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The Art of Sustaining Creativity During a Pandemic

Eliot Raynes pursues his transmedia studies and job search from home in Maryland while reflecting on a rewarding journey at Syracuse University.
Eliot Raynes portrait with Italian landscape in background

Raynes in Perugia, Italy, where he visited an international chocolate festival in October 2018 while studying abroad in Florence.

Eliot Raynes ’20 attended an arts magnet high school in Maryland, where he was able to nurture his creative talents with classes in drawing, painting and photography along with traditional public school requirements. “When I was deciding on a college, I wanted to continue my arts studies but felt I also needed to go somewhere that really challenged me,” he recalls. He looked for a large school that offered rigorous academics along with a strong arts foundation, and was drawn to the transmedia department in Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA).

Raynes visited campus and liked what he found at Syracuse. “VPA encouraged learning in a variety of visual media, and I met personally with Doug DuBois, the head of transmedia and photography,” he says. They toured Light Work, an internationally recognized on-campus nonprofit that supports artists through residencies, publications and a community access lab facility. “I was in awe of the high level of professionalism I saw and encouragement I received. I also thought the strong community Syracuse University built for students—especially the alumni network—was something unique.”

I was in awe of the high level of professionalism I saw and encouragement I received. I also thought the strong community Syracuse University built for students—especially the alumni network—was something unique.

Eliot Raynes

Forging Ahead Through Quarantine

Raynes was in the home stretch to a B.F.A. in art photography with a minor in computer animation when his senior year was interrupted by the coronavirus. Since leaving campus in March to quarantine at home in Maryland, he has found that it’s challenging, but not impossible, to transition to online learning.

“Classes are delivered mostly on Zoom,” he says. “We screen share when we need to show each other our work. We recently had final presentations for a studio class, so some students made videos and some screen-shared PowerPoint live.”

An animation class Raynes is taking allows the students to work together as a small studio to produce a fully animated short film. “It’s student led—we propose projects, choose one, and a student directs it while our professor advises and facilitates us working as an animation team,” he explains. “Our meetings are limited to Zoom, but I’ve found it really nice. It’s like meeting with friends and having this project as a distraction from the pandemic, and I’m still able to work on my own.”

A special online gathering hosted by the professor for an art photography senior thesis class boosted the spirits of students who would normally be focused on their exhibitions. “Our projects have come to a weird halt, and the professor really understood that we couldn’t work in the same way during the quarantine and we all have our own worries. So he hosted a Zoom gathering where we just talked about life,” he says. “It was chill and fun, and a nice way to connect with classmates.”

Raynes says his professors have been especially helpful and responsive to the needs of seniors who are concerned about job searches and applications. “Transmedia professor Laura Heyman is incredibly smart and has been connecting us to artists in the field to talk about their work,” he says. “Art photography professor Yasser Aggour has been amazing in helping me finish my art thesis. It’s been very grounding for me during this tough time. They are all so willing to help.”

Aggour is equally impressed with Raynes. “During the COVID-19 crisis, my weekly meetings with students have helped keep me sane,” he says. “Eliot is an impressive student doing innovative work on identity, technology and the body. He shared new work in every virtual meeting we had—it gave me hope that great work can still emerge during such a dreadful time.”

Travel and Hands-on Learning

Image of Florence taken by Eliot Raynes

Raynes captured the golden hour in Florence, Italy, in November 2018. The Duomo is in the distance, wrapped in light smog.

As he looks back on his Syracuse University career, Raynes is grateful that he took advantage of the opportunities available to him before his senior year. He spent the Fall 2018 semester in Florence, Italy , through Syracuse Abroad . “I studied studio arts like painting, metalsmithing and photography, along with some language and culture classes. It was a great time, and I made connections and friends that have really stuck with me,” he says. “I also took a Greek Odyssey class where we traveled around Greece for almost two weeks. I love Greek culture, and learning about the country’s archaeological history was amazing.”

When his painting professor invited Raynes to attend a summer mixed media workshop in Italy, he found a way to make it happen. “It was an opportunity to develop and work on my thesis, so I applied for a grant through Syracuse University’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (The SOURCE). It provides grants of up to $5,000 for student-led research and creative projects. I got the grant and went to a village in Tuscany to study under artists who had been my professor’s mentors. It was an intensive two weeks of learning about the history of mixed media as an art form, exercises in creative work, and how to critically examine it as contemporary art. When I returned to Syracuse I was really driven and knew how I wanted to approach my thesis. My professors have been so helpful in directing me to the resources I’ve needed.”

When I returned to Syracuse [from Tuscany, Italy] I was really driven and knew how I wanted to approach my thesis. My professors have been so helpful in directing me to the resources I’ve needed.

Eliot Raynes

He has also interned as a student photographer with Syracuse University’s Division of Marketing and Communications. “Eliot is uber-talented,” says Ross O. Knight, director of photography for the division. “He’ll take on any task, from setting up lights to editing or doing location research. He has been a valued member of the photo team, and he’s definitely going to make his mark on the fine art world.”

The Home Stretch

As Raynes prepares to complete his degree, he’s considering every possibility in the photography and animation industries, including photo or art director assistant, photographer or retoucher. “I’d even work as a wedding or event photographer’s assistant to learn that work and then freelance,” he says. In animation, he’s looking for jobs in VFX, lighting, texturing and post-production. “I’d even consider working with talent agencies, because I’ve heard that they are like mini grad schools for working in the film industry,” he says. “You learn how that world works, make connections and move into jobs you want. Mentors have helped me get to where I am, so when I get a job, I would love to mentor undergraduates.”

Although his senior year won’t end the way he expected, he has great experiences and memories to fall back on. “I will cherish my friends the most, and the adventures we had,” Raynes says. “I used to be really shy, but Syracuse has pushed me outside my comfort zone. To me, being Orange is about making changes—putting in the necessary thought and taking responsibility. It’s critical thinking in action.”

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