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.

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!

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.

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   

‘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!

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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!

ecobooks

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’?

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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

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:

http://foolishnature.org/homely/environmental/wood/wood.html

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.