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Making art a COVID lifesaver

Hours spent sketching, drawing, shading and coloring were a way to step away from the stress of school

East Grand Rapids – It’s a video on YouTube just over eight minutes long titled simply: #1: SELF PORTRAIT.

Under his profile pic, the creator, OBC ART, says: “In my first ever YouTube video, I drew a self portrait! I worked really hard on this video. I am super proud of how it turned out. Remember to like, share with a friend, and leave a spicy comment.”

The video details a long and laborious process that began with a selfie of the artist and culminated in a bright and bold self-portrait after hours of sketching, outlining, shading, coloring and more.

OBC ART is East Grand Rapids Middle School student Oliver Chu. And he says making art, including both the video and the process it depicts, were lifesavers for him during COVID.

Westbrook Walker II, a social worker at East Grand Rapids High School, is not surprised.

“I am a staunch proponent of the therapeutic value art, music, drama, writing,” Walker says. “I have witnessed many students that have found new understandings of themselves when provided ways to discover their strengths through experiential and creative opportunities.”

Walker added that though he is not currently working directly with middle school students, he sees more uncertainty this year as students have transitioned from middle school to high school. 

“This observation may be strictly anecdotal in nature, but it would seem to fit with the restrictions and limitations that COVID required of everyone and the fewer opportunities to remain socially engaged as this milestone period arrived for them.”

Oliver Chu and East Grand Rapids Middle School English teacher Andi Adams

Middle School Years and COVID

Oliver would not argue with Walker’s anecdotal observation.

His sixth-grade year began normally in the fall of 2019, but ended with virtual learning as COVID shut down in-person classes in Michigan the following spring. 

Seventh grade began in a hybrid format last year, including half days of school in-person and Wednesdays as fully virtual, before an eventual transition back to full in-person learning. 

And now his final year before high school is underway fully in person but with some of the same COVID circumstances that have marked his entire middle school career.

The distractions offered by making the video – a process he estimates took 25 hours or more – and making the original self-portrait were invaluable in helping him cope.

“It sounds kind of corny, but it’s a way for me to express myself,” Oliver says. “I could step away from the stress of school. It was a way for me to relax. When COVID hit I drew for hours every day.”

His years of practice paid off during the pandemic. 

“I’ve been doing art for about five years now,” Oliver says. “I started out using pencils and ball point pens, and over the years I’ve upgraded. I buy some stuff, and I ask for it for birthday and Christmas presents.”

His favorite tools are Copic markers – alcohol-based and refillable markers from Japan that come in 358 different colors. They’re not cheap –  $5 for a marker and $5 for a refill – but Chu takes loving care of each one and is able to squeeze 4-5 years out of some. Others, colors he uses more often, go more quickly.

Though he started drawing in third grade, he admits that for a couple of years his work was intermittent. He adds, “I hadn’t really developed a style yet.”

OBC ART on Instagram

During the early days of COVID, he returned to the craft.

He says he found the drawing to be therapeutic.

Just weeks after East Grand Rapids Middle School went virtual, he began an Instagram account called obc_art and started adding his work. It includes many pieces he says were inspired by COVID, though in good artist-fashion he doesn’t want to go into too much detail but prefers to let the work speak on his behalf. 

‘It’s important to me to be part of things that are bigger than myself.’

– Oliver Chu

When it comes to his future, Oliver also defers.

“I would like to go to college, but I haven’t thought that far ahead quite yet,” he says. 

He thinks interior design, architecture and psychology all sound interesting. For now, he’s just looking forward to his final year of middle school and then swimming, water polo, orchestra and lots of classes – yes, including art – next year at East Grand Rapids High School.

His current English teacher, Andi Adams, thinks Oliver will be fine as he makes the transitions to high school and then whatever might come next. 

“Oliver Chu is an all-around fantastic kid,” Adams says. “I’ve had him as a student for two years now. Last year, I noticed Oliver’s artistic talent when he was doodling in his journal. His artwork is truly out of this world. And not only is he an unbelievable artist, he’s a great writer, reader and friend to others.”

The art Oliver Chu makes uses bright and bold colors thanks to a special marker from Japan

A Rising Star in Water Polo

His water polo coach, East Kentwood High School graduate Raheem Brown, whom Oliver cites as one of his role models, is equally exuberant.

“As a person, Oliver is very inquisitive,” says Brown, who also coaches the EGR high school team. “He questions everything to better understand the world around him. He is also a natural-born leader for his class in water polo. He is a rising star, yet he is very coachable and takes instruction very quickly. We are super-excited for this group of eighth-graders and Oliver to be joining us next season.” 

Those words bring a small smile to Oliver’s face. Though it is not lost on him that many of the things he loves are perhaps more solitary pursuits, he is quick to point out that they all also have an element of teamwork and camaraderie.

“In some ways the things I love are a way to compete against yourself but also be part of something bigger,” he says. “They’re all individual but they’re not in a way. It’s important to me to be part of things that are bigger than myself.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio

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