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Over the past year, as they navigated isolation and stress, these Tar Heels turned to something they can control and lose themselves in: art.

Photos by Johnny Andrews

Portraits in a collage of UNC students with their respective art disciplines taken on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Pictured from left to right are Phuong Nguyen, a first-year master's of fine arts major, Will Lowder, a senior English major, AhDream Smith, a first-year master's of fine arts major, Maria Manning, a first-year neuroscience and music major, Savannah Midgette, a junior studio art major, and Lucas Pruitt, a junior media and journalism major. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Whether it’s through music, literature, photography, art or physical performance, many Carolina students have embraced their creative side to help manage disruptions both inside and outside of the classroom due to the ongoing pandemic.

Their artistic endeavors have proven to be a positive and therapeutic outlet to express themselves while dealing with periods of isolation and stress.

Meet some of Tar Heels who turned to their art during the pandemic.

Collage: closeup of Maria playing instrument, Maria masked, Maria's hand on sheet music.

Music is a safe place to let everything go when I feel stressed. At first, I didn’t play for a while because I was in the college selection process. As soon as I figured that all out, I just outpoured all of my emotions into my music. I didn’t have to play for anybody. It didn’t have to be right and I could do what I wanted with the notes. It felt really good to just let go. The past year has been kind of chaotic because you think you’re going to a music festival, you’re going to lessons and then they cancel everything. You practice all of this music and then you never really get to hear it as a whole. I’ve been playing some of these pieces for a year, but I haven’t heard the accompaniment. Then again, you get to appreciate the individual parts more.

Maria Manning, first-year student studying neuroscience and music

Collage: Closeup of journal and computer, Will masked, closeup of hand holding writing instrument.

I write because I read. Reading helps me cope with things I can’t control. Writing, I discovered, works to do the same. If you said it was like religion I wouldn’t say you were wholly wrong  — reading as growing, writing as praying. This past year, though, I’ve written a lot about loneliness and love. None of it may be any good, but exploring those two feelings has proven to be quite crucial to carrying on. And that’s what it’s all about — carrying on.

Will Lowder, senior majoring in English

Collage: closeup of knees, AhDream masked, AhDream dancing outside.

Why do I dance? It just makes me happy. It literally releases serotonin hormones in my brain. I feel it. It’s the one medium that I think is universal. It transcends gender, race, culture and religion if you just have a willing spirit you can partake, experience community and allow for healing. All of those reasons keep bringing me back, particularly during this time where we have to be quarantined. It’s the one thing that has kept me occupied. My first artistic project during the pandemic was a dance theater piece called “The Debate,” which focused on the presidential debate at the time and then I had the opportunity to work with a local dance professor on a devised dance piece for a grant. With the theater being closed, dance has still been the artistic medium to sustain me and for that I’m grateful.

AhDream Smith, master of fine arts candidate

Collage: closeup of art project, Phuong masked, hand holding art utensils.

Art-making for me, especially during the pandemic, is a coping mechanism and a way to process my own thoughts and experiences. The core of why I make art, embroidery specifically, is that it’s a very slow and meditative process, which then aids with it being that coping mechanism. It’s not so much as clearing my mind of thoughts, it’s more about allowing myself to find peace. The last year has been insane. There is something soothing and reassuring in making something with intention and care, which is clearly lacking in a lot of areas of our lives right now. I want to bring that back for myself, moreso than anything else.

Phuong Nguyen, master of fine arts candidate

Collage: closeup of camera, Lucas masked, hand holding black and white photo.

For the last year and throughout the pandemic, having a creative outlet was essential for me to cope with being in isolation and help ease the pain of loneliness. I remember making little videos at my house to try to stay creative and keep using my camera. Generally, having a creative outlet is super special. It’s something that I think everyone should look into finding for themselves because it’s something that you can use as a distraction and it’s something that helps you stay happy.

Lucas Pruitt, junior majoring in media and journalism

Collage: closeup of painting, Savannah masked, hand holding basket of art supplies.

When exploring painting on my own during this quarantine period, I experimented with gouache, watercolor, acrylic and oil. The part I enjoy most is the smoothness of gliding paint on a canvas. After mixing oil and paint, it resembles whipped butter and is extremely relaxing to experience. Painting has given me a mode of escape from the chaos that exists today, refreshing my mind and providing an outlet to express my emotions and find moments of happiness. This medium, specifically, allows my brain a break from the thoughts of the world and engulfs me in a creative universe that has brought me peace during this pandemic.

Savannah Midgette, junior majoring in studio art


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