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.

Growing Garden-based Art

With the return of spring last April, I was happy to work alongside students and teachers at Ryerson Community School (part of the Toronto District School Board) as they began to develop their school garden. They were excited to be working with one of our OISE graduate students, Mimi Ristin, to design and plant their own raised bed gardens filled with native plants, as well as to explore the types of trees in their schoolyard and local park. To help them remember the names of these plants and their benefits, we designed two art installations to share their learning with the school community. Three classes of younger children (grades 2&3) made over-sized clay leaves from native trees, and three more classes (grades 4-6) made clay relief tiles of native flowers. We used a high-fire porcelain clay (cone 6), which had a silky feel and proved to be easy for the children to work with (even though many had never worked with clay before). Rubber letters (such a great tool) were used to press the names of the flowers and trees into the tiles, effectively making these artworks into a visual field guide when installed altogether on the school fence. No doubt that having OISE teacher candidates Clara Hoover and Elena Viazmina help out made the project that much easier! Using natural materials (like clay) and installing outdoors are just two of the strategies for growing art in schoolyards – check out my new article about this in Art Education Journal in July 2019.

Casting a Wide Net

What watershed do you live in? Even though everyone relies on a watershed to ensure our survival, most wouldn’t know how to answer this question. This led to our focus this year on the Great Lakes for our annual eco-art installation at OISE. Framed by an introduction to Ecojustice Education, we aimed to raise awareness of the equity of all living beings in discussions of environmental sustainability, especially ones that remain well-hidden, like fish and other aquatic forms of life. We explored the environmental challenges faced by the lakes and their inhabitants – climate change, loss of habitat, pollution, micro plastics, invasive species, and overfishing are just a few. Despite living in a city that sits on the edge of Lake Ontario, most of us were hard-pressed to name even one fish species in the lake or nearby rivers. So we studied and painted images of fish in the Great Lakes for the installation, which introduced us to species like Rainbow Darter, Rockbass, Northern Redbelly Dace, Atlantic Salmon, Brook Trout, and Yellow Perch. The damage inflicted by humans on these species, as well as others who live in and on the lake, is broad; the ecojustice movement reminds us that injustice spans across locations, species and generations. As part of the creative process we also identified actions we can take in our own lives to lessen the challenges faced by the fish; we can minimize our use of pollutants and plastics; reduce runoff from our yards; and help our students learn about the watersheds they live in through science, math, social studies, and of course, eco-art!

Aligning the (Eco-Art) Medium with the Message

Remember McLuhan’s famous quote about aligning the medium with the message?  He wrote this in the 1960s, well before environmental art-making became so popular, but it’s a good reminder for those of us practicing eco-art ed with learners of all ages. It’s not sufficient to be making art with a sustainability message if the media you use doesn’t align with it.  Working with toxic materials like spray paint or oil-based paints subverts the very message we aim to communicate, and demonstrates a “do what I say, not what I do” attitude.  Our students are attuned to this type of hypocrisy, and know when we don’t ‘walk the talk’. Art educators need to lead by example, finding ways to share our ideas in low impact, sustainable approaches to art-making. Some make work with their students that is biodegradable (think Andy Goldsworthy as an exemplar); others reuse found materials (Louise Nevelson was an early adopter of this; Tony Cragg also uses it effectively.)  I hear of lots of art teachers experimenting with low impact art-making techniques, like gelatin printing and cyanotypes.  Others are minimizing their waste and reducing their energy consumption and capturing the waste water from acrylic painting.  If you’re looking for ideas on how to proceed, look to the Karen Michel’s book “The Green Guide for Artists” as a great starting point. Consider how can you take the next step in aligning your sustainability message with the media you use in your art classroom.

Growing a Garden-Based Approach to Art Education

The gardens around schools, whether found in the schoolyard or a nearby park, can be a great way to inspire and integrate learning across the curriculum.  I was happy to have this recognized recently by the international Art Education journal, which published Growing a Garden-Based Approach to Art Education’ in their July 2018 issue, and put on of the photos of the article on the cover! Co-authored with OISE graduate student (now alumni) Jennifer Sharpe, we aimed to explore the joys of taking art education into the school garden as a way to inform, inspire, and celebrate students’ creativity. Drawing on the tenets of place-based education and nature-based learning, we presented a case study of a vibrant school garden in Toronto that has been the site of children’s artistic exploration for over a decade. We know that when art education is conducted in schoolyards and school gardens, using these spaces as sites of discovery, creativity, meaning-making, and experimentation, children are able to deepen their understanding of the natural and built world, and develop strong connections to the environments in which they live.  If you’d like to read more, access the article at:  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00043125.2018.1465318

Nature-based Collages on the Nahanni

How do you make art in pristine natural environments without leaving any negative impact on the land?  This was my challenge as I rafted down the Nahanni River this summer.  Located in NWT in Canada’s north, this immense river flows through 5 spectacular canyons, moose meadows, sparkling creeks, a river delta, even a sulphur hot springs.  It lies on the traditional lands of the Dene people, and inside the Nahanni National Park,  so ensuring as small an ecological footprint as possible when visiting is critical.  I continued to explore a technique I began using in the Arctic last summer, that of making nature-based collages. Using the incredible beauty of the geology along the river as inspiration, I arranged rocks, wood and plants into compositions that captured the beauty of this area.  Once photographed, I returned the components to their original settings to reduce any potential interference with the local ecosystem. This was a type of creative shorthand that allowed me to capture the beauty I was experiencing in a low impact way.  Certainly it exemplifies the saying, ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints,’ and serves as an aesthetic record of my experience in this awe-inspiring part of the world.

Planting Seeds for Eco-Art in China

How is environmental art playing out in other parts of the world?  I was lucky to travel to China this last spring, accompanying OISE interns as they taught in five schools in Hangzhou, a city a few hours southwest of Shanghai.  I was impressed with the strong presence for the arts everywhere we travelled, evident in part in the gardens, architecture, public sculpture, and design of public spaces. As part of my visits to these schools, I was able to visit a few art classes, and pleased to see ‘low impact’ art-making being taught, inspired by traditional Chinese art forms, like paper-cutting, watercolour, and calligraphy. While I would not consider these forms of eco-art – there was no overt attention to environmental learning – they were supportive of similar tenets.  The watercolours we saw students painting were focused on plants and wildlife; the calligraphy uses natural ink made from charcoal.  A few of the OISE interns also put their learning about eco-art into play. They turned students’ attention to learning about the plants and insect life in the school’s butterfly garden.  Drawing on their experiences working on the last few eco-art installations at OISE, they created a beautiful homage to these by combing our butterfly installation from last year with our stencilled plant mural from this year.  I can’t wait to see what these teacher candidates – and our Chinese hosts – accomplish moving  forward!

Diving into Water Education Through Muralling

 

 I’m always looking for ways to extend my students’ learning about eco-art education, so in addition to collaboratively creating art installations, we also take this work into schools.  I’ve shared some of these experiences previously, but wanted to write about the most recent one focused on water education at Ryerson Community School.  The teacher-researcher at this TDSB elementary school, Adrienne Rigler, has been immersed in water education over the past 5 years at different grade levels, often having her students share their learning about water with other classes.  We framed this mural project as an arts-based component of the gr. 8s cross-curricular study about water.  They learned about their local watershed, and explored the neighbourhood to ascertain its features, finding evidence of the local (and buried) Russell Creek.   They photographed, analyzed, and sketched these watershed features, working collaboratively with myself, teacher, and teacher candidates to create a composition for the mural.  We used a taping technique to delineate the main images, which proved to be a great way for the whole class (many of whom were hesitant to paint) to engage in the painting process. They saw the realities of their urban watershed on the right (over built, polluted water flowing into the sewers) and their dream for a healthier watershed on the left (lots of plants, animals, even a pond in their schoolyard). The result is above – what a beautiful way to share what they learned!

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 text, in English, French and Anishinaabemowin, was suggested by the collaborating artists to honour their languages, and reflect the deeper meaning that the garden holds for them.  Here’s a photo of the completed mural.

Playing with Gelli Printing

I’ve started playing with a new printmaking technique that has possibilities for low impact, biodegradable art-making.  Gelli printing is an approach to monoprinting that creates one-of-a-kind prints.  It utilizes a flexible printing matrix (or base) made out of natural materials – you can either buy one of these, or make your own using Knox gelatin powder and glycerin (the latter a less expensive option.)  Due to its flexibility, it can capture both positive and negative impressions of items layed on the matrix.  Laying down natural items like leaves, grasses, or ferns works beautifully, whether you lay down a base of pigment first, or after the item has gone on the matrix. This can be a great way to capture the experience of a nature walk.  I like the effects of acrylic paint with this technique, rather than water-based print making inks, but as these aren’t particularly environmentally-friendly, I need to experiment with creating a more natural form of pigment with it.  Check out all of the images on Pinterest that artists have posted for Gelli printing – hopefully it will inspire you to try it yourself!