Artists and COVID-19 | Interior design professor brings comic relief to online learning

Photo illustration by Jeffrey Pohanka

Milan Brewster, Contributing Writer 

Interior design professor Camden Whitehead is connecting with VCUarts students during a time when in-person connection is lost. 

The VCUarts Instagram page has daily takeovers hosted by faculty and staff to interact with students and the rest of the department during the pandemic. Whitehead, as well as other faculty and students, takes over the Instagram story daily to tell jokes or bring words of inspiration.  

Whitehead, who has taught at VCU for more than 20 years, has worked in the art foundation and interior design departments. 

We caught up with Whitehead as part of a series in which we see how members of the arts community are coping with the pandemic, Artists and COVID-19. Here are the highlights; responses have been edited for length and clarity.


What was your reaction when VCU went online and Gov. Ralph Northam issued the stay-at-home order?

I teach mostly studio classes, and that is not a very easy thing to do online. I think designers and architects are geared to deal with restraints, so rather than throw up our hands, we say “How do we do this?” 

We have a good community in the interior design department among the faculty and the students. They have been really great at making it work. I have folders set up for my students to put in their work, but it formalizes conversation. In a regular studio class, it is more of a casual conversation. 


Are you having to teach any classes through Zoom? 

Yes, I do all my classes through Zoom. One thing that has really made the studio classes work well these few weeks online is the fact that I knew the students. I had face to face interaction with them the first half of the semester. Any kind of student environment requires trust between yourself and your students because we ask them to do a lot of hard things. The students need us there to know we can help them out. 


What have you been doing to pass the time? 

I have no shortages of projects. I am working on a design for a podcast studio with one of my colleagues for the ICA. We have been meeting through Zoom to work on design sketches. 

Also, I have been teaching and doing projects in the Mob studio, which is a community-engaged studio that combines interior, fashion and graphic design. We do projects in the city for people who normally do not have access to design services. 


Any books, movies, TV shows, or music that you have been enjoying during this time?  

My wife and I have been watching the TV series “Better Things.” We get it on Apple TV, and it’s funny and touching. We tend to watch one series that is dark and one that is more light-hearted for balance. So, we are another series called “The Night Manager” which is on Amazon Prime. It’s a spy series. The best series I would recommend is to watch is “Fauda,” which is an Israeli series on Netflix. 

I have begun reading a book called “The House of Intellect” written by Jacques Barzun. There is a guy that writes for The New Yorker named Atul Gawande that I have been reading. He is a physician at Mass General Hospital, and he has written a lot that relates to what is going on right now [with COVID-19]. 


How do you manage your time in this situation to stay on track?

I keep a clipboard with a to-do list on it. I have one column that is my long-term to-do list and another column that is my daily task. Usually at breakfast or the night before, I sit down and write down what I need to do. 

I usually write down easy stuff on my daily list, like take out the compost or do the laundry. I tell my students that it’s nice to put the easy ones on because you can at least check something off for that day. 


What does your daily life look like now during “stay-at-home”? 

My daily life is focused around class and getting adjusted to new course material now that I am teaching online. I usually have faculty meetings through Zoom that I attend. 


What inspires the daily jokes you post on VCUarts? 

It all started when I got a note from the School of Arts communications director asking the staff to record 10-second videos of words of encouragement. I thought the best thing I could do for my students was to tell them a joke everyday, because during these times I think it is good to laugh. Hopefully, they are laughing and not groaning. 

It’s funny because during the school year, I have one class period each semester where I have a joke day and require my students to tell a joke. Jokes are a lot like designing. Jokes try to take advantage of your assumptions and force you to think another way about it, this is what we do with design. We take aspects of daily life and get people to think another way through our design work. 


Can you share a joke? 

So, a panda bear walks into a bar. He orders dinner, eats it, and pulls out a gun and shoots the guy next to him and runs out. Another guy at the bar runs out after him and asks “Wait a minute you just shot that guy!” The panda replies with, “I’m a panda bear, look it up.” 

He goes back to the bar and looks it up. It says “panda bear: a large Asian marsupial that eats shoots and leaves.”

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