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:  http://sharonkallis.com/ Common Threads0001

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!

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Using Digital Photos for Eco-Artmaking

Digital photography is a great technique to use for environmental art-making – while it’s not ‘no impact’ (is anything?), it is low impact.  For a small amount of electricity students can have so much fun taking photos and then modifying them in so many ways; it’s a great form of recycling!  I have been using the work of many of environmental photographer/artists in my classroom as starting points for eco-art lessons.  Canadian Ed Burtynsky is known internationally for his large-scale photos of human impact on the earth; if you haven’t seen his documentary Manufactured Landscapes, it is excellent viewing.  I haven’t seen his newest one, called Watermark, but reviews of it are also strong.  (More about his work at http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/ )  The work of American photographer Peter Menzel is often found in my classroom as well – his series Hungry World and Material World are fascinating portraits of families’ consumption around the world; not surprisingly there are great disparities depending on where they live.  I use his work to introduce eco-justice education and the power of art to raise awareness about inequity and its relationship to the environment.  (http://www.menzelphoto.com/books/hp.php )  And finally the work of American Chris Jordan (http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/rtn/#silent-spring ) is also useful to introduce how environmental statistics can have a greater impact when given visual form.   We’re experimenting with photography ourselves at OISE this summer by running a photography contest on our Learning garden – I’ll share the results in a future blog post.

Growing in New Directions

We are at the end of another jam packed year at OISE, so in amongst the classes, field trips and papers, I was very happy to have some time with children to work on a collaborative art project together.  ICS art  teacher Tara Rousseau generously opened her classroom to me again this year, this time with her grade three class.  MA student Jennifer Ford-Sharpe also volunteered to help; she was central to the planning and implementation of the project.  As learning about First Nations peoples is in the gr. 3 social studies curriculum, we used our new Aboriginal Education garden at OISE as the starting point. The students visited the garden in the fall to learn about native plant species and their role in aboriginal culture in Canada, and they made drawings of the plants in situ.  Back in the classroom they learned about the importance of the four cardinal directions in First Nations cultures, and were inspired by the work of artists Christi Belcourt (Metis), Bill Reid (Haida), Jane Ash Poitras (Cree), and Carl Beam (Ojibway).  This led the children to work on their own multi-media artworks using paint, clay, photographic transfers, and poetry.  Their works centred on the importance of the cardinal directions in aboriginal culture and the connections between humans, wildlife, and plants.  Such rich environmental learning!  A few photos of the results are below, with more on the OISE website, found here:  http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/ese/ESE_in_Practice/Eco-Art_Projects.html
Thanks to Tara and Jennifer for their partnership in facilitating this wonderful eco-art project!

Growing detail 2   Growing detail 3Growing process

Turning Over a New Leaf

How can you help your students turn over a new leaf when it comes to living more sustainably on the earth?  I asked my pre-service students to do just that this year, and not surprisingly they gave a range of responses, from recycling to upcycling, to doing more with less, to hatching new ideas.  This inspired their latest eco-art project, which has just been installed at OISE.  I introduced them to the field of eco-art in a workshop, and then together we created over a hundred clay leaves that capture their ideas in both text and image, which were glazed and fired.  Working with artist/student Angela Johnson, we created a large metal branch on which to hang the vibrant leaves.  As this work hangs in our stairwell as part of the Take the Stairs energy conservation campaign, we hope that Turning over a new Leaf will help others think about how they can take positive change towards sustainability in their lives and those of their students, one step at a time!

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Next Gen of Eco-art Educators

It’s conference season, and I was lucky to attend NAEA at the end of March – a good reason to get out of the grips of a harsh winter here in Toronto.  The best part is learning about what other educators and artists are doing, and this year was no exception.  Two up and coming educators made an impression on me with their enthusiasm and experiments into eco-art education, and it was a pleasure to meet them in person at NAEA for the first time.  One is Jamia Weir (in a photo with me below), who is using her West Hollywood classroom to do her graduate research into eco-art ed, experimenting with eco-fashion design and art in school gardens.  The second art educator is Jennifer Sams, a photographer and educator in Georgia – she has a great website with lots of resources and eco-artists listed for easy reference.  Check it out at:  http://greenarted.weebly.com/eco-artistsenvironmental-artists1.html  Jennifer has a Pinterest board going on eco-art, as do I – I’m finding it to be an excellent way of maintaining a set of visual inspirations for sharing with pre-service students; this digital tool is well-worth using to start your own board!

Jamia and Hilary 2014

Cape Farewell moves to Toronto

Toronto has been the site of an innovative project on climate change and sustainability this fall, organized by the team at Cape Farewell [http://www.capefarewell.com/]. Started up by artist David Buckland in 2001 as a way to bring artists and scientists together to address climate change, Cape Farewell uses “the notion of expedition – Arctic, Island, Urban and Conceptual – to interrogate the scientific, social and economic realities that lead to climate disruption, and to inspire the creation of climate focused art” (from their website).  The variety of projects this group has created internationally is fascinating, from trips to the Arctic, to art/science exhibitions, books, websites, performances and other cultural events.   The Cape Farewell Foundation now has a Toronto office, which has led to a months-long cultural festival focused on climate change, and culminates in a conference here in February.  For more on the range of events that they are hosting, visit http://www.capefarewellfoundation.com/projects/carbon-14.html

TED Talks on Environmental Art-making

I’ve been finding some great TED talks related to environmental art-making that I wanted to share:

Natalie Jeremijenko is a prof at NYU, and runs something she calls the ‘Environmental Health Clinic’ which features ‘creative health solutions’ for the environment.  Her art projects are certainly creative, sometimes digital and often humourous – well worth viewing. 

Bjarke Ingels is a Danish architect who designs buildings that have a naturalistic design with stunning views – and perform nature-like functions to make them sustainable.

Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky won the 2005 TED prize for his large scale photos of some of the world’s most challenging environmental issues, from quarries in Italy, to shipyards in Bangladesh, to the tar sands in Canada. 

Margaret Wertheim works with her sister Christine to raise awareness about the environmental challenges facing the world’s coral reefs, achieved through an interdisciplinary, interactive project that uses math, biology, and crocheting.

I’m sure there are others, but these are my favourites so far…inspiring takes on what can happen when you bring creativity and environmental activism together!

The High Line is a Highlight!

I’m still thinking about my trip to New York in March – it’s such a wonderful city to inspire thought and action.  One of the fondest memories I have taken away from it was my trip to the High Line, a new public park that sits on an old raised railway line on the west side of Manhattan.  It runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, between 10th & 11th Avenues.  On it you find the old train rails interspersed with plantings, eco-artworks, benches, and amazing views of the neighbourhoods that surround it.  It’s an entirely unique way to experience NYC as you are raised above but still part of the fabric of the city.  Below are photos of just two of the artworks that have been beautifully immersed into the park’s design.  The stained glass piece is by Spencer Finch, who was inspired by the colours of the nearby Hudson River; the amazing birdhouses are by artist Sarah Sze.  If you’re in Manhattan, a visit to the High Line is a must – just as inspiring as visiting the galleries!  For more info, visit:  

http://www.thehighline.org/about/public-art

High Line 2012

Causing a FLAP with eco-art!

Just finished an eco-art project with my students at OISE I wanted to share.  A team of B.Ed students headed up by Raysha Carmichael, Michelle Attard and Sindy Lui led the FLAP eco-art project to help raise awareness of the challenges of bird deaths around high buildings in the city.  Over 300 handmade bird prints were created and distributed to all of the OISE offices with windows, reminding faculty and staff to do their part.  The prints act as an artistic reminder for people to close their office blinds each night, as well as turn off overhead office lights and use task-focused lighting at night.  Faculty and staff were in quite a flap about the prints – they loved them!  (We didn’t mention that turning off their lights and closing blinds are also great energy conservation measures…) Just goes to show that eco-art activism can be a wonderful way to get people on board with a project – far more effective than a memo or flyer!  For more info on the project, here’s the link:

http://oiseflap.weebly.com/index.html