New Study on Eco-Art Ed Pedagogy

Happy to share a new study about eco-art education that our research team finished this fall. Recently published in the Journal of Art and Design Education (2020, vol 39, issue 3), this study explores the impacts of the environmental art installations I’ve been co-creating with students and faculty over the last decade at OISE, found in our walking art gallery. The article is entitled “Conceptualizing Art Education as Environmental Activism in Preservice Teacher Education”, and it draws on methods from arts-based research and qualitative case study in its investigation of the impacts of creating environmental art installations in a community-based, eco-art education program. Our findings support our lived experience that graduate students experienced behavioural and attitudinal shifts towards sustainability after engaging in the processes of creating environmental art; involvement in the program also provided opportunities for building community, engaging multiple domains of learning, modelling sustainable art-making practices, and prompting environmental activism. The results of this study – along with the cover photo of one of our recent installations – continue to inform a developing pedagogy for environmental art education in higher education settings. My hope is that it inspires others to try eco-art ed in their own institutions.

Creating Garden-based Art in the Cold

How to do garden-based art making in a cold climate when gardens are still dormant? This was my challenge last April, when the first spring plants were peaking out of the just-thawed soil, as we hosted a research symposium as part of the 2019 AERA conference (one of the world’s largest education research conferences.) Organized in conjunction with Susan Gerofsky (UBC) and Julia Ostertag, it included five presentations on educational gardens in higher ed institutions across Canada and the US. As the conference theme was on multimodal forms of learning, we decided to include an art-making component, but with no plants in the gardens yet, this proved to be a challenge. I decided to (literally) draw on our large archive of photographs of the plants in the garden instead, along with dried leaves and flowers saved from the previous fall. The forty delegates in attendance were invited to use enlarged black & white photos of the plants in the OISE garden as a starting point to creating their own art. Some added colour with pencil crayons, pastels and watercolours; others cut, folded and ripped the photos, and incorporated dried plant materials. With a variety of entry points, this proved to be a very flexible activity, open to a wide range of skill levels. Many of the delegates expressed their enjoyment of the activity, which enhanced their understanding of the papers presented. Perhaps a new approach to attending academic conferences has been found! See some of the artworks that resulted below.

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?

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: Common Threads0001

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.

Inspiring Sessions at NAEA on Eco-Art Ed

I haven’t had a chance to report on the many inspiring sessions I went to at the National Art Education Association conference in March in New York City this spring.  For the first time, I found sessions on environmental art education every day at the conference, presented by educators from all over the word.  I learned about the SustainABILITY program at the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University; they are doing some beautiful ceramic work in gardens with children, as well as bird houses, plant pots, stepping stones and garden stakes.  I listened to Linda and Mark Keane’s presentation on their new website, which tracks how to the greening of schools through collage and drawing.  Virginia Freyermuth described the work she has been doing with the Connecting Oceans Academy on Rhode Island; her descriptions of the art-based, cross-curricular integrations to learn about marine life was exciting.  And I was also introduced to the innovative work going on in Finland on nature-based approaches to art-making, through the work of Pirkko Pohjakallio and Jan van Boeckel; I’ll write more about their website in a future blog.)  There were so many sessions on eco-art education that I didn’t make it to all of them, which was a turning point at NAEA – and I hope a trend that will continue in the future!

New eARTh education website!

The spring has been busy and interfered with my blogging, but there are so many wonderful things happening in eco-art education to share!  I attended the NAEA’s annual conference in March in New York City, and saw a number of sessions focused on environmental art education.  The best news is that there is a group of scholars coming together to develop this area, led by Tom Anderson and Anniina Suominen Guyas at Florida State University.  They have started a new website, Earth art education [] to act as a nexus for research and advocacy into environmental art education.  I’m happy to have been asked to sit on the editorial board of their new journal, Earth Education, and look forward to contributing to the content of the website as well.  Please consider sending papers to the journal as we’d love to read them!

Maybe there’s something in the water in BC…

I had the pleasure of catching up with Lisa Lipsett recently, an artist from Salt Spring Island (on the West Coast of Canada) who is doing some fascinating work as an artist and educator in connecting to nature through art-making.  (There seems to be lots of environmental art happening in British Columbia – may it’s all that makes for such fertile ground!)  She’s designed a process she calls Creative Nature Connection, that is, in her words “a nature-inspired practice of artful connection to ourselves, each other and the world.”  This is more than simply art-making in the great outdoors, but involves connecting to the self and with nature by “letting the inside out, and letting the outside in.”  She’s written a book about this called Beauty Muse: Painting in Communion with Nature, and runs programs and workshops around the country as requested.  She also has a terrific website, well-worth a visit to learn more about her approach.  Find it at:

Staging Sustainability Conference in April

Thought those of you in the arts with an interest in environmentalism might like to know about an upcoming conference on this topic in Toronto in April 2011. It’s called Staging Sustainability, and it’s being hosted by York University. There a diverse array of people presenting who are dedicated to the roles that the arts can play in sustainability; I’m particularly interested in hearing David Buckland speak about the Cape Farewell Project. I’m presenting on the Wednesday – hope to see you there!

Shades of Green

It’s been a busy time since the holidays – hard to find time to blog! Teaching, writing and leading workshops has been keeping me hopping, but environmental art is never far from my mind. I was thrilled to have a new article published on the subject in the November 2010 issue of Art Education magazine – called “Shades of Green: Growing Environmentalism and Sustainability in Art Education”. This article describes a major study I led two years ago on eco-art education in Toronto and the process of having teachers develop curriculum in this area. It’s exciting to be able to share this work with a wider audience – the teachers I worked with were extraordinary, and demonstrated so well what eco-art ed can look like in their elementary classrooms. These are just two photos of the works their students created in the study – both created for school gardens!