The big senior thesis exhibition for graduating Macalester College seniors was only three weeks away, but at the last minute, artist Marissa Mohammed made a sudden change.

"I was going to do my project around self-surveillance and self-maintenance, but when everything with the pandemic popped off I realized I didn't want to think about something that critical and heady," she said. "I turned to something that brought me a lot of joy."

Instead, she focused on the campus maintenance team that does landscaping, snow removal and other outdoor work, a crew with which Mohammed had worked since her first year at the college. In a suite of thoughtful paintings, the groundskeepers take center stage, without romanticizing their labors.

Part of Macalester's six-person senior thesis show, "Dislocate," Mohammed's work was originally scheduled to be seen in person, but because of the pandemic it has moved online.

For art students, the senior thesis show is a time to shine, to celebrate the achievements of the past four years, or two in the case of an MFA (masters of fine art) program.

But at universities across the country, COVID-19 has brought a halt to this springtime ritual which gathered friends and family to converse with the artist and observe art while nibbling on snacks. The professional-level installation also gives budding artists a career boost, helping them to apply for grants, to attract gallerists and catch the eye of curators.

While senior thesis shows typically have a short run, Macalester's, organized by guest curator Tricia Heuring, will be viewable through the summer at macartanddesign.com. Since it's online, it could hypothetically be up forever.

Seniors at the University of Minnesota also have gone virtual for their final shows.

Alternatively, MFA candidates at the U and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) opted to delay their big shows until December, when they think it will be safe to have an in-person exhibition.

Artist Erika Terwilliger, from Eau Claire, Wis., works in the hands-on media of ceramics, fibers and printmaking. She had mixed feelings about the university postponing its thesis show, but online-only simply doesn't work for her.

"There are smells to my work, and I think about how you move around in space in relation to the pieces," she said. "That to me is so much a part of it."

Delaying her MFA exhibition also slows down the start of her career. Without the installation shots of her work from an MFA show, Terwilliger can't apply for certain grants. For now, she has a studio set up in the basement of the Minneapolis home she shares with her sister.

"Making art is a lifesaver — it keeps your mind busy," she said. "When I make work, it's an automatic mood lifter."

Online advantage

For artists whose work doesn't depend on an in-person experience, the postponement isn't as devastating.

Molly Murakami, an MFA candidate at MCAD, is an illustrator/designer who works digitally. Her senior thesis is a graphic novel about her grandfather, a Japanese-American who was interned at Manzanar War Relocation Center in California during World War II. He died before she was born, but through reimagining his story she investigates questions about intergenerational trauma.

Not having the show as scheduled bummed her out, but she's taking it in stride.

"I am super grateful to MCAD for the steps that they are taking to give us an exhibition and commencement," said Murakami, who envisions gallery visitors being able to flip through the novel and view excerpts on the wall.

University of Minnesota BFA candidate Genevieve Desotelle, whose paintings celebrate powerful women and aim to break taboos around references to sex that she experienced growing up in a Catholic school environment, is going with the flow of a virtual-only exhibition. She was apprehensive at first, but then jumped in and helped build the website for the group show "I'm So Close to Loving You."

This would have been her first in-person art exhibition. But the online version brought unexpected rewards, including the sense of camaraderie she got from working collaboratively on the show. People sent thoughtful responses via Instagram, something she thinks wouldn't have happened if people just walked through.

As a young artist, she wonders if more art careers will start online now.

"We are on the internet now and to be recognized through social media was something I hadn't experienced with my art," she said. "Maybe it can reach farther than the exhibit could've in Minnesota. I'm trying to be really optimistic, for sure."