Ryan Helsel: “We Need Art to Process the World in Which We Live”

How is COVID-19 currently impacting your personal artistic work or, more broadly, your field?

I am a visual artist, photographer, and arts educator. My personal artistic work was directly impacted when an exhibition of photographs I’ve been working on for a number of years was cancelled. It was set to open on March 20 at Through This Lens in downtown Durham. The two-person show, Piedmont Topographics: Ryan Helsel & Vann Powell, featured a photographic survey of the Piedmont landscape and the impact and traces left by humans. Vann is a student at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and the exhibition was curated by Melissa Gwynn, the exhibitions and publications manager at the Nasher Museum of Art.


How have you adapted your work at the Nasher Museum of Art?

In my role as the K-12 and family programs educator at the Nasher, I engage K-12 students, teachers, and family audiences with our exhibitions and artwork. We have pivoted our work online—my colleagues and I are now offering “Virtual Classroom Visits” via Zoom.  We reached over 300 students throughout the region during the second week of the program. Additionally, we have created weekly lesson and activity plans for K-5, 6-12 and family audiences based on work from the Nasher’s collection. We are also leading virtual versions of our Reflections program for adults with Dementia and Alzheimers. The interest and demand for these programs caught us a little off guard—next week have so much demand that some of the tours will be running concurrently!

Have you had any positive surprises or unanticipated challenges moving museum education online?

I am surprised at how quickly young people can adapt to a changing world and changing ways of learning and engagement. I usually feed off of student’s excitement from body language and facial expressions—that’s harder to do online. I am also thinking about the many students in our area who do not have access to the technology to fully participate in what is being offered, whether that is a computer, reliable internet, a quiet place, or even access to food and shelter. Without the actual structure of school, the inequities in our society are even more pronounced.

Nasher Museum Family Activities

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What creative work do you find yourself turning to right now?

Nostalgia, for one. I’ve always been introspective and interested in personal histories, my own or others, when things in the broader world are challenging. Re-listening to albums from my teen years while I walk the dog, digging through old photographs, thinking of the histories of objects in my home, even trying to draw the floor plan of the my first childhood home (from which I moved at age 4!) are all ways I’ve been being creative during the past month.

I created a Facebook Group called This Week’s Assignment where I’ve been posting creative prompts every Monday night, many heavy in personal history. While it’s a public group, the majority of the participants are friends and family, and it has been really rewarding to revisit some of these shared histories.

Also, just this week I was able to finish a home studio space in my garage, a project I’ve been working since the beginning of the year. Being productive with my hands is personally really important.  While everyone else has been baking bread, I’ve taught myself how to frame a wall, run electrical, install insulation, and hang and finish drywall. I’ve learned that hanging 4×8’ sheets of plywood on a 9’ ceiling by yourself is difficult.

Lastly, I’ve been spending all of my days with my soon to be 3-year old daughter, so I’ve learned the lyrics to a number of Disney movies and have done a lot of creative role-playing and dancing!

Carie Arseneau’s response to a Nasher Museum family art activity “A Macro World.”

What lasting impacts do you foresee?

I think some of the ways artists and musicians are adapting—virtual tours, online dance parties, livestreams of art making and dance—will end up sticking around. In some ways, I think this is a good thing. But I worry that people will forget the feeling of walking into a museum or concert hall. That experience is wildly different than listening to something on your couch. More broadly, I also worry there will be lasting unease at being a part of audiences and in shared spaces. What will that mean for  for cultural institutions such as the Nasher Museum of Art?

What are you confident will stay the same?

We need art to process the world in which we live. That will never go away. I see more awareness and appreciation of this need in the broader public already, which makes me hopeful for an increased awareness of the value of all sorts of arts and artists in the future.

Can we learn from how artists have previously responded to crisis?

I think there is a lot to learn about the value of quiet, space, and solitude for artists. Some people have more of this now and are seeing the value of it, and others have less of it, and are now discovering how valuable that space was to their creative process.