Playing with Gelli Printing

I’ve started playing with a new printmaking technique that has possibilities for low impact, biodegradable art-making.  Gelli printing is an approach to monoprinting that creates one-of-a-kind prints.  It utilizes a flexible printing matrix (or base) made out of natural materials – you can either buy one of these, or make your own using Knox gelatin powder and glycerin (the latter a less expensive option.)  Due to its flexibility, it can capture both positive and negative impressions of items layed on the matrix.  Laying down natural items like leaves, grasses, or ferns works beautifully, whether you lay down a base of pigment first, or after the item has gone on the matrix. This can be a great way to capture the experience of a nature walk.  I like the effects of acrylic paint with this technique, rather than water-based print making inks, but as these aren’t particularly environmentally-friendly, I need to experiment with creating a more natural form of pigment with it.  Check out all of the images on Pinterest that artists have posted for Gelli printing – hopefully it will inspire you to try it yourself!

Learning about Place-based Education

We were lucky to bring in David Sobel from Antioch University to OISE this past summer to do a talk and day-long workshop on place-based education.  David is the guru of Place-Based Education (PBE), having written extensively about it in his many books (looking to Mapmaking with Children, Childhood & Nature, or Place-Based Education, to name only a few).  Working with his partner, Jen Kramer, David led our teachers through a variety of art-based learning activities based on creative mapping, collages, and miniature worlds.  Our teachers would be the first to tell you that they aren’t ‘artists” or ‘creative’, yet all were fully engaged in these experiences as David and Jen had us consider the places in which we grew up, and the places we live in now as a starting point to thinking about PBE.  David’s rich set of examples of PBE, drawn from schools all over the US, inspired us with its ‘real world’ learning that can take place when using this approach – creating museum exhibits, cleaning up wetlands as just two examples. In Jen’s afternoon workshop, the teachers created beautiful collages using discarded artworks of key parts of Toronto, inspired by author’s book; a few examples are shared below.  We ended the day feeling better prepared to tackle PBE theoretically, practically, and aesthetically!

place-based-collage-1place-based-collage-2
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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’!

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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!

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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

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!

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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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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/