New Eco-Art Installation in Bloom

It must be spring as a new eco-art installation is blooming at OISE!  This year our art team wanted to raise awareness about the importance of native plant species – their central role in pollination, and their importance in providing healthy habitats for all living things. This was one of the ways we are trying to bring engagement with our Community Learning Garden inside the building to inspire year-round teaching and learning in relation to the power of gardens.  Our Learning Garden is composed of six small gardens that focus on themes important to our institution, from equity and inclusion, to Indigenous Ed, to Environmental learning – it is unique in its attempt to manifest educational theory in plantings.

  Inspired by a great summer of growing in 2017, we asked graduate students to create large scale stencils of the leaves and flowers of the 30+ native plants in this garden as a way to learn more about them. Making each stencil required careful observation and study of a specific plant – for many of these budding artists this will be the start of a special relationship with that species.  Then a small and dedicated team of students spent two days using the stencils to create a large mural about the garden, developing their artistic skills along the way, and learning how to minimize the environmental footprint of mural painting.  By the number of hours they spent, they were fully immersed in the creative process and the camaraderie of working together towards a common artistic goal. The stencilling is now complete, but we still have the text to add to the mural to finish it, aiming for including words in three languages.  Once the mural is complete, I’ll post a photo of it… check back for the big unveiling!

Eco-ARTS Education is on the Rise

I’m really pleased to see that environmental ideas are infiltrating across the arts these days.  When I first started to research into eco-art education, I was hard-pressed to find examples of drama, dance or music educators taking up the challenge of integrating environmental literacy into the work they did.  I’m sure it likely was happening in some pockets, like in visual arts education, but it wasn’t being documented or researched perhaps at the same level.  This wasn’t due simply to a lack of professional exemplars; here in Canada we’ve had many professional musicians, like R. Murray Schafer, Bruce Cockburn and Sarah Harmer using their music to connect to nature-based learning and environmental advocacy.

This is spreading, as artists from all of the arts disciplines are more frequently contributing their unique skills to raising awareness about environmental issues in plays, dance performances, and music videos.  Here in Toronto we have the Broadleaf Theatre company that specializes in plays with environmental themes; their recent show The Chemical Valley Project tracks the deep challenges of environmental racism and colonialism in relation to Canada’s petrochemical industry.  And now there’s lots of evidence that arts educators around the world are taking up the challenge of doing this work at all levels of education.  I was happy to work with colleagues in the US and Australia on a chapter in a terrific book called Urban Environmental Education Review last year on this topic.  And I was honoured this week to address a group of educators on this topic at the NORDPLUS Horizontal Green Actions conference in Finland; they had come together from Greenland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Latvia to discuss, debate, and share promising practices in this area (thanks to David Yoken for the invitation!)  Maybe we have reached a tipping point in the arts – imagine what could happen if we all applied our creativity and innovation to the greatest environmental challenges of our times?

Magic in the Northwest Passage

August 21, 2017

 It was an early start to the day today; up at 6am as we were anxious not to miss our passage through the Bellot Strait.  As has been the norm, we woke up to full sun; for most of the journey so far, the sun has gotten low on the horizon at night, but hasn’t fully set, so even in the wee hours there has been daylight of varying intensity outside.  We gathered on the bow in the sunshine, waiting to see how the currents and the slack water would guide (or impede) our journey.  At only about 800 m. wide, the Strait forms a critical connection to the waters of Prince Regent Sound, and saves us going north around Somerset Island, which is still full of sea ice.  We formed an impromptu choir to sing Stan Roger’s epic song Northwest Passage on a Facebook Live Session as Bellot is considered the heart of this incredible journey.

I also spent some time in the bridge; under the expert leadership of Captain Steffan Guy, it was a quiet and tense atmosphere as the crew focused on the logistics of sailing us safely through the strait.  Little did we know how hard the crew would work this day.  As we arrived at the west end of Bellot, the sea ice began to appear, sporadically at first, and then thick enough to form a sea of white as we entered Franklin Strait. Who knew that watching an icebreaker do its work could be so fascinating? We spent hours on deck, listening to the bow crash through large chunks of sea ice, often as much as five or six feet thick. At one point, we came to the rescue of two sailboats surrounded by ice; hopping into our wake, they were relieved to have such an easy passage. To celebrate our trip through the Northwest Passage, Chef Matt prepared ‘country food’ appetizers: air-dried char (from Jaypooti’s wife), narwhal (caught by Jena’s brother), cod’s tongues, scallops/bacon, and smoked char on cucumbers. The narwhal was surprisingly tasty – not unlike sushi.  The evening ended with a giant sing-along in the Knot, thanks to four talented guitar players (who do double-duty as scientists, zodiac drivers and expedition leaders) – a magical way to end a remarkable day!

 

 

 

 

Tracking Climate Change in the North

August 20, 2017

We left Resolute last night after dinner, and headed due east and then south to continue our journey on the Northwest Passage to Gjoa Haven.  Our first (and only) stop of the day was at Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, a stunning set of cliffs that is the summer home to a few hundred thousand birds.  We were fortunate to have Paul Smith, a bird biologist with Environment Canada, as one of our experts, who gave us an excellent introduction to the broad-winged murres, kittiwakes, gulls, and northern fulmars that build their nests and raise their young on these steep cliff faces. Paul shared his stories of rappelling down cliffs to band these birds, and counting the birds by the thousands to assess the strength of their populations.  These birds are indicator species for climate change, and we learned of their challenges having to fish farther afield (sometimes up to 200km away) as fish stocks change (due to warming waters) or disappear altogether (from over-fishing.)  The effects of our huge eco-footprints are far-reaching, and are having negative effects on every species in the world, even north of the Arctic Circle. We’re struggling with this on this expedition – we recognize that as travelers we are having an impact on the land and eco-systems around us.  We’re aiming to keep these impacts small, but I worry that we’re not doing as much as we can; true of this journey and of my life back in Toronto.

Our group was happy to have a quieter afternoon on board – time to do some laundry, get some exercise (interval training in the hangar), do some writing or reading.  Aviaq Johnston, one of youth ambassadors, gave us an excellent overview of Inuit history, culture and governance that helped us to connect our learning throughout the trip. After dinner, Captain Stefan Guy gave a great presentation on how he would navigate through the waters of Bellot Strait and Franklin Strait the following day, given changing ice and wind conditions. We are taking the less-travelled route through Prince Regent Strait, heading south to Bellot Strait, a kilometre-wide passage that separates Boothia Peninsula from Somerset Island. We have been told to expect lots of ice – we’ll finally see what the Polar Prince can do as an icebreaker!

Getting some Arctic Exercise

August 18, 2017

I continue to be surprised by how busy each day is on the C3 journey; if we’re not helping out with housekeeping or meal service, we’re often rushing to the decks to view the wildlife on the land surrounding us via binoculars (to date: one polar bear, two muskox, thousands of birds, and today, bearded seals.) But while we’re busy, there hasn’t been much time for exercise, so we headed into Sophia Inlet today, a small leg of water off of Griffith Inlet, to get some hiking in.  We stopped in two places on this tranquil bay – on a flat rocky beach at the far end of the inlet, and near a waterfall coming down a low mountain.  The beach area looked empty at first, but once we were walking, small treasures began to appear – a whale vertebrae, a weathered wooden post, kittiwake feathers, bright green algae, smooth stones, and barnacles.  This provided a welcome opportunity to create some natural collages, a way to remember what I find without taking these items home.  I’m experimenting with a range of ways to make eco-art on this trip – art that has small eco-footprints but maximum visual impact.  (I’m planning to pull them into a creative map when I’m back as a way of sharing this journey.) The second landing involved a hike up a beautiful waterfall, and then up the low mountain that it flowed down from – what a spectacular view from the plateau at the top!  We were surprised how many seal bones we found on our way up – we had found it a strenuous hike to the top, so we were left wondering which animals had the energy to carry seals up with them!  We returned to the ship feeling happy and tired, and ready for a rest in the Knot, our community lounge.  But no rest for the wicked, as they say – we jumped onto the tail end of the kayaking and the paddle-boarding taking place off the ship.  The Polar Prince was moored in Griffith Bay, surrounded by dozens of chunks of sea ice.  Squeezing into a dry suit (no small feat in itself, I discovered), I hopped into a Greenland skin-on-frame kayak, having only kayaked twice before.  As the dry suits keep you warm in the frigid waters, I could allow my full attention to focus on the tranquility of skimming through the water and admiring the multiple shades of blue ice.   The dry suit also afforded a float in the sea before getting back on the ship; it was so much fun to bob in the suit – way more fun than the polar dip the day before when I discovered how COLD the water really is! A fitting end to an active day, and a wonderful balance to our onboard programming on the ship in the evening.

Reflecting on Reconciliation

Aug. 15, 2017

Our second day on Canada C3 was a day of thinking through what reconciliation means for me.  As one of the themes of this journey, we’re practicing reconciliation by learning about the ways of knowing of the Inuit, as well as the those of First Nations’ peoples across Canada.  The morning found us in Tay Bay for our first hike on the land, guided by Jaypooti Aliqatuqtuq, an Inuit hunter, guide, and bear guard who is on this leg with us.  His deep knowledge of the land was apparent in his explanation of bear tracks, owl pellets, native plants, and hunting sites – he is attuned to details in nature that most of us missed.  Another one of the respected members of our journey is Charlene Bearhead, a knowledge-keeper from Edmonton.  A mother of 6 & grandmother to 7, Charlene has been the Education Lead on the National Truth & Reconciliation Commission, and is now the Education Coordinator of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.  She is also a co-chair of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, which supported the Legacy Room on the ship.  This contemplative space is filled with gifts from First Nation and Inuit communities along the Canada C3 route – lacrosse sticks, an Inuit drum, handmade snowshoes, books, and many meaningful artworks.  Charlene gave us a wonderful introduction to the Room and to the Fund (if you’re not familiar with it, please look it up.)

We were honoured to witness Jaypooti give Charlene a gift of polar bear claws for this room, which came from one of his hunts – it was an emotional moment that touched us all.  And the day ended with our first spectacular polar bear sighting on an ice flow, as well as observing broad-winged murres and kittiwakes on the steep cliffs Cape Hay.  Paul Smith, a bird biologist on the trip, shared his knowledge of how these remarkable birds survive in this harsh climate. This led me to think of the knowledge, the relationships, and the resilience we can learn from the Inuit, from First Nations’ peoples, and from ‘more-than-human’ beings like polar bears and seabirds, if only we take the time to listen, to observe, to feel and to connect.  For me, part of reconciliation is learning to see and respect the deep connections between all life forms on this planet, and how we can play active roles in contributing to their – and ultimately our own – health and longetivity.

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!

IMG_3019 IMG_2973

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’!

IMG_2677 IMG_2672   

Where Do Eco-Art Ideas Come From?

At the start of another new year at OISE, we are in planning mode to create a few new eco-artworks with our students.  These projects have been well-received, and are successfully drawing attention to creating a culture of sustainability in our institution.  We’ve been very lucky to have support from our CAO in this as she provides financial support to make them happen…it would be hard to make projects happen with no budget.  But once the funding is in place, I’m often asked ‘where do you start’?  How do you find the spark of inspiration that begins the creative process?  I draw on a variety of sources for this – sometimes it comes from campaigns or organizations that are addressing an important environmental issue that we want to support.  In other instances it has been a way to raise awareness about an issue we know is of concern to our organization specifically (our FLAP project is an example).  Often it’s a technique or image from an existing artwork that inspires, triggering the reaction “I want to try that!” (This is a great way to push yourself to move beyond the art-making strategies you feel most comfortable with.)   And at times it has been a request from someone in the organization to help to address a specific concern (aesthetic or environmental.)  We’ve already got a project underway as an example of the latter; we were approached to provide new artwork for one of the busy meeting rooms in the building.  This provided an opportunity to improve a space in the building aesthetically, and another way to get across the message about sustainability. This has translated into a series of large-scale photos of our Learning Garden, and will allow the garden to have a permanent, year-round presence inside the building.  I’ll post photos of this installation here in the next few months as it is completed.

Turning Over a New Leaf

How can you help your students turn over a new leaf when it comes to living more sustainably on the earth?  I asked my pre-service students to do just that this year, and not surprisingly they gave a range of responses, from recycling to upcycling, to doing more with less, to hatching new ideas.  This inspired their latest eco-art project, which has just been installed at OISE.  I introduced them to the field of eco-art in a workshop, and then together we created over a hundred clay leaves that capture their ideas in both text and image, which were glazed and fired.  Working with artist/student Angela Johnson, we created a large metal branch on which to hang the vibrant leaves.  As this work hangs in our stairwell as part of the Take the Stairs energy conservation campaign, we hope that Turning over a new Leaf will help others think about how they can take positive change towards sustainability in their lives and those of their students, one step at a time!

IMG_2030IMG_2015