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.

‘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!

bee 20001 bee 10001

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.

Sensory mapping

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!


For the Birds: Raising Awareness about FLAP

We finished our FLAP 2.0 eco-art installation just in time for World Migratory Bird Day on May 10th!  The work focuses on the plight of migratory birds in urban environments by depicting dozens of Ontario birds taking flight, using artistic means to raise awareness about FLAP – the Fatal Light Awareness Program.  Representing the millions of birds killed annually in collisions with buildings, this artwork is an aesthetic form of eco-justice education, encouraging viewers to consider the needs of all living things in the creation of more sustainable ways of living.  Each bird was drawn or painted by a member of the OISE community, then scanned and printed onto an adhesive material made from 100% recycled plastic. This art installation is part of the ‘Take the Stairs’ Campaign, forming part of the walking art gallery that encourages the OISE community to take the stairs, rather than elevators (conserving energy and improving health and wellness of the walkers). To see some of the detailed images from this installation, visit my February post.  To find out more about FLAP, go to:  http://www.flap.org/  and  WM Bird Day at:  http://www.worldmigratorybirdday.org/   What creative act could you do ‘for the birds’?

installation 3   installation 6

Nature is the best art supply store!

The snow is just melting here, and we Canucks are emerging from the comfort of our well-insulated abodes to rediscover the beauty of a warmer natural world.  I get excited about the idea of my gardens starting to grow again; spring, after a long winter, is always a hopeful time of year.  One of the things I start to dream about is using more natural materials in my artworks:  what new material can I find?  What new material will find me?  Nature is the best art supply store; the materials are plentiful, inexpensive, biodegradable, and if harvested properly, sustainable as well.  I often get asked about the ethics of harvesting natural materials, especially in urban spaces; I think that, in many ways, going all natural is more ethical than using manufactured materials.  The latter typically has a much bigger ecological footprint, and is more toxic, so moving to biodegradable materials can certainly be a positive step in the right direction.  But ensuring that you are finding sustainable sources of natural materials, that don’t harm their living sources, is crucial.  So a few ideas for including more natural materials in your art-making:

  • painting on leaves, rocks, or bark
  • dyeing fabric with natural dyes made from onions, beets, red cabbage, etc.
  • creating collages made with natural materials
  • pressing natural materials into wet clay to make tiles or ‘fossils’
  • rubbings of natural textures (leaves work beautifully for this)
  • blowing bubbles with food dye and pressing onto paper
  • making handmade paper with natural components such as seeds or leaves
  • using branches as ‘frame’ for weavings
  • using beeswax as pigment or adhesive

For more ideas, check out the following website:

Art and your Natural Environment   http://arts.umich.edu/programs/funpages/environmentart/

Flapping Again!

We’re flapping again!  A few years ago at OISE we did an eco-art project to raise awareness about the plight of migratory birds in urban environments as part of FLAP  – the Fatal Light Awareness Project.  At that time I worked with my students to create over 300 handmade relief prints that were distributed to OISE offices to encourage faculty and staff to turn off their lights and close their blinds at night to reduce bird collisions with their windows.  We had such a positive response to these prints that we’re working on FLAP 2.0 – an art installation to raise awareness for the rest of the institution.  Working with our students, we’re in the process of making over a hundred watercolours of birds indigenous to south-western Ontario.  These bird artworks are being scanned and printed onto a type of plastic/paper with an adhesive backing (made from 100% recycled plastic!), and then will be cut out to make life-sized bird stickers.  They will be grouped into a huge flock in our walking art gallery (in the main stairwell), hopefully causing a FLAP when they are unveiled!  Here are a few images that have been created so far…photos of full installation will be posted on my website early next summer.

bird 3bird 1 bird 2

Planting the Seeds for Environmental Stewardship

I worked on an environmental art project with a local Catholic school this fall, thanks to a great collaboration between Arts for Children and Youth (AFCY) and the Friends of Roseneath Park.  Roseneath is a small park located in central Toronto, sadly neglected and full of litter from a nearby parking lot, until the Friends group contacted AFCY to help deepen the community’s sense of connection to it.  They started with a community mural project this last summer – a photo of part of it is below.  I was invited to work with local school children in grades 3 and 4 to heighten their awareness of the park, and hopefully strengthen their sense of stewardship for it.  We used a ‘treasures and troubles’ approach, searching for the environmental strengths and challenges of their schoolyard at first, and then the park, working towards growing an understanding that both humans and more-than-humans share a desire for an environment that is free of garbage, with clean air, water, and lots of trees and plants.  The children relished an opportunity to learn outside, even in the chilly weather of late October, and took wonderful photographs of the treasures and troubles they found in the park – one example is below, of a maple leaf on a park bench (both treasures from the perspective of the young photographer.)  Back in the classroom, their drawings, photos and words formed the basis of their own sculptural books, one way to share what they have learned about local stewardship with others.

Roseneath MosaicPark treasures      T&T book



Working with Willow

I had a Toronto artist, Morgan Zigler, do a workshop for my teacher candidates on working with willow in the spring; we had a great time! It’s an easily-renewable, accessible, (often free) natural material to work with, making it just about as sustainable as it gets. We had a lot of fun learning the basics of working with willow, and making a few sculptures for the OISE Learning Garden – a few photos of my students at work are below. Morgan has done a lot of this type of work at Evergreen BrickWorks, modelling how to use hands-on, experiential learning very effectively with youth; he has also done some great installations with using living willow in schoolyards.  You can check out his website at:


If you want to really take this to the zenith with your students, check out the work of Patrick Dougherty; he uses willow and other types of branches to create the most amazing natural architectural works!   His website is beautiful in its own right, and contains lots of photos of his work:  http://www.stickwork.net/  Guaranteed to get any learner excited about the possibilities of working with willow!

willow workshop 1

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.