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.

Nature-based Collages on the Nahanni

How do you make art in pristine natural environments without leaving any negative impact on the land?  This was my challenge as I rafted down the Nahanni River this summer.  Located in NWT in Canada’s north, this immense river flows through 5 spectacular canyons, moose meadows, sparkling creeks, a river delta, even a sulphur hot springs.  It lies on the traditional lands of the Dene people, and inside the Nahanni National Park,  so ensuring as small an ecological footprint as possible when visiting is critical.  I continued to explore a technique I began using in the Arctic last summer, that of making nature-based collages. Using the incredible beauty of the geology along the river as inspiration, I arranged rocks, wood and plants into compositions that captured the beauty of this area.  Once photographed, I returned the components to their original settings to reduce any potential interference with the local ecosystem. This was a type of creative shorthand that allowed me to capture the beauty I was experiencing in a low impact way.  Certainly it exemplifies the saying, ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints,’ and serves as an aesthetic record of my experience in this awe-inspiring part of the world.

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!

Getting some Arctic Exercise

August 18, 2017

I continue to be surprised by how busy each day is on the C3 journey; if we’re not helping out with housekeeping or meal service, we’re often rushing to the decks to view the wildlife on the land surrounding us via binoculars (to date: one polar bear, two muskox, thousands of birds, and today, bearded seals.) But while we’re busy, there hasn’t been much time for exercise, so we headed into Sophia Inlet today, a small leg of water off of Griffith Inlet, to get some hiking in.  We stopped in two places on this tranquil bay – on a flat rocky beach at the far end of the inlet, and near a waterfall coming down a low mountain.  The beach area looked empty at first, but once we were walking, small treasures began to appear – a whale vertebrae, a weathered wooden post, kittiwake feathers, bright green algae, smooth stones, and barnacles.  This provided a welcome opportunity to create some natural collages, a way to remember what I find without taking these items home.  I’m experimenting with a range of ways to make eco-art on this trip – art that has small eco-footprints but maximum visual impact.  (I’m planning to pull them into a creative map when I’m back as a way of sharing this journey.) The second landing involved a hike up a beautiful waterfall, and then up the low mountain that it flowed down from – what a spectacular view from the plateau at the top!  We were surprised how many seal bones we found on our way up – we had found it a strenuous hike to the top, so we were left wondering which animals had the energy to carry seals up with them!  We returned to the ship feeling happy and tired, and ready for a rest in the Knot, our community lounge.  But no rest for the wicked, as they say – we jumped onto the tail end of the kayaking and the paddle-boarding taking place off the ship.  The Polar Prince was moored in Griffith Bay, surrounded by dozens of chunks of sea ice.  Squeezing into a dry suit (no small feat in itself, I discovered), I hopped into a Greenland skin-on-frame kayak, having only kayaked twice before.  As the dry suits keep you warm in the frigid waters, I could allow my full attention to focus on the tranquility of skimming through the water and admiring the multiple shades of blue ice.   The dry suit also afforded a float in the sea before getting back on the ship; it was so much fun to bob in the suit – way more fun than the polar dip the day before when I discovered how COLD the water really is! A fitting end to an active day, and a wonderful balance to our onboard programming on the ship in the evening.

Bringing Creativity into Sustainability

I was lucky enough to spend some time learning firsthand from Mitchell Thomashow two summers back, a wonderful scholar, educator, and writer who has been influential on my own development in environmental & sustainability education (ESE).  His EcoIdentity book was one of the first books on ESE that I read years ago, and now I’m working through his Bringing the Biosphere home (also an excellent read.)  Mitch’s latest work focuses on the Ecological Imagination, recognizing the important role of expression, imagination, and creativity in working towards sustainability   (http://www.mitchellthomashow.com/ecological-imagination/ )  As part of the workshop he gave at OISE, he mentioned a book published by the Museum of Modern Art called BioDesign:  Nature+Science+Creativity (http://www.biology-design.com/ ).  It’s a fascinating look at how we can partner with natural organisms and their ecological design capabilities to create sustainable products, buildings, and communities.  It takes the idea of environmental art-making to a whole new level.  MOMA has posted a preview of the book on their website to give you a glimpse into a more sustainable future…I just need to find a way to do this, even if small-scale, with students.  Ideas anyone?

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!

ecobooks

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/

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