Eco-ARTS Education is on the Rise

I’m really pleased to see that environmental ideas are infiltrating across the arts these days.  When I first started to research into eco-art education, I was hard-pressed to find examples of drama, dance or music educators taking up the challenge of integrating environmental literacy into the work they did.  I’m sure it likely was happening in some pockets, like in visual arts education, but it wasn’t being documented or researched perhaps at the same level.  This wasn’t due simply to a lack of professional exemplars; here in Canada we’ve had many professional musicians, like R. Murray Schafer, Bruce Cockburn and Sarah Harmer using their music to connect to nature-based learning and environmental advocacy.

This is spreading, as artists from all of the arts disciplines are more frequently contributing their unique skills to raising awareness about environmental issues in plays, dance performances, and music videos.  Here in Toronto we have the Broadleaf Theatre company that specializes in plays with environmental themes; their recent show The Chemical Valley Project tracks the deep challenges of environmental racism and colonialism in relation to Canada’s petrochemical industry.  And now there’s lots of evidence that arts educators around the world are taking up the challenge of doing this work at all levels of education.  I was happy to work with colleagues in the US and Australia on a chapter in a terrific book called Urban Environmental Education Review last year on this topic.  And I was honoured this week to address a group of educators on this topic at the NORDPLUS Horizontal Green Actions conference in Finland; they had come together from Greenland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Latvia to discuss, debate, and share promising practices in this area (thanks to David Yoken for the invitation!)  Maybe we have reached a tipping point in the arts – imagine what could happen if we all applied our creativity and innovation to the greatest environmental challenges of our times?

Inspired by Burning Ice

What a busy fall!  Not as much time to blog as I would have liked following my trip to the Arctic this summer, but the trip has given me lots to think about in relation to climate change and the role that artists can play in addressing it.  This was furthered by listening to a talk by Nigel Roulet in October – he is an eminent Canadian environmental scientist from McGill university who shared his belief in the power of the arts to communicate environmental ideas in moving ways, something that science hasn’t typically done well in the past.  

Perhaps the best way to magnify the communications about climate change is to take a multi-faceted approach.  The Cape Farewell project is one of the best examples of this so far; by bringing environmental scientists together with artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers, aiming to create innovative ways to reach a wider audience about the impacts of climate change.  Their interdisciplinary book, called Burning Ice: Art and Climate Change, serves as travelogue, atlas, art catalogue, and scientific documentation all in one.  Other groups have experimented with this model, including Greenpeace and 350.org, bringing scientific knowledge together with the affective and intuitive ways of knowing from the arts to create memorable and moving messaging about climate change.  The Canada C3 expedition I was on last summer is aiming to do the same.  They have a number of legacy projects on the go to share our collective experiences about climate change, reconciliation, and inclusion in the North; I’ll share these as they come available.

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!