Bringing Creativity into Sustainability

I was lucky enough to spend some time learning firsthand from Mitchell Thomashow two summers back, a wonderful scholar, educator, and writer who has been influential on my own development in environmental & sustainability education (ESE).  His EcoIdentity book was one of the first books on ESE that I read years ago, and now I’m working through his Bringing the Biosphere home (also an excellent read.)  Mitch’s latest work focuses on the Ecological Imagination, recognizing the important role of expression, imagination, and creativity in working towards sustainability   (http://www.mitchellthomashow.com/ecological-imagination/ )  As part of the workshop he gave at OISE, he mentioned a book published by the Museum of Modern Art called BioDesign:  Nature+Science+Creativity (http://www.biology-design.com/ ).  It’s a fascinating look at how we can partner with natural organisms and their ecological design capabilities to create sustainable products, buildings, and communities.  It takes the idea of environmental art-making to a whole new level.  MOMA has posted a preview of the book on their website to give you a glimpse into a more sustainable future…I just need to find a way to do this, even if small-scale, with students.  Ideas anyone?

Learning about Place-based Education

We were lucky to bring in David Sobel from Antioch University to OISE this past summer to do a talk and day-long workshop on place-based education.  David is the guru of Place-Based Education (PBE), having written extensively about it in his many books (looking to Mapmaking with Children, Childhood & Nature, or Place-Based Education, to name only a few).  Working with his partner, Jen Kramer, David led our teachers through a variety of art-based learning activities based on creative mapping, collages, and miniature worlds.  Our teachers would be the first to tell you that they aren’t ‘artists” or ‘creative’, yet all were fully engaged in these experiences as David and Jen had us consider the places in which we grew up, and the places we live in now as a starting point to thinking about PBE.  David’s rich set of examples of PBE, drawn from schools all over the US, inspired us with its ‘real world’ learning that can take place when using this approach – creating museum exhibits, cleaning up wetlands as just two examples. In Jen’s afternoon workshop, the teachers created beautiful collages using discarded artworks of key parts of Toronto, inspired by author’s book; a few examples are shared below.  We ended the day feeling better prepared to tackle PBE theoretically, practically, and aesthetically!

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Results of the Biodiversity Mapping Project

What a busy end to the spring!  While one group of my students was helping with the installation of our Bee the Change project, another was working alongside me and the K-8 students at Keele PS on the Biodiversity Mapping Project. The latter was a 10 day eco-art project that resulted in eight large murals for the school, acting as aesthetic responses to the children’s learning in science, art and geography over the course of four months.  They studied the concept of biodiversity – species, ecosystems, and genetic – through research, reading, and outdoor exploration, and shared what they learned through drawing, painting, and creative map-making. Each of the murals has a similar background – a map of part of the catchment area of the school – that if put all together, show the neighbourhood around Keele.  On the top layer is one form of life that contributes to local biodiversity, from insects (gr. 1s) through to genetic diversity (gr. 8s.)  Around the edge is text written by the students to act as a framing device – in some cases poetry, in other cases the names of the species depicted.  We worked to reduce the eco-footprint of this painting project by minimizing and collecting the painting wastewater, as well as by reusing old mural panels. The results are meaningful AND beautiful, helping the students, teachers and community members better understand the importance of local biodiversity.  I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to work with the wonderful teachers and students at Keele; the help from my teacher candidates was the topping on the cake!

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People are buzzing about ‘Bee the Change’

OISE is abuzz with our new bee installation.We completed it this last week, and we think the results are sweet!  As reported in an earlier post, we’ve been working to raise awareness about the plight of bees.  In Ontario, like other places around the world, we  depend on bee pollination to cultivate a third of our plant-based foods – without bees, our complex ecosystem and food systems would be radically changed for the worse. Our bee populations have been declining rapidly, more so than in other places.  This is being referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder; many believe the causes of CCD are habitat loss, climate change, neonicotinoids (a type of insecticide), Varroa mites, and Nosema (a fungal digestive disease). 

There are over 70 Ontario bees depicted in the installation, each been hand drawn by a member of the OISE community onto an adhesive material made from 100% recycled plastic. We interspersed these images with facts about bees and actions viewers can take to help counter CCD.  The work, like many of the others we have created, in positioned as part of the ‘Take the Stairs’ Campaign, a walking art gallery that encourages our community to take the stairs rather than elevators (saving energy and improving health and wellness of the walkers).  A few photos of the installation are below –  we think it looks ‘beeautiful’!

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Understanding Biodiversity Through Mural-making

How do you help elementary students understand the importance of biodiversity?  I’ve been invited to work at a local elementary school in the spring with students in classes from grades 1 to 8, working on developing their knowledge of this complex concept through a series of murals for the school.  But where do you start with a ‘big idea’ like this?  I began by talking with the teachers leading the project to get an idea of what they wanted; there were parameters for how they could proceed already in place.  Then I did some brainstorming of words, images and text for my own reference points.  Researching was the next step; I read about and watched videos on biodiversity and looked at other artists’ works to see what has been done in the past.  All of this led to developing ideas on paper, which were revised by talking with the teachers. We have considered how to lesson the environmental impact of the murals along with this; we’re re-purposing existing panels, rather than buying new, and planning to capture all of the waste water from our acrylic paints. The planning process has been bringing together aspects of art, science and geography, and drawing on the principles of creativity and design thinking.  Check back in June to see how the project has developed; I’ll post our next steps and photos of the finished murals.

Pinning ‘Art in Schoolyards’

I’ve been collecting boards on Pinterest on a variety of eco-art related topics this last year (previous post). One of the boards that inspires me to get back outside is the ‘Art in Schoolyards’ board, where I have been collecting images of innovative art installations on school playgrounds.  Having done some of this type of work in the past, it never ceases to amaze me how artists can jumpstart their creativity in contact with natural and built environments. Some are using found materials to create installations – check out the bottle cap murals or re-painted picket fences that are springing up.  Others are using chain-link fences as a matrix for weaving, crocheting, knitting and lacemaking. Plastic pop and water bottles are proving to be a readily accessible (and free) art material that is being upcycled into flowers, towers, water features, even furniture!  And of course many schoolyard artists are going ‘au naturel’, using branches, plants, clay, and other biodegradable materials to create frames, weavings, mosaics, garden totems, play structures, and insect habitats.  I’d love to see more examples of these – send me your photos or Pinterest pins to help me grow this collection!

‘Bee’ the Change!

With the start of a new academic year comes the beginning of a new Eco-art project at OISE, one of my favourite parts of the year. Last year we focused on birds (via the FLAP installation), so we thought it made sense to follow up with one on bees (so we’ll have the ‘birds and the bees’ in our walking art gallery!) The plight of bees is being well-covered in the general media these days – bee populations are declining rapidly, due in part to the use of new pesticides like neonicotinoids, loss of habitat,  and climate change. As bees are responsible for pollinating about 30% of our plant-based food crops, this puts our own food supply at risk – a good reminder that everything is connected. So our next art installation is creating a ‘hive’ of line drawings of Ontario bees, combined with text about their importance; this is helping my students to learn more about bees and the challenges they face. I have attached a few photos of some of the first drawings…check back here for photos of the full installation in April!

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Collaborative Art-making in ‘Common Threads’

I attended a great talk on Eco-art recently by artist Sharon Kallis from Vancouver. She has authored a new book called ‘Common Threads’, which explores the use of collaborative art making as a way to raise awareness of the natural world and the environmental issues it faces. Invasive plant species are of particular concern, as she experiments with ways to re-purpose these plants as art material to deal with sustainability challenges. Sharon has created clothing out of plants, for example, weaving leaves and stems into functional material. I really enjoyed learning more about the community gardens she has been involved in in Vancouver, always with an eye on how the garden might be used as exhibition site or as a source for biodegradable art materials.   Recently she has been growing flax to make into linen fibre, (demonstrating that she has far more patience than I do!) I really appreciate her use of art-making techniques with a rich history, and ones that have often been positioned as ‘women’s work’, helping to reclaim these into the lexicon of contemporary art practice. At the core of this work is always a focus on using art to build community, an important part of living more sustainably on the earth. More info about Sharon’s work can be found here:  http://sharonkallis.com/ Common Threads0001

Mapping Sensory Experiences of Place

I taught a professional development course for teachers from the Toronto District School Board in July – always a pleasure to work with teachers who are so passionate about environmental learning that they give up three weeks of their summer vacation to learn more about it! I was pleasantly surprised to see such an interest in environmental art-making – there were lots of great ideas shared around the table, evidence of the experimentation going on in Toronto schools about how to use the arts to support eco-literacy. Many expressed their enjoyment of the ‘sensory mapping’ activity we did on our first day together – such a simple way to get learners to connect with and reflect on the power of place-based education. The teachers were asked to capture their sensory experience of the local park into the form of a pastel drawing. This requires them to consider how a sound translates into a line, a touch into a colour, or a smell into a shape. This proved to be a great way to get them to focus on the place, and to remove the inhibition that some have about drawing as all of the drawings turn out abstractly. Later in the course we talked about the power of ‘creative mapping’, drawing on the books The Map as Art (by Katherine Harmon) and Mapmaking with Children (by David Sobel.) Mapping and sensory experience can go hand in hand to help learners of all ages experience the environments in which we live in creative ways.

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Creating Eco-Friendly Sculptural Books

While I’ve been busy with collaborative eco-art installations with my students this winter, summer always gives me a little more time to work on my personal artworks.  I’ve been experimenting with sculptural book-making in recent years – I love the combination of text and image, and the surprise of taking a traditionally flat object and making it come alive in three dimensions.  So how do you make this technique more eco-friendly?  Working with paper is a first step as it is easily biodegradable – that’s a natural when it comes to book-making.  But I’ve also been drawing inspiration from a variety of sources, looking for ways to incorporate natural or found objects into my bookworks.  I love the Spirit Books of Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord (http://www.susangaylord.com/the-spirit-books.html), who uses branches, grapevine and dried berries in this evocative book series.  Mary Ellen Campbell’s books also incorporate a range of natural materials, often layering one on top of the other for a beautiful effect (find examples of her work on Pinterest.)  Basi Irland takes a very different approach, freezing water and seeds into book forms that become part of a community performance as they float downstream (http://www.basiairland.com).  If you’re looking for exemplars of how to re-use found objects and turn them into books, look no further than Terry Taylor’s EcoBooks: Inventive Projects from the Recycling Bin.  Once you’ve read this book, you’ll be excited to try this yourself – you’ll be seeing possible books in everything you discard!

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