Riverhead High School students create portraits of life during a pandemic

In a typical fall semester, students in Jo-Ann Dellaposta’s drawing class spend the first weeks studying gesture and contour lines, applying them to self-portraits.

But this is no ordinary school year.

While Ms. Dellaposta’s curriculum hasn’t changed, her students’ artwork has evolved to reflect living though a pandemic.

The portrait collection created by tenth-graders, currently on display at Riverhead High School, is unquestionably 2020: Each student’s face is partially shielded by a face mask that’s become part of our everyday lives.

“We are all wearing masks [in class,] so the kids just took over that assignment. This is what they look like now,” Ms. Dellaposta said. “It fit in perfectly with what they are all dealing with — what we are all dealing with. These assignments lend themselves towards vibrancy and uniqueness and the masks just kind of add to that.”

To create the display, Ms. Dellaposta teamed up with ceramics teacher Selena Pagliarulo, who added masks to the sculptures usually found in her classroom. It also features adaptations of several famous portraits: “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” “American Gothic,” “Mona Lisa” and “Rosie the Riveter,” as well as self-portraits by Frida Kahlo and Vincent Van Gogh — all reimagined with face masks. 

“We’d normally fill our display case with student artwork, rotating out various shows, but we don’t have that abundance anymore,” Ms. Dellaposta said.

In an already challenging year for educators, art teachers face a unique set of obstacles. “A lot of it is obviously hands on, so if a child doesn’t have supplies, how are they doing work? While they’re in school, it’s OK because we have supplies here,” Ms. Dellaposta said.

For virtual students and hybrid class days, she said, art teachers have spent a lot of time organizing materials, setting them aside for students to take home with them.

Ms. Dellaposta said she feels for her students, who are now working through a second school year upended by COVID-19, and tries to check in with them as often as possible. “Check in with your body, your emotions and create something expressively,” she explained. “They do respond to that.”

Fine arts director and assistant high school principal Jason Rottkamp said the show represents the students’ ability to adapt to “an unfortunate situation,” while still learning technique and skill.

 “We’re adapting,” Ms. Dellaposta said. “Life is altered and we need to be careful and conscientious, but we’re still here to learn.”