelling as they led The Clarion for the 2020-21 academic year. “Textura was very much the epitome of empathetic, compassionate reporting,” Walker says. “Textura also informs experiences like when we report on marginalized voices, or when we report on revolutions like Black Lives Matter, and when we report on George Floyd protests and people of color in the Twin Cities over the last year.” 

Because The Clarion staff was already working remotely last spring, they continued their efforts through the summer and reported on influential events happening in the Twin Cities. The summer pushed Harville to make sure The Clarion reporters got off campus for a broader perspective of storytelling. “This year, we've created what I believe is the best quality content that The Clarion has ever produced,” Harville says. “We tackled some really intense stories. Every big thing that you could think of, we were like, ‘Let's do it.’ I'm really, really proud of all that we were able to accomplish this year.” The Clarion staff produced their best work even while following COVID-19 guidelines, including trading their intimate office space for a formal board room. “This was the most packed news year that I have ever seen,” Walker says. “And because of the pandemic, we had to tell stories in a safe way, and we had to do it in a way that honored the people around us and the people that we were reporting on.” 

As The Clarion staff covered these intense stories in the era of deep political divides, Walker and Harville encouraged reporters to emphasize the truth of a source’s personal experience and activate their readers’ empathy. “We just want people to read the things that we write and see the person that we write about and think, "Oh, maybe that person is worth my curiosity,’” Walker says. “‘Maybe that person is worth something. And maybe I should treat the world a little better because I read that story.’”

Study Arts and Humanities at Bethel

At Bethel, a liberal arts education supported by studies in the humanities is foundational. By studying subjects such as English, journalism, world languages, and biblical and theological studies, Bethel students develop the skills that every graduate needs and every employer seeks: how to listen, think critically and creatively, organize ideas, communicate clearly, and collaborate with others who may see things differently.

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