As the COVID–19 pandemic forced classes off campus and online in the middle of the spring 2020 semester, Adjunct Professor Deborah Stein welcomed an unlikely guest lecturer into her class: student Camila Wandemberg’s (BFA Individualized Studies 2020) 99-year-old great-grandmother, Fanny Jaramillo, who joined the students from Ecuador via Zoom to show them her 80-year-old embroidery portfolio.
Stein’s course was focusing on medieval embroidery, listening to music by 11th-century composer Hildegard of Bingen, and participating in a remote “diachronic medieval Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” over the course of the day, embroidering together from afar. At a break, Wandemberg mentioned her great-grandmother’s portfolio to Stein and they asked Jaramillo to join the class that afternoon for a virtual show and tell. “Who is 100 years old, Zooming in and showing their work to a bunch of college students?” Wandemberg said. “I am so proud of her. That’s really admirable.”
Stein had previously invited her students’ family members to join the class as guest speakers after she learned how two other family connections—Mohamed Dirbas’s (BArch 2020) mother and Bueli Njheri’s (BFA Illustration 2020) grandmother—had creatively influenced the students’ projects. “We really got to live the Decolonial School dream of inviting other voices into the classroom,” Stein said, referring to an initiative to facilitate dialogue within CCA’s diverse educational community. “For me, as a feminist, it was incredibly powerful that the matriarchy manifested without even being summoned.”
Understanding the past by reveling in the present
Stein’s Upper Division Interdisciplinary Studio course, titled Diachronic, uses contemporary ideas to dialogue with the past through art materials over four units: prehistoric clay, ancient architecture, medieval embroidery, and early modern painting. She created the class to help students "revel in tactile bliss" while exploring the history of art through materials to create an active dialogue with the present."
Stein, who’s dyslexic, wanted Diachronic to be unreliant on written projects and approachable through creation and touch. “My secret hope,” she said, “was that it would be a class on campus where learning-disabled students and English-language learners could find each other and revel in the emancipatory potential of studio practice and analog materials as a way of overcoming language itself.” She wanted her students to be able to relate their studio practice back to their own heritage, ancestry, and identities.
When CCA made the difficult choice to close its campuses in March shortly before the statewide shelter-in-place order went into effect, Stein was faced with many questions, among them, how to translate a class so reliant on touch to a digital environment.
She also recognized that outside of the classroom, her students wouldn’t have equal access to the same resources they had in the physical studio environment—including stable internet connections and materials for their projects. To help support her class, she put together embroidery care packages for the upcoming medieval embroidery unit. “She got all of our emails and addresses and went to everybody’s house one by one and still socially distanced,” said Njheri, who received her care package after Stein tossed it over her front gate in Oakland. “Now I’m using it all the time. Even now that the class is done, everything that she’s taught me I’ve been using consistently.”
Family inspiration over three generations
Njheri’s own embroidery project was inspired by her grandmother in Jamaica, who sent her a picture of a face mask she’d made to help provide for her community. “She wanted to help out the people around her and keep them safe,” Njheri said. Her grandma—who’s a seamstress and the only other artist in the family—offered to send her a mask, but Njheri was inspired to make her own embroidered version from the materials in Stein’s care package. “I wanted to use what I learned from my grandmother and put it into my work for the class,” she said. “She taught me little things like guardings and stitchings, so it came in handy during that assignment.”
Dirbas also found familial and ancestral connections through the Diachronic medieval embroidery unit while sheltering in place in El Sobrante, about 20 miles north across the Bay from San Francisco, with his parents, wife, and two younger brothers. His mother had experience making custom dresses for her friends, so she gave him materials for his project, and, because he was now working on his project from home, they organically connected on traditional Palestinian embroidery techniques. “As I worked on my project, she introduced me to a cross-stitching fabric that is used to organize the patterns and discussed Palestinian cross-stitch,” he said. Dirbas decided to make a miniature thobe for the embroidery unit—a traditional Palestinian garment that’s primarily black with red stitching. “The patterns can signify which village or family you are from,” he said.
When Jaramillo—Wandemberg’s great-grandmother—joined the class in April to show the students embroidery that she did as a young woman, Dirbas noted that the students were very respectful and quiet. “After sharing her craft and past work, there was definitely a lot of energy and inspiration brought to my peers,” he said. “It helped us really digest the concept of diachronicity and gain a respect for art created in the past and creating a dialogue with it.”
Jaramillo found the experience enriching, as well. “It was nice to meet people from all over the world through a screen,” she told Wandemberg. “It is something that took me by surprise. I was thrilled to show work that I had done 80 years ago with them and to tell them about my techniques and discuss this art. It is certainly different from when I was learning these skills 80 years ago.”
She always tells me she feels proud of me, of going to the States, studying all by myself. And now I got a chance to connect with her in a way that we’ve never really connected. It was a life-changing experience, to be honest.”
“I saw her and it was a really happy moment for me and I felt really proud of her,” Wandemberg said. “She always tells me she feels proud of me, of going to the States, studying all by myself. And now I got a chance to connect with her in a way that we’ve never really connected. It was a life-changing experience, to be honest.”
Jaramillo turned 100 on May 3 and the family celebrated the significant milestone with Wandemberg and her family over Zoom. She was still talking about her visit with the Diachronic class weeks after she visited with them. “She even invited the whole class to Ecuador,” Wandemberg said. “I’ve been telling her that all the class is going to come now because she invited everyone.”
Moving the tactile world online
Stein’s Diachronic course planned to have an exhibition at the Isabelle Percy West Gallery on CCA’s Oakland campus in April, but when that was canceled, she was determined to find ways to showcase their work online.
In early March, the class was just finishing up its ancient architecture unit and the students had put their clay projects, centered around the exploration of the domestic sphere, in a kiln at CCA so they’d be ready to photograph and eventually exhibit. But when they no longer had access to the kiln, Stein surveyed her resources and pivoted to a clever outlet for their work. She and her students created a radio program for CCA radio, The Diachronic Radio Show, where they asked each other to describe the complex domestic worlds they’d each created with clay but could no longer see as they sheltered in place in their own homes. “We could substitute our ears for our eyes, and we could substitute our eyes for our touch,” Stein said at the beginning of a radio program.
“The fact that she was able to make it become a radio show, I thought that was really cool,” Njheri said. “She could have easily had us record something and then nobody heard it.”
“All of these students—even the ones who didn’t have a random matriarch Zooming in, teaching them how to stitch—they were all amazing,” Stein said. “I’m so grateful. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
As a recent graduate, Njheri said she took comfort in how CCA was finding ways to showcase their work. “I’m enjoying the fact that people are making an effort to give us the thing that we’ve been working for at the end of the year in a different way, despite this pandemic,” she said. “I really appreciate it.”
Students in Deborah Stein's Diachronic course in Spring 2020 included Khaled Al-Guthmi, Mohamed Dirbas, Tay Frontiera, Quinn Girard, Mary Hammer, Howsem Huang, Felix Joy, Jiyoun Lee, Yuxuan Liu, Beuli Njheri, Tea Panelli, Juan Pazmino, Jose Ugas, Darius Varize, and Camila Wandemberg.