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.

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!

Aligning the (Eco-Art) Medium with the Message

Remember McLuhan’s famous quote about aligning the medium with the message?  He wrote this in the 1960s, well before environmental art-making became so popular, but it’s a good reminder for those of us practicing eco-art ed with learners of all ages. It’s not sufficient to be making art with a sustainability message if the media you use doesn’t align with it.  Working with toxic materials like spray paint or oil-based paints subverts the very message we aim to communicate, and demonstrates a “do what I say, not what I do” attitude.  Our students are attuned to this type of hypocrisy, and know when we don’t ‘walk the talk’. Art educators need to lead by example, finding ways to share our ideas in low impact, sustainable approaches to art-making. Some make work with their students that is biodegradable (think Andy Goldsworthy as an exemplar); others reuse found materials (Louise Nevelson was an early adopter of this; Tony Cragg also uses it effectively.)  I hear of lots of art teachers experimenting with low impact art-making techniques, like gelatin printing and cyanotypes.  Others are minimizing their waste and reducing their energy consumption and capturing the waste water from acrylic painting.  If you’re looking for ideas on how to proceed, look to the Karen Michel’s book “The Green Guide for Artists” as a great starting point. Consider how can you take the next step in aligning your sustainability message with the media you use in your art classroom.

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:  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00043125.2018.1465318

Planting Seeds for Eco-Art in China

How is environmental art playing out in other parts of the world?  I was lucky to travel to China this last spring, accompanying OISE interns as they taught in five schools in Hangzhou, a city a few hours southwest of Shanghai.  I was impressed with the strong presence for the arts everywhere we travelled, evident in part in the gardens, architecture, public sculpture, and design of public spaces. As part of my visits to these schools, I was able to visit a few art classes, and pleased to see ‘low impact’ art-making being taught, inspired by traditional Chinese art forms, like paper-cutting, watercolour, and calligraphy. While I would not consider these forms of eco-art – there was no overt attention to environmental learning – they were supportive of similar tenets.  The watercolours we saw students painting were focused on plants and wildlife; the calligraphy uses natural ink made from charcoal.  A few of the OISE interns also put their learning about eco-art into play. They turned students’ attention to learning about the plants and insect life in the school’s butterfly garden.  Drawing on their experiences working on the last few eco-art installations at OISE, they created a beautiful homage to these by combing our butterfly installation from last year with our stencilled plant mural from this year.  I can’t wait to see what these teacher candidates – and our Chinese hosts – accomplish moving  forward!

Diving into Water Education Through Muralling

 

 I’m always looking for ways to extend my students’ learning about eco-art education, so in addition to collaboratively creating art installations, we also take this work into schools.  I’ve shared some of these experiences previously, but wanted to write about the most recent one focused on water education at Ryerson Community School.  The teacher-researcher at this TDSB elementary school, Adrienne Rigler, has been immersed in water education over the past 5 years at different grade levels, often having her students share their learning about water with other classes.  We framed this mural project as an arts-based component of the gr. 8s cross-curricular study about water.  They learned about their local watershed, and explored the neighbourhood to ascertain its features, finding evidence of the local (and buried) Russell Creek.   They photographed, analyzed, and sketched these watershed features, working collaboratively with myself, teacher, and teacher candidates to create a composition for the mural.  We used a taping technique to delineate the main images, which proved to be a great way for the whole class (many of whom were hesitant to paint) to engage in the painting process. They saw the realities of their urban watershed on the right (over built, polluted water flowing into the sewers) and their dream for a healthier watershed on the left (lots of plants, animals, even a pond in their schoolyard). The result is above – what a beautiful way to share what they learned!

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.

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!

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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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