Helen Klebesadel in her studio. Image courtesy of Helen Klebesadel.
Over the last year, artists have been getting more creative and strategic about their art careers.
And, as the art world becomes increasingly online-centric—even without a global pandemic—it’s never been a better time to adopt online approaches.
Artwork Archive artist Helen Klebesadel took the leap, making her art workshops available online. Helen Klebesadel is an artist, an educator, and an activist. Known for her environmental and women-centered watercolors, Helen Klebesadel is a past national president of the National Women’s Caucus for Art and served on the Wisconsin Arts Board as a member from 2006-2013.
Klebesadel has taught courses and workshops on creativity, studio art, and the contemporary women’s art movement for two decades. She taught studio art and chaired the art department at Lawrence University from 1990-2000, before leaving to accept the position of Director of the University of Wisconsin System’s Women’s Studies Consortium in 2000. Helen retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue full-time art-making, private workshops, and creativity coaching in the fall of 2018.
Helen Klebesadel walks us through how she’s made online teaching successful with all the tips and advice you need to know if you’re thinking about taking art teaching online.
Why did you decide to do online art workshops?
I have been teaching face-to-face watercolor and creativity workshops nationally for years. In my past life as a university professor, I did some online teaching. In recent years, I have been thinking about traveling less and moving some of my workshop-teaching online.
When the pandemic became a reality in March 2020, like everyone else, I canceled all my upcoming art exhibitions and most of my art workshops. I had plans to teach a career-building workshop for the Oneida Nation Art Program and a studio workshop Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts.
But, art venues were forced to lay-off staff and to cancel most of their programming. After discussing the crisis with each venue, I offered to shift to teaching the planned workshops, virtually. The venues were happy to pivot, too. Both workshops turned out to be wonderful experiences for me and well-received by my students.
After the successful experience of teaching shorter workshops online in 2020, I decided to brave teaching my beloved watercolor workshops virtually in January of 2021.
What was your process for creating your workshops and translating them from in-person to online?
My process for creating my workshops and translating them from in-person to online was to imagine them from the student’s perspective.
I considered the differences between taking a workshop pre-pandemic and now during the pandemic. Before COVID-19, a student could attend a workshop where everyone is in the same room for a designated and dedicated amount of time, usually a long weekend or a week. It’s different during this pandemic—taking a workshop online isn't as separate from an in-person experience, the rest of your life is still happening all around you.
I asked myself, “What would you need in order to have a successful learning experience?”
Turning a face-to-face weekend workshop into an online learning experience where people could still do deep learning at their own pace requires time and effort. That type of experience-creation also requires planning and flexibility. How could I design a workshop that would go beyond reading about how to do something to the lived experience of successfully doing the art activity yourself?
I reviewed the curriculum I wanted to share and thought about how to scaffold it in a way where one lesson provided a solid base for the next. I thought carefully about what methods I could best use to share the information effectively and what I could add to make it an even better experience.
I changed the time frames, adapting my in-person timelines to what would work best online. A day-long face-to-face workshop became a month-long online learning experience. A four-day, in-person workshop morphed into two five-week workshops that could be combined for a ten-week watercolor intensive.
I thought these longer, less immediately time-intensive, experiences could work for an audience of creatives in isolation seeking an opportunity to expand their creative life through a long winter. I decided to go for it.
What technology and digital strategies do you use for your art workshops?
I used what I already knew how to do and learned what I needed to, in order to offer a combination of pre-recorded video lessons. I recorded some lessons live and created others using PowerPoint slide shows turned into voice-over videos.
I coupled my pre-recorded videos with weekly Zoom Livestream demos and Q&A that I also recorded for later viewing.
I researched and experimented with a number of potential approaches to building a workshop website before settling on the learning management system Ruzuku. Ruzuku has a simple student management system and makes it easy to register students, post lessons, and run discussions. Ruzuku has worked well for the three workshops I have used it for and I am still exploring what else it has to offer.
My very technically savvy adult son is a part of my pandemic pod and he’s been a huge advocate for my success in taking workshops online. He is my assistant and technical guru and helps with the video filming, editing, and moderating the chats during the live-stream events. He is an excellent artist in his own right. I could not have done it nearly so well without his support.
Helen Klebesadel's teaching tools, paint technique examples image. Image courtesy of Helen Klebesadel.
Did you change your pricing model for online?
I did not change the pricing model from my face-to-face teaching very much.
The online workshops are slightly more expensive than my in-person workshops. I offer an in-depth learning experience that is hard to find outside of a college classroom and my prices will reflect that more in the future.
The length of my workshops allows students to go deeper into each lesson and receive more individual feedback.
I do make a number of scholarships available. We are, after all, in a pandemic, and many of the potential participants who benefit the most from this kind of experience are dealing with the loss of income, as well as isolation.
How do you navigate making sure participants have the correct supplies for workshops?
As far as art materials, I send materials lists ahead of time with links to where appropriate supplies could be found for the most reasonable prices.
I also created a pre-workshop video in which I discuss supplies and outline which are most critical. I also list which materials could be substituted for lower-cost items that would still allow for success.
I offer a clear explanation of where to invest in quality tools, as well as the minimum number of supplies needed for a successful workshop experience.
How do you structure the timing of your workshops?
I timed the 10-week workshop to start in January and take us through the depth of winter. I post in-depth video lessons each Monday to be done during the week at the participant’s own pace. The next Saturday, I offer an optional live-stream Q&A and a demo creating a painting using the techniques that were taught in the earlier video. The demo is recorded and edited for later viewing and is usually posted within 24 hours.
It is important to me to maintain my exhibitions and studio art practice. I know how easy it is to lose your studio time to teaching if the courses really take off. That is one of the reasons I was already interested in teaching online when the pandemic made it a priority.
I have committed myself to only one 10-week course with live-stream a year because it is time-consuming to do it well. I will tweak what I learned this year to improve the workshop for next winter.
The workshops remain available as pre-recorded offerings. I will eventually create a series of shorter, lesson-based, stand-alone learning modules to generate passive income, but that is in the future.
Were there any unforeseen challenges when creating and executing online art workshops?
Let just say that the technical aspects of my first video lessons improved greatly after the first couple of lessons!
I figured out quickly that I needed a computer with more ram and external storage. I am budgeting for a future purchase, which will make everything just a little easier next time.
I learned an enormous amount about creating videos and preparing them for posting online. Happily, my students were very forgiving and are supportive of me and each other.
Any unexpected benefits to adopting an online format?
The greatest benefit of moving to an online format has been the ability to participate in a growing creative community during a period of time of physical and social isolation.
I have been able to reconnect with friends and to meet new people from across the country that I would not have had the chance to reach in person.
I had been planning to pursue more virtual teaching before, and the pandemic forced my hand. The circumstances of 2020-2021 forced me into a trial-by-fire much faster than I would have done otherwise.
Thanks to this crash course in online teaching that I threw myself into, I know what it means to offer online art experiences as I plan for the future. I am grateful to have had this experience.
How did you make sure that your audience would be able to engage with you in a remote format?
My audience includes my former and current students, the people who follow and collect my art, as well as other artists, educators, and creatives in my art and activist communities.
In March of 2020, I realized that remaining connected to a larger community while being physically isolated would be important for me and others. I created a Facebook Group called the Cabin Fever Creative Community.
Cabin Fever Creative Community is an online creative community for creatives at all levels, working in all media. I invited everyone I knew to come and bring their friends to dilute the 24/7 news feeds of politics and Covid-19 with art and creativity.
Lurkers and beginners are welcome. I’m thrilled with the community it’s created; It has grown to around 7300 participants in the past year. This group is a wonderful source of support, connection, learning, and creative exchange. It is possible to engage virtually with people who share a love of the arts when you find your community.
For the actual workshops, I communicate with participants through a combination of weekly Zoom-based live-stream demos and Q&As. I invite everyone to come early and visit before and after the demo on Zoom.
Zoom live-streams and Q&As are coupled with the workshop's online discussions that allow students to communicate with me and each other. I also make myself available via email.
Finally, I have also created an optional private class Facebook group that allows for communication between participants who want to use it during and after the workshop. I intend to allow that to become a community for all the people who take my workshops.
As you've continued to connect digitally, how have you changed your approach to a remote art career?
We will be experiencing the consequences of the pandemic for some time to come. Once it stops dominating daily life, we will be able to continue using what we have learned works through digital connections.
I plan to continue to teach online and in-person when it's safe, but I will do less face-to-face teaching. The online format allows me to develop a broader range of offerings and reach a wider audience.
Last spring, it was very hard to deal with canceling upcoming exhibitions. Nonetheless, virtual opportunities emerged. I was able to pivot and turn canceled shows into virtual exhibitions, sometimes in partnership with the galleries that had originally sponsored the in-person exhibitions. This expanded the market for the galleries, too.
The ability to continue online exhibitions along with in-person shows will remain. I will continue to seek out online opportunities going forward.
I am happy to be able to report that my art sales have continued and grown throughout the year despite, or perhaps because of the pandemic, I suspect that many people are seeking solace through art.
Having an Artwork Archive account already in place to share and sell my work has been invaluable to me. I count it as a huge help in maintaining what success I have had.
What are your tips and advice for other artists considering online formats?
Start where you are and work with what you already know how to do. You can build on it and add to it as time goes on.
Think about what you can do teaching online that would be harder for in-person workshops,
Break your curriculum down into lessons that can be shared simply and well in the online format you are familiar with. Keep the lessons short and clear and accessible no matter how long the workshop is.
Do your research into what would be the best virtual learning vehicles for your particular teaching style and materials. In my own research, I found the Online Teaching Summit organized by Alyson Stanfield of Art Biz Success to be very useful. Several successful online teachers present on a range of methods and learning management systems that have worked well for them.
Any final words for other artists?
I wish you well in your own online teaching adventure. I hope you have as much fun as I am having!