FIELD TWP – The assignment North Woods School visual arts teacher Rachel Betterley gave her students was fairly straightforward: Create a drawing using the techniques of famous artist Edward …
FIELD TWP – The assignment North Woods School visual arts teacher Rachel Betterley gave her students was fairly straightforward: Create a drawing using the techniques of famous artist Edward Hopper by using light to tell a story or compel a viewer to feel or think a certain way.
“Light is so important,” Betterley said. “It helps create dramatic effects. Whether they’re emphasizing a person’s face, or their body, or creating a certain ambience, mood or tone, light is what helps do that in their drawings.”
One of her students, senior Megan Cote, took the assignment in a much different direction from her peers, using the opportunity to shine her own light on the unsettling but real state of despair felt by elders in long-term care settings who have been trapped and cut off from their families and loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I chose this because I wanted to show how some people are confined, not seeing their family members for months on end while being inside of an old-folks home or anywhere else where they don’t get to see many people,” Cote said. “I just wanted to make a message people can relate to, that can move them so they understand how some people may feel.”
The pencil drawing, on display in a glass case in a school hallway, is stark and jolting. Using light for emphasis, as did Hopper, an otherwise dark room is harshly illuminated by the beacon of a glaring but malfunctioning screen of a small TV on a desk. Seated in front of the desk staring at the screen is a bespectacled old woman wearing locks and chains, with more chains securing the chair to the desk. A barely visible calendar on the wall includes a sobering notation: “Days since last visit – 81.”
“I had the scene mostly thought out before starting, but along the way I added smaller details to make the art more realistic and to portray a greater meaning,” Cote said. “The chains represent imprisonment and sadness. I put the error message on the TV to give the artwork a darker feel. The date on the calendar shows that the woman hasn’t seen any family or friends in a long time, also giving the artwork a sense of isolation and despair.”
The woman isn’t someone specific, Cote said. She created the woman as a composite of various images in her mind of elderly women to create a person who evokes a sense of familiarity among many different viewers.
“The process in creating this was very frustrating,” Cote said. “At first, I couldn’t get the proportions right on the old woman, and then I had some other challenges like not knowing where to go from here. But towards the end everything started to click, and I was able to show what I wanted to.”
“Every year I always get a few students that really, truly capture the dramatic essence behind the assignment,” Betterley said. “She’s a senior in high school who is showing and taking the time to care to tell us that this is happening. Megan’s been in art long enough to feel comfortable expressing those emotions, and when you have that comfort level, the meaning and concept behind it can just be elevated.”
Cote’s interest in art came long before formal art classes, nurtured from an early age by her mother, Ericka Cote, who studied art education at Bemidji State University.
“She’s an amazing artist,” Cote said.
Betterley said she sees a connection between Cote’s choice of a subject and what students have experienced during the nearly year-long pandemic.
“I think they can relate because they felt that isolation, too, when they were all distance learning,” she said. “Between the students and their isolation and the isolation of people in nursing homes, I feel in a way that they probably have a lot of similarities in that feeling of loneliness.”
It took about two days for Cote to create the drawing, Betterley said, and something that facilitated her work was her receptivity to feedback and suggestions.
“Some students might fight the little critiques,” Betterley said. “She’s one of those types that are just open to growing and adding more. I might give her subtle little suggestions here and there and she’s always open to the ideas I might give as options. But she’s also confident enough in her skills that she knows what she wants to do.”
While much of the feedback Cote has received about the piece falls outside what would typically be considered “positive,” it sends a clear and welcome message to her – message conveyed, mission accomplished.
“People who view the piece usually ask me, ‘Why would you want to show something like this, it’s so sad and heartbreaking?’” Cote said. “So technically, I’m hearing what I wanted to. Because of this reaction I know I have shown how I feel.”