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.

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:

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!

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

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:  Guaranteed to get any learner excited about the possibilities of working with willow!

willow workshop 1

Growing Art in Schoolyards

I was spending a lot of time in gardens over the summer, and some in school gardens.  I’m always on the lookout for ideas about how art can be incorporated into school yards as I think it’s a great tool to raise environmental awareness and even bring about environmental change.  There is lots of experimentation going on in Toronto in this area, and it is exciting to find a new artwork in a schoolyard to support student learning.  If you’re looking for ideas in this regard, Pinterest has lots of ideas in visual forms.  You can also refer to a great book called Asphalt to Ecosystems:  Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation by Sharon Gamson Danks (published by newvillagepress).  Sharon is a Californian consultant on schoolyard greening, and has travelled around the world photographing amazing schoolyard designs.  While any aspect of a greening project could be considered a form of aesthetic design, from the pathways to the plantings to the play equipment, she has included a few chapters dedicated to the diverse and stimulating roles that art can play to enhance children’s ecological literacy.   Check out the gallery on my website for more ideas on this topic.

Asphalt to Ecosystems

The Environmental Angels Project

June proved to be a very busy month, full of environmental artmaking both inside OISE and in our partner schools.  I was fortunate to be asked to do an inaugural eco-art project at Holy Angels Catholic School in Toronto’s west end this spring, and wanted to share the results. 

 This project was intended as a way to get the school community thinking more sustainably by starting a schoolyard collection of student eco-artwork.  As the theme of angels runs deep in this school, we came up with the idea of focusing on the importance of stewardship by asking students to think about what they want to protect in the local environment.  The students from classes in grades four and eight worked in pairs to photograph features of their neighbourhood that they value, and then used these to inform large scale drawings.  The drawings were then traced onto plywood, cut out with a jigsaw, and painted by the pairs of young artists together.  The resulting installation covers both side of the school fence.  To finish, students wrote poems about the images in their paintings, shared in a poetry slam.

 Despite the school being on the edge of an industrial zone on one side, and a suburban neighbourhood on the other, the student artists all chose natural features of their neighbourhood as the subjects of their paintings, from plants and trees to squirrels and snails.  A few thought about the ‘big picture’ by focusing on water, the sky, or the sun.  And they seemed to get the concept that the same practices used by environmental artists (like reducing waste, decreasing material toxicity, and cleaning up the mess you make) could be used by all of us to better protect the local environments in which we live.  I hope this learning about stewardship will stay with them in the years to come.

World Premiere of My Eco-Art Video!

Such a busy winter, but so many fun projects happening along the way!  I started my own You Tube channel called ‘EcoArt Ed’, and posted my first video about making ecoart with elementary children.  You can find it here:

The project came about thanks to my sister Karen Somers, who is a filmmaker and photographer in LA (check out her website at )  We shot the footage last summer when she was in town – a fitting end as I was wrapping up a long standing commitment to the school featured in the video.  We didn’t have time to script, so we shot mainly in one or two takes when we had time.  She left me the raw footage, and I worked on editing it last fall.  It was my first experience using iMovie, so the learning curve was steep, but I’m pleased with the result.  (Thanks also to my son Alex for his help with the editing – it really was a family affair!)  It certainly has reminded me to document all that is done when working on ecoart projects – just sharing the results with others can inspire them to try eco-artmaking themselves!

Growing Rooftop Art in Toronto

I went on a tour of school gardens in the Toronto District School Board last week, and what eco-art treasures can be found these days when you start to look!  We visited a number of schoolyards, starting with Runnymede PS, which is near and dear to my heart – it’s always a delight to show off this extensive and well-developed garden.  The one that was the biggest surprise to me was the rooftop garden at Brock Public School, near Dufferin and Bloor, on the city’s west side.   This gem has been recently re-installed in partnership with Foodshare, an amazing non-profit here in the city that focuses on sustainability education through food.  On the third floor of the school, it is a food garden that has been thoughtfully created with an eye on teaching from the outset, and a strong sense of design throughout.  It includes a few lovely mosaics, wading pools used as planters, and even re-purposed food buckets as colourful planters – everything is kid-height and kid-friendly.  I’m sure the art in this garden will continue to grow alongside the plants over time….