Down to Earth: Extraordinary STEAM Learning

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Mary Mattingly, A Technological Abyss, 2020, living sculpture. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

The Universe and nature are such vast and complicated concepts, but that has not stopped creative people from scrutinizing them through works of art. Visualizing the cosmos and our own Earthly phenomena has been a hotbed for artistic thinking and learning since the earliest forms of human expression. From making representational associations of celestial bodies (constellations) to designing sustainable interactive environments (Eco-art, land art, etc); art has been a key element to the exploration and understanding of our natural and metaphysical world. Through a combination of imagination, resourcefulness, experimentation and technology, massive and mystifying issues like cosmology and the Anthropocene are contextualized into a tangible visions that have potential to impact viewers on a social and emotional level.

Stars Down to Earth is a two-person exhibition at the Brooklyn Library (in partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and More Art), featuring work by Mary Mattingly and Dario Robleto. Both artists visually scrutinize scientific issues, and pose essential questions around events simultaneously happening light-years away and in our own backyards. In their respective art practices, Mattingly and Robleto adapt theories, knowledge and traditions from a spectrum of disciplines and apply them to their work in a manner that transforms abstract thoughts and occurrences into empirical methodologies. Stars Down to Earth and future iterations of this Eco-based exhibition, include experiential STEAM learning through interactive works of art, artist talks and workshops focused on the integration of art and science.

Robleto’s sculptures are carefully researched cabinets of curiosity, which artfully re-frame objects and events from the past into a futuristic vision of mortality and human nature. He achieves this by creating hybrid forms out of unlikely combinations of artifacts and experiences. One of his early works of art is titled You Make My World a Better Place to Find (1996-1998). From a glance, it resembles a spool of thread, but overall, the work is indicative of a performative sculpture that literally threads a spectrum of human beings together. The artwork was created by discreetly acquiring pieces of lint and other small strand-like materials from friends and strangers. Upon collecting these materials, Robleto fashioned them together into one long string, which he spooled. With the newfound material, he tailored and sewed things like loose buttons and ripped clothing back together. From a symbolic standpoint, it suggests that fixing our broken world lies within the collective engagement of finding restorative ways to be united. As a species, we have the ability to mend overarching issues if we combine individual forces and discover the power in supporting each other’s diverse qualities and experiences.

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Installation of Dario Robleto’s work in Stars Down to Earth at the Brooklyn Library. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Robleto is currently collaborating with scientists as an artistic consultant to a project called “Breakthrough Message,” a multi-national endeavor that seeks to determine how and what humans should communicate to extraterrestrial beings. Perhaps two of his archival prints Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun I) and Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun II) would be apt. The prints are inspired by the ethereal elements of 1960s and 70s arena performances. Robleto culminated photographs taken by fans at Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, The Doors, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Janis Joplin, Charlie Parker and Elvis Presley concerts; and arranged them so that they represent gradient beams of light, akin to atmospheric and celestial glows. The imagery would be at once recognizable to all beings who shared the same night sky. However, our musical subcultures might be less familiar to an intelligent being from beyond Earth. It could be a nice and poetic way to explain to an alien life form how the creation and immersion of art illuminates our cultural realms.

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Dario Robleto, Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun I), 2012. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Mattingly’s artistic focus is rooted in ecological development and issues of sustainability on our planet. She creates works of art that illuminate the growing climate crisis, as well as the unsustainable use of organic materials and natural resources for economic and political purposes. Her magnum opus is Swale, an ongoing floating ‘food forest,’ which provides sustainable and healthy nutrition, and raises consciousness about building self-sufficient food communities within urban environments. Additionally, she has created and/or co-created sustainable public habitats, such as the Foodway in Concrete Plant Park, and the Waterpod Project.

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Mary Mattingly’s Cobalt and Nature Morte photographs. Installation photograph of Stars Down to Earth at the Brooklyn Library. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Another project by Mattingly, is an inquiry into the reaping of cobalt, a natural Earth material that is used to make highly profitable products. There is both a creative and destructive impetus for mining cobalt, as evident from its extensive uses, including powering energy turbines and making paint and weaponry. Cobalt-based blue pigments are well known and valuable to artists, while cobalt ore is beneficial to expanding the military industrial complex. The harvesting of massive amounts of cobalt involves  extraction practices that are contributing to climate change and displacement. Mattingly’s material-based explorations, discoveries and insights into Cobalt (2016), reveal stark contrasts involving our reliance on natural resources. Artifacts from Cobalt and her aerial landscape photographs depicting extractive industries, are on display at the Brooklyn Library. Also on view is Mattingly’s A Technological Abyss (2020), a spherical living sculpture that displays and nurtures plants that were growing over 50 million years ago (during the Eocene Epoch) in the region that is now New York. The Eocene was a period of warm oceans and balmy, humid temperatures throughout the globe (the world was practically ice-less from pole-to-pole). The sculpture also holds plants that would survive in New York, if the current rate of expedited global warming continues. Both sets of plants are of the tropical tolerant variety. The parallel between the volatile climate of the Eocene (which led to an extinction event) and the Anthropocene, reinforces the idea that we are heading into a very dire moment in our Earth’s history.

After its display at the library, Mattingly’s living sculpture is going to be installed in nearby Prospect Park (April – June, 2020). While on view in the park, the sculpture will be a setting for additional experiential art programing focusing on issues of clean water. Produced by More Art and in collaboration with local community groups, Public Water is a multisite public art and educational project addressing the ways citizens of New York are connected through complex watersheds that provide drinkable/functional water to upstate and downstate residents. These projects are intended to prompt us to enact ecological ways of learning, making and being, in order to improve our contemporary commons so that facets of biological life that are currently threatened stand a chance of survival.

Mattingly is intrigued by the idea of the commons, which are resources that are accessible to the collective society and are not owned by one single entity (i.e. water, air and soil). Commons are generally maintained by a community of benefactors who develop institutions and systems that have value and offer benefits for multiple users. Swale, Foodway and the Waterpod Project are good examples of commons, because they make healthy soil, clean water and organic food available to the public; and also provide equitable access to an ecological-centered education, so that groups and individuals (of all ages and backgrounds) can utilize common natural resources in a sustainable and ethical manner. A Technological Abyss and Public Water is also based on the idea of the commons. The sculpture is currently located in front of the Info Commons at the Brooklyn Library, which hosts free space and opportunities for the public to access an array of multimedia and professional services. When Public Water arrives at Prospect Park, it will reinforce and build upon (the parks architect) Frederick Law Olmsted’s socially engaged vision of making natural resources and communal recreational space abundant to urban populations. Throughout the course of the project, visitors will participate in dialogues that reflect their personal narratives related to ecological commons and raising concerns about the quality of water and preservation of common waterways. In tandem with artists, educators and environmental advocates, the public will discover innovative ways to collectively build awareness around environmental justice.

As we have begun to see from the aforementioned examples, Mattingly and Robleto’s art reveals how art, science and engineering can successfully interrelate with one another. Each artist’s work poses essential questions such as: how can the artistic practice transform and evolve through working outside of the art field? How can art be harnessed to change the way science is performed?

Developing lifelong inquiries and ethical innovations is a major objective of combining the arts, science and technology into an insightful and participatory-based educational framework (STEAM). The arts give us the permission and tools to think boldly and manipulate materials in a manner that adds an emotional and unique human element to the scientific method. Echoing a quote by astronomer Carl Sagan (from his publication Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, 1980), “imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere,” Mattingly and Robleto have employed their artistic skills to contribute to disciplines such as ecology and astronomy, with actual scientific results to show for it.

The Fein Art of Artistic Development

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Sylvia Fein, The Painting Told Me What to Do, 2012.

Sylvia Fein has had the type of career most artists would covet, and she is still going strong at age 100. Her artwork has been exhibited widely since the mid-1940s, and she is considered a key figure in the American Surrealist movement, although she personally doesn’t identify with the artistic mode. Fein’s art combines historical and mythological imagery that reference her lived experiences in a fantastical and profound manner. One of her many compelling paintings is The Painting Told Me What to Do (2012), which portrays a forest where the wispy forms and textures of the trees are rendered as roaring flames. This imagined composition is an all too familiar scene in light of the epidemic of worldwide forest fires. Fein has lived in California, which is an epicenter for some of the worst fires, so this is evidently a very personal expression, made by channeling her experience and emotions through the medium of the paint.

Despite all of her achievements, Fein remains under-recognized. Although she has received some acknowledgement for her vision and talent, her notoriety has paled in comparison to her male counterparts and even other women artists who are often associated with Surrealism. I admit that I had only recently heard of her through an informative post on The Women’s Studio (see: Probst, 2020). Beyond Fein’s incredibly imaginative and genre bending imagery, I am drawn to her ongoing interests in documenting artistic development. In her decades long career, there is plenty of evidence depicting her manifestation of ideas, exploration of materials and evolving painterly style.

In addition to her own artful trajectory, Fein is renowned for her insightful contribution to the research of children’s artistic development. She actually took a long hiatus from painting to dedicate her time, energy and creativity to studying and advancing the field of art education. She attended Berkley and studied with the acclaimed –albeit under-recognized– art teacher Henry Schaefer-Simmern, whose theories on art education are as influential as more widely known educators like Viktor Lowenfeld (see: Abrahamson, 1980). Schaefer-Simmern’s ‘visual conceiving’ theory that people possess an inherent ability to transform their perceptions into holistic formations expressed as works of art (Abrahamson, 1987), inspired Fein to study the way children utilize the kinesthetics of drawing to find and express their place within the world. Over the course of 18 years, Fein collected and catalogued her daughter Heidi’s drawings. The culmination of her documentation can be seen in two essential art education themed books she published: Heidi’s Horse (1976), which observed her daughter’s art from age two through fifteen; and Drawings: Genesis Visual Thinking (1992). The latter book expounds upon her mentor’s work in connecting the earliest known art forms (cave paintings) with the evolution of pictorial communication strategies. It gives examples of motifs and patterns that appear in art that spans time and geographical locations. Through her research and writing, Fein attempts to posit answers as to why seemingly disparate forms of art including children’s art and prehistoric art have common ground in regards to elements of art (shape, space, value, form, texture and color) and principles of design.

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Still from “Sylvia Fein, Heidi’s Horse, and children’s first drawings” via YouTube.

Drawing is how children work out significant visual problems and learn to communicate symbolically in conjunction with other forms of language (i.e. written and oral). The documentation of children’s drawings over time is important in helping educators understand and scaffold how children develop cognitive and skill based approaches to pictorial communication. Theories by Schaefer-Simmern, Lowenfeld and others have evolved over time, as we collectively realize more about cognition and epistemology. Thanks to the tangible explorations by Fein et al, further advances have been made in the field of art education, which provide new ideas about how children’s image making influences their use of art materials and media in an artful manner. For example, Linda Louis has been studying how young children’s changing understanding of symbolic graphic representation leads them to use paint in ways that might be designated as being “artistic.” Louis has observed that children’s desire to communicate, is supported by a multidimensional model of artistic development (see: Louis, 2005), which identifies how they learn through an experiential and parallel movement throughout three independent realms: representational intention, mastery of visual/graphic concepts and the expressive use of the mediating properties of materials. Louis’ model recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages as Lowenfeld (1947) previously asserted (for a more detailed description of Lowenfeld and Louis’ theories, see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

The beautiful and confounding thing about education is that it is always in flux. It is a work in progress that changes gradually over time. As Sylvia Fein’s decades long work has proven, taking the time and making the commitment to be flexible and keep learning is a worthwhile endeavor.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Abrahamson, Roy E. “Henry Schaefer-Simmern: His Life and Works.” Art Education, vol. 33, no. 8, 1980, pp. 12–16. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3192404. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Abrahamson, Roy E. “Henry Schaefer-Simmern’s Concept of Gestalt Artistic Forms and Cultural Interferences with the Clear Expression of Such Forms.” Visual Arts Research, vol. 13, no. 1, 1987, pp. 45–62. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20715638?seq=1. Accessed 14 Jan. 2020.

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Lowenfeld, Viktor. Creative and Mental Growth. Macmillan Co., New York, 1947.

Probst, Kate. “Sylvia Fein.” The Women’s Studio, 12 Jan. 2020. https://thewomensstudio.net/2020/01/12/sylvia-fein/

Strengthening Cultures & Literacy through Art for the 21st Century

In a previous post titled Connecting Culture Through Experience and Education, I described contemporary artist Pablo Helguera’s use of the written word and storytelling as a means to explore language, immigration and identity. Through projects like The School of Panamerican Unresta four-month long road-trip across the Panamerican Highway that documented a myriad of indigenous spoken dialects, and Librería Donceles, a non-profit used bookstore for Spanish language literature and events; Helguera devotes a large part of his artistic practice to create multidisciplinary portraits and living archives of language and culture.

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Ceramic sculptures by Stephanie H. Shih. Photo by @brandicheyenneharper for @gasworksnyc. Courtesy of the artist.

I recently learned about Stephanie H. Shih‘s ceramic sculptures, which embody culinary items in Asian-American homes. Shih’s sculptures are social, emotional and cognitive reflections of Asian-American diasporic culture. They are representative of what it is like to immigrate to far away places and incorporate both new and traditional concepts that signify a unique cultural and communal identity. Shih makes connections with other members of the 20 million (and counting) diaspora through many overlapping culinary memories, which represent personal significance and collective experiences. The ceramic food replicas are vessels, enshrining heartfelt bonds between diverse individuals who share similar cultural heritage. In her artist’s statement Shih says:

“Through the lens of the Asian-American pantry, my ceramic sculptures explore how shared nostalgia can connect a diaspora. For first-generation Asian Americans, the finite collection of imported grocery brands from our youth has become shorthand for parallel childhoods raised by immigrant parents. To meet strangers who have memories of eating the same can of fried dace –a small fish preserved with salted black beans– is to discover a sense of belonging. Replicating these kitchen staples in clay immortalizes both the shared memories and the feeling of finding the nonexistent homeland of Asian America” (Shih, n.d.).

These are just two of the many examples of how contemporary art is created, presented and contextualized in a manner that reflects globalization and migration. Ideas, images and works of art travel far and wide, due to artistic discourse being spread more fluidly throughout the world. Advances in technology and the proliferation of museums, galleries, biennials and residency programs is making art more accessible to heterogeneous audiences. As a result of these aforementioned factors, artists (and other cultural producers) who are separated by borders are more easily able to collaborate and partake in collective art making (see: Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran and Transcending Boundaries).

Art has its own forms of language that facilitate the exchange of visual information and act as a liaison between individuals and groups from different cultural backgrounds. Visual art can also be a catalyst for developing speech and literacy skills that support multilingual learning in the educational system. This is especially beneficial for communities with large immigrant populations who can harness the expressive and dialectic values of visual art, in order to strengthen their social and cognitive skills in their native and emergent languages.

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CALTA21 Classroom. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Some art institutions are embracing their role in teaching language and literacy skills to immigrant students through contemporary art. The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey is expanding its programming for English language learners, conducted in partnership with the Elizabeth Public School District. Their program, which has been implemented for 8th and 9th grade students, was created with help from Cultures & Literacies through Art for the 21st Century (CALTA21), a national initiative focused on creating a dynamic environment where museums provide authentic, meaningful and engaging learning experiences to immigrant communities. CALTA21 is rooted in professional development for English language teachers. Educators partnering with the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey are given training that helps them create literacy curricula in support of their diverse students who are learning English as their second (or third, fourth etc.) language. Through a dialogic method of participatory art-based discourse, students are empowered to share their narratives of immigration. Essential questions that are needed to effectuate and sustain this kind of pedagogy are: “how can art museums create space for the exploration of linguistic and cultural diversity and what role can they play in strengthening the immigrant voice?”

CALTA21 uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as a methodology to encourage the development of  observation and speaking skills. There are many ways to scaffold learning by taking the time to carefully look at artworks in galleries. Embodied learning is one learning approach (see: Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant) where students physically engage with works of art in order to build personal and collective understandings about the work’s form, function and content. This type of participatory learning strengthens observational and communicative skills because it includes a critical discussion around what elements students can relate to within a work of art and how they might incorporate those elements into their own realm (Zucker, 2018). Developing an art vocabulary is important, not only in the discussion around works of art, but also for applying that language to other subjects and aspects of life experience. Talking about art is beneficial to building language skills, because observing art requires a command of descriptive words that support critical thinking and noticing deeply. As students develop their own evidence-based interpretations about art, they learn to trust their eyes and the value of their own opinions while building collective knowledge via gallery visits and artmaking exercises.

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CALTA21 participants discussing a mural by Kevin Blythe Sampson at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Communicating thoughts and observations with others through CALTA21, has been proven to strengthen the literacy and critical thinking skills of participants. Anamaria Llanos, one of the lead Elizabeth School District teachers in the program, has seen firsthand how incorporating CALTA21 into her curriculum and lesson plans has increased student engagement and efficacy of language and literacy:

“CALT21 cultivates language and free thinking. It nurtures a dynamic environment where students are guided through thought provoking questions to engage prior knowledge and their imagination; develop and strengthen their voice; and promote language thought process. There is nothing more intimidating than talking about art, yet with CALTA21, a relaxed and non-judgmental atmosphere is created by the students themselves. Their eagerness and enthusiasm to participate and facilitate their own CALTA21 session at the museum is a teacher’s dream. The program encourages students to think outside of the box, be creative; and become more assertive in the way they look at the world” (Llanos, 2019, quoted in a press release from the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey).

Making art accessible to multilingual viewers should be at the top of every museum and cultural center’s mission. By incorporating CALTA21 in their programming, the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey –the state’s largest largest institution dedicated exclusively to  contemporary art– is providing a valuable opportunity for the 22.1 percent of the state’s immigrant population (as of 2015) to engage in viewing, making and learning through art. Other cultural institutions such as The Hudson River Museum have programs that support young docents who represent a spectrum of international backgrounds. Their junior docent program consists of students from each of the City of Yonkers’ public high schools, representing the city’s culturally, economically and socially diverse communities. Many of the docents are first generation Americans or recent immigrants to the United States. Participants in the program speak many different languages and have a variety of interests including art, science, dance, history and fashion. Having informational guides who speak multiple languages and have experiential knowledge about specific cultures, makes museums and their collections more accessible and relevant to more communities. Global Guides, Penn Museum’s docent program, employs refugees from the Middle East as gallery guides who lead visitors through thematic tours of the museum’s Middle Eastern collection of art and artifacts. Because these docents have lived in many of the regions where the art originated, they offer visitors unique insights and personal connections to the objects on display.

As people move from place to place to seek better opportunities or asylum, the incorporation of immigrant and refugee narratives into art and art education is necessary to reflect the diversity of our multicultural communities. Programs like CALTA21 and the aforementioned museum docent initiatives, give immigrants much needed authority to communicate and present their experiential knowledge in their own voices. What they have to say is also beneficial for developing empathetic understandings of the world at large.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Jia, Olivia. “Refugees Connect Their Personal Stories with a Museum’s Ancient Artifacts.” Hyperallergic, 19 Feb. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/484835/global-guides-program-penn-museum/

Shih, Stephanie H. (n.d). “Artist’s Statement.” https://theartsandeducation.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/32dc1-cv_public.pdf

Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. “Visual Arts Center of NJ Receives IMLS Grant to Partner with Elizabeth Public Schools.” Visual Arts Center of N.J. Press Release, 20 Nov. 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant.” Artfully Learning, 27 Apr. 2018. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/embodied-learning-makes-the-classics-relevant/

Shaping Minds: Form follows Function

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Installation view of monoprints made by middle school students (left), along with a sculpture by Leo Rabkin (right). Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

One of the most precious aspects of visual art, is its ongoing dialogue. Generations upon generations have been inspired by the visual motifs and ideas that have preceded them. Via their work, artists engage in conversations that re-present and re-frame aesthetic concepts from earlier times, into compositions that are symbolic of the present artistic experience.

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Ben P. 24th Street Unmasked, 2019, box construction. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

Artists’ inclinations to quote and recontextualize visual motifs, is why showing an array of works by artists that span across time and place can be a pivotal part of art educational curricula. Within curricula guides, such as the New York State Learning Standards for the Arts, criteria for artistic development are organized in 4 action-based learning categories: creating, presenting, responding, and connecting.  Throughout the standards (which range from Pre-K through 12th grade), students are prompted to engage in creative practices and make aesthetic judgements that reflect traditional use of materials and processes in a personalized and/or collaborative manner. Students are also asked to scrutinize the work of other artists throughout history and form understandings and make inquiries about how the arts convey meaning. After observing and analyzing works of art, students are challenged to find their own personal voice. In order to increase students’ aesthetic and contextual vocabulary and insight, it is important for educators to introduce diverse artistic modes and artists.

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Violet Blum Levine, Juddified, 2019, a/p. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

The exhibition Shaping Minds at the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation‘s art gallery features the work of 11 middle school artists from Lincoln Middle School in Portland, Maine, who spent time looking at artworks by Rabkin and several other Modernist artists. All of the historical artists they explored made use of abstract forms in their work. The exhibition is apt for the foundation’s gallery because it reflects the passion and dedication Rabkin had for teaching art to students of all backgrounds and welcoming art students into his studio.

Leo Rabkin was part of the Post-WWII New York art scene. He spent his formative years in Greenwich Village, studying art at New York University with renowned Abstract Expressionist painter William Baziotes. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rabkin was a middle school teacher employed at a local New York City public school. He designed a visual arts curriculum to engage these students in a highly personal manner, while also teaching typing skills. When Leo and his wife Dorothea moved to Chelsea, he had a large studio and hosted art students from Drew University and Rutgers University, giving them first-hand career advice and insight. His lifelong commitment to arts education became a founding principle of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation. The foundation is open to the public, with a special focus on sharing their collection, archives and resources with students, such as those whose work is currently on display there.

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Oscar Wolff, Since When?, 2019, a/p. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

After the students immersed themselves in both observing and interpreting artwork by Rabkin and others, they entered their classroom studio and began to plan their original works of art.  Their teacher, Louis-Pierre Lachapelle, asked each young artist in his class to choose a modern artist they especially admired based upon their prior research and viewing experience at the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation. Each of the students created a monoprint or edition and a mixed media construction that referenced elements of their chosen artist, such as making allusions to that artist’s process, color palette or symbolic expression. By prompting the students to be careful observers and interpret the works of other artists, they gained a strong concept of how artists make aesthetic decisions and explore forms and materials in order to convey meaning and express emotions. What was realized by the young artists, is how to respectfully mine visual imagery for inspiration, and how to generate and develop works of art in a self-directed fashion.

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Installation view of mixed media constructions made by middle school students. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

It is inspiring to see works of art by young artists that make reference to the ongoing dialogue of art, while adding unique inquiry-based moments of self-discovery and personal insight. The personal journeys that artists take to make their art is consistently in flux, with ideas and styles that change from one moment to the next. Art education is beneficial for building an understanding that creating art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it a sacred discipline. Good works of art often inspire us to consider and critique what is both visually and conceptually working and not working all at once. Throughout their education (which is always occurring), artists learn to accept failure (see: Artfully Failing) and apply praxis, a cycle of ‘reflective thinking,’ which is enacted by employing cognitive, social and emotional actions throughout the artistic process. A print by the young artist Oscar Wolff, asks us to consider “since when has art been perfect?” It is both an essential question and an enduring understanding that helps us to take art off of the pedestal and into the real world. The real value of art lies in both its form and function as a way of developing lifelong habits of mind and skills that prepare us for contemporary living. Through learning to explore materials and convey meaning via artistic processes, we are creatively and critically shaping our minds and giving meaning to the human condition and the global world we are a part of.

Creating a paradise

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Carla Herrera-Prats, Prep Materials, 2008, Digital prints from 4×5 negatives, digital prints from scan material, slide projection (40 slides), charcoal, vinyl lettering, duotone printed matter (edition of 1000 issues).

What is an appropriate assessment of what makes good educators and good artists? Can the idea of being ‘good’ be quantified by esteemed awards or test results? To some people in both the institutional worlds of art and education, that is probably the key standard for determining successful performance and achievement. Qualitative assessments of what makes educators and artists stand out are far more complex, but it is arguably the more impactful way to recognize the influence that they have within their fields and the culture at large.

Good artists and good educators enable their viewers and students (respectively) to construct additional and experiential knowledge around the material that they present. This means that educators and artists develop a personal understanding of their community and scaffold their work to ensure that they are relating to more than just a controlled group of like-minded individuals. Education and art are transformative disciplines that reflect the contemporary condition and inspire us all to be more human. A good education as well as a good work of art encourages the formation of collaborative empathetic responses to critical humanist issues facing our collective culture. Artists and educators should make space for dialogic relationships that affirm other people’s narratives and ideas towards their work. This is the crux of critical and problem-posing pedagogy (see: Freire, 1970), which suggests that an equitable and liberated education arises through discourse and cooperative construction of knowledge and understanding.

When art and education are explored as acts and expressions of love, they empower  socially engaged interactions (see: Freire, 1997). Obtaining a problem-posing pedagogical framework, based on acts and expressions of love is hard to quantify with data. On the other hand, standardized testing and personal achievement is easier to measure with statistics. Our current social structure typifies success with data. It utilizes data to reward and elevate those who score well on tests or accrue significant economic gain. This model doesn’t signify the equal, equitable and justice inspired ideology of our political and educational systems, but it is the reality of our purported ‘democratic’ institutions.

Carla Herrera-Prats addresses this fallacy in her multidisciplinary artwork, which makes humanist inquiries into the purpose of education, labor, politics and economics. Her work can be described as what Pablo Helguera (2011) defines as “transpedagogy.” According to Helguera, this term refers to artistic endeavors that “blend educational processes and art-making in works that offer an experience that is clearly different from conventional art academies or formal art education.”

Within Herrera-Prats’ work, she juxtaposes texts and images, often culminated via archival research, in order to make the underpinnings of institutional oppression visible, and elevate the voices of progressive historians, educators, artists and archivists. In Prep Materials (2008), she addresses the enduring question of what influence quantitative assessments have on both education and politics. Como un Cerillo (2008) depicts an alternative narrative to the oft-negative perspective of one of Mexico City’s neighborhoods, Tepito. Official Stories (2005-2006) reveals the way that the Mexican government has appropriated pre-colonial culture as agitprop to support nationalist interests, and how that contrasts with the way diversity and pre-Hispanic narratives are presented in the public school curriculum.

Prep Materials makes connections between the formation and evolution of ‘efficient’ technology to score the SATs, developed by IBM, Educational Test Service (ETS), and the Measurement Research Center. The same technology created for scoring SATs was utilized for the invention of the ballot machine as well as contemporary desktop scanners. Prep Materials displays photographs, text, a slideshow and drawings that refer to the archives of the aforementioned institutions. The saying ‘everything measured is everything done,’ which when installed (in both Los Angeles and New York) was affixed to the lower half of a gallery wall via vinyl letters; is indicative of society’s reliance on quantitative analysis to inform and motivate the way productivity is rewarded. It paraphrases a familiar quote (origins unknown), which is ‘what gets measured gets done.’ Herrera-Prats is clearly not suggesting that this is the most effective way of defining productivity and success within our standards of living. As she states: “moving beyond the common criticism against standardization and its supposed translation into better education, this exhibition focuses on the fallacy of relying on “efficient” technologies in order to realize the principles of democracy.”

How does one measure happiness and the selflessness of serving one’s community? Many altruistic efforts go unnoticed. Herrera-Prats’ work at large investigates the confluence of what is measured and what isn’t measured, in order to show the paradox of measuring data, and how quality of life rejects data driven narratives.

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Carla Herrera-Prats, Como un Cerillo, 2008, black and white photocopies, plastic boxes, vinyl and painted lettering and 10 min. audio loop.

Como un Cerillo is an audio/visual archival presentation based on the work of Alfonso Hernández, a longtime resident of Tepito, who has been creating a living archive of the neighborhood that is free and open to the public. Hernández’s magnum opus has been working to archive and present materials that celebrate the rich history of Tepito and inspire communal spirit among his neighbors. Alongside some examples of Hernández’s archive, are songs that have a cultural impact on the community. They represent music that was imported from South American countries via the neighborhood’s black market. This type of music, which includes cumbias and other tropical rhythms, are played by DJs at night markets. They provide a respite from the hectic urban environment. The fusion of Hernández’s archive and the lively music, present an alternative to the negative perspective the neighborhood receives in the mainstream media.

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Carla Herrera-Prats, Official Stories, 2005-2006, 100 catalogues, 4 textbooks, 2 videos, chalk, vinyl lettering.

Official Stories displays materials from exhibition catalogues that were sponsored by the Mexican government. These catalogues supplemented major exhibitions that toured the world, promoting the rich history and diversity of Mexico from its Mesoamerican roots to its present day melting pot of indigenous peoples, people of Hispanic decent and immigrants from all over the world. In Mexico, cultural artifacts and art are protected under strict laws. They are not allowed to be sold for profit, but have been used to increase tourism, which is why these exhibitions are held in such high regard and promoted far and wide. In contrast, the textbooks from public schools have seen a decrease in cultural diversity. The images and narratives have experienced a transformation signifying a highly selective pedagogy of pre-Hispanic and indigenous culture. While there used to be images celebrating indigenous and proletariat themes, more recent textbooks have gradually replaced these images with photographs (such as an aerial view of the landscape) that are devoid of sociopolitical context. Juxtaposing materials from exhibition catalogues and textbooks published between the 1950s and 2008, the installation forms patterns and makes connections between the rise of national identity, which celebrates diversity, and the decline of multicultural education. As Herrera-Prats (2008) explains:

“This project was not and is not about forming conclusions regarding how much children today are actually learning about their pre-Hispanic past. The most that we can say, by looking at the chalk indexes, is that they are certainly less exposed to it now than they were in 1959. Rather than measuring their learning itself, my methodology allowed for the display of a paradox in which the Mexican government and its cultural institutions has become entangled. In their efforts to carve a niche in the global scene, they have promoted abroad the very image whose effacement conditions progressive identity, namely: the diversity of pre-Hispanic cultural inheritance”

Archives and historical documents are used as a teaching resource to allow viewers of Herrera-Prats’ installations to spend time with primary and secondary sources, and formulate their own enduring understandings of what they see/read with their prior knowledge and cultural understandings. It is a way of opening a dialogic relationship between the past and the present culture. It is an important and profound experience that enables us to understand how history is used and manipulated for specific ideological interests. Secondary sources and critical/institutional interpretations of archives can establish a narrative that is both implicit and explicitly bias. It takes a discerning and liberated mind to critically examine these literary and visual documents. Prats’ presents her sources, asks us to consider multiple perspectives and leaves the role of making value judgements to us.

Going back to the essential question of what makes good art and good education, one enduring understanding is that both disciplines empower us to think radically within traditional mainstream cultural environments. While employing curricula that focuses on comprehension skills is fine, it needs to be supplemented with the development of liberal knowledge. Traditional methods of ‘reading for comprehension’ can have a devastating affect on marginalized individuals particularly, because they are being asked to read and digest ‘required’ texts in a formulaic manner, without a deeper understanding and a critical discourse around its cultural implications. In other words, the sole purpose is to develop didactic reading skills without much discussion and focus on themes and content that relates to more diverse social and culture issues (see: Wexler, 2019). Good artists and educators know this and provide ample moments for student/viewer reflection. They welcome discourse and take pride in the fact that learning and understanding is a communal act, supported by expressions of empathy and cooperation.

As bell hooks (1994) says, “the academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created.” The act of learning can manifest wherever people come together in collaboration to support and uplift each other’s voices and create informed responses to contextual information. Education and art are labors of love (see: Labor of love: art, activism, collaborative learning) and their impact cannot be neatly managed or maintained. They are both rhizomatic practices in nature and their success relies on the manner in which they inspire collaborative social action and democratic dialogue. While the aforementioned projects were created through Herrera-Prats’ solo practice, she had devoted her creative and socially engaged output in collaboration with artist Anthony Graves and the Camel Collective from 2008 until her recent untimely death. May her memory be a blessing and may her work continue to inspire artful learning and critical pedagogy.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum, 2007.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Heart, New York: Continuum, 1997.

Helguera, Pablo. Education for Socially Engaged Art, New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Herrera-Prats, Carla. “Official Stories,” Invisible Culture, Issue 12: The Archive of the Future / The Future of the Archive, May 2008. Accessed 13 Dec. 2019 https://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/Issue_12/herrara-prats/herreraprats.pdf

Ubanell, Rosana. “Tepito, the Mexico slum where one day you’re alive and the next you’re dead,” efe.com, 2 March 2019. Accessed 14 Dec. 2019 https://www.efe.com/efe/english/life/tepito-the-mexico-slum-where-one-day-you-re-alive-and-next-dead/50000263-3913882

Wexler, Natalie. The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education system – and how to fix it. New York: Avery, 2019.

Artful Equations

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Joshua Caleb Weibley, Excerpts from Engineering Forms, 2011, ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

In High School, I loathed math. I was obviously very interested and invested in art and music, and didn’t realize how artistic discovery relates to principles of mathematics (and vice versa). If I had been introduced to mathematical concepts via visual art, performance and music, perhaps it would have made a significant difference in my enthusiasm and effort in my math classes. I might have ended up challenging myself with numerical equations and problems, if artists like Jennifer Bartlett, Agnes Denes, Piero della Francesca (whose day job was as a mathematician) and Sandro Botticelli were discussed in relation to the content we were learning in math class.

The confluence of art and math should have been a forgone conclusion, because the mathematics we know today has its foundations in art. The practice of synthetic geometry, which was discovered by the Greek mathematician Euclid, in the 4th Century (BCE), is still taught in schools and utilized by graphic artists and architects. Euclidean geometry uses tools like compasses, rulers and protractors to visualize optical dimensions in a physical and tangible manner. In the 15th Century, Filippo Brunelleschi’s concept of linear perspective (inspired by Euclid’s optics) changed both the disciplines of math and art in a monumental fashion. Linear perspective directed the way artists, such as dell Francesca, realized and depicted three-dimensional space within a flat picture plane. The resulting aesthetic explorations with linear perspective led to enormous breakthroughs in the fields of architecture, science and engineering. STEAM learning was a huge component of the Renaissance and its lasting influence, which is why it is so shocking that the arts have largely been left out of the equation in educational curricula until recently (Gunn, 2017).

The cultural impact of linear perspective and other aesthetic mathematical revelations is the subject of Lynn Gamwell’s book, Mathematics + Art: A Cultural History. Gamwell lays out the formulas and shows her work, in order to make the case that art and math are intrinsically linked and have progressed nicely together through time. Gamwell doesn’t solely focus on Western culture; she traces the topic of mathematics within human development back to prehistoric times and our early explorations with counting systems and pattern design. During the modern and contemporary eras, both mathematicians and artists have been concerned with more abstract ways of defining what space is and can be. Non-euclidean geometry gave way to theories regarding the relationship between space and time, which artists of the 19th and 20th centuries sought to visualize in their artwork.
When you look at Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, it is not a stretch to think about fractal geometry. There is mathematical theory testing to prove the correlation between Pollock’s chaotic splashes of paint and complex fractal patterns which are self-similar over different dimensions. As Jennifer Ouellette (2001) recounts, “the physicist Richard Taylor was on sabbatical in England six years ago when he realized that the same analysis could be applied to Pollock’s work. In the course of pursuing a master’s degree in art history, Taylor visited galleries and pored over books of paintings. At one point in his research, he began to notice that the drips and splotches on Pollock’s canvases seemed to create repeating patterns at different size scales—just like fractals.” In fact, Taylor did the math and revealed that Pollock’s painting Number 14 (1948) has a fractal dimension of 1.45, which is very similar to the fractal dimension of many natural coastlines (Taylor, Micolich and Jonas, 1999). In November 1945, Pollock and Lee Krasner moved to the town of East Hampton on Long Island, so he was definitely attuned to the natural seascapes nearby his home and studio.

The integration of math and aesthetics can also be deciphered within the work of artists such Dorothea Rockburne, Jennifer Bartlett, Agnes Denes, Joshua Caleb Weibley and Nick Naber.

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Dorothea Rockburne, Egyptian Painting: Basalt, 1981, oil, glue, pencil on gessoed linen. Photograph by Nick Naber.

Dorothea Rockburne fulfills her academic interest and passion for math via her creative practice as a studio artist. While studying at the renowned Black Mountain College in the 1950s, she was influenced by a professor named Max Dehn, who was a leading practitioner and scholar in the mathematics of geometry, topology and geometric group theory. She is also intrigued by the scientific and astronomical explorations of Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca, who she references in her painting Piero’s Sky (1991-92). The painting alludes to the ‘natural’ starry night skies that della Francesca depicts in paintings like The Dream of Constantine (1464), which reinforces his expertise as both an artist and astronomer (see: Valerio, 2011). The sublime and serene character of Renaissance humanism and the elongated forms Mannerism, are evident in many of Rockburne’s contemporary abstract paintings. She connects 15th and 16th century painting to topology, by creating geometric forms that retain their essence under material deformations that include bending, stretching and twisting. This mathematical treatment of her imagery also makes them feel as if they are in motion, akin to the avant-garde choreography of her friends from the Judson Dance Theater. Rockburne personally describes her painterly process, which results in very fluid and accurate geometric compositions, as “visually solving equations” (Hoban, 2015). In a 2013 article Rockburne wrote for the Brooklyn Rail, she elaborates on her studio process and its connection to math:

“During the ’60s and ’70s I struggled to find a new geometry, something beyond the grid and Euclid. Excited by topology and set theory I began to look at transitive geometry, always envisioning concepts in different, possible materials that could be made into art, but which were outside of art materials. Carbon paper seemed a perfect choice. My intuition demanded that previously unseen, invisible structures and proportions be made visible through a transitive process.” – Dorothea Rockburne (Sept. 2013)

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Jennifer Bartlett, House: Dots, Hatches, 1998, enamel on 81 baked enamel plates. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Jennifer Bartlett makes paintings that are inspired by systems based processes, sets, proportions and ratios. She presents these self-imposed mathematical elements via a highly expressive painterly style that comments on painting’s narrative history and its roots in geometry (see: Artful Arithmetic for further analysis of Bartlett’s math infused art practice).

Agnes Denes is also drawn to mathematical systems, ratios and proportions. She utilizes complex equations and improvises on the work of mathematicians like Pascal and Whitehead and Russell, in order to address social, political and ecological concerns. Her oft-environmentally themed artworks employ geometric structures such as pyramids and sets of flora planted to form patterns inspired by natural rhythmic and evolutionary phenomena (see: Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences for more about Denes’ work).

Joshua Caleb Weibley utilizes synthetic geometry to create very intricately hand rendered drawings that discerningly provide insights into the evolution of technology, game theory and programming language. Many of his drawings parallel the ideological process of Minimalist art, the language of play and the optical mechanics of Op art. Weibley’s critical analysis of technology, presents it within the framework of time and space. His major focus is the coordinated obsolescence of technology, a process which is consistently stimulated by new technological advances and machine based learning. By replicating digital ephemera using an analog technique, Weibley’s art melds the fields of fine art, industrial engineering and computer science.

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Nick Naber, Facility 23, 2019, marker and graphite on watercolor paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Nick Naber’s technically stunning paintings and drawings adopt a personalized mathematical process that highlights line, geometry, and repetitive gesture to make commentary on architecture’s affect on the human psyche. Naber’s geometric structures, which largely resemble archetypal modern and post-modern buildings, impose upon one another to form implied three-dimensional compositions. These structures are drawn to scale and often based on odd numbers, often sets of three. They are like a contemporary version of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione or ‘Imaginary Prisons,’ because they similarly form fantastical architectural labyrinths, which are Kafkaesque in nature. Through Euclidean geometry, Naber’s works envelop the viewer with the illusion of feeling trapped, alienated and/or imprisoned within the confines of overarching forms.

The aforementioned artists represent a few examples of how mathematical processes and aesthetic concepts inform one another. With mathematical knowledge and tactile skills, artists continue to probe, explain and expound upon the phenomena of our lived experiences. For the people like myself who struggle with didactic math (i.e. studying baseline formulas), analyzing works of art that combine math, science and technology, can open inquiring minds into developing a better understanding and application of these fields.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Hoban, Pheobe. “Works in Progress,” T Magazine, 15 May, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/15/t-magazine/17older-female-artists-agnes-dene-herrera-rockbourne-farmanfarmaian.html

Gamwell, Lynn. Mathematics + Art: A Cultural History, New Jersey: Princeton, 2016.

Garner, Mary L. ‘The Merging of Art and Mathematics in Surface Substitution on 36 Plates’, in Kirsten Swenson (ed.), In Focus: Surface Substitution on 36 Plates 1972 by Jennifer Bartlett, Tate Research Publication, 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/surface-substitution/art-and-maths, accessed 17 March 2019.

Gunn, Jennifer. “What is STEAM Education?” Room 241, A Blog by Concordia University, 8 Nov. 2017. https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/leaders-link/importance-of-arts-in-steam-education/

Ouellette, Jennifer. “Pollock’s Fractals,” Discover Magazine, 31 Oct. 2001. https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/pollocks-fractals

Rockburne, Dorothea. “Points of Change; A Painter’s Journey,” Brooklyn Rail, 4 Sept. 2013. https://brooklynrail.org/2013/09/criticspage/points-of-change-a-painters-journey

Taylor, Richard, Micolich, Adam and Jonas, David. “Fractal analysis of Pollock’s drip paintings,” Nature 399, 422,

Valerio, Vladimiro. “Piero della Francesca’s Sky in The Dream of Constantine,” The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VI. ASP Conference Series, Vol. 441. San Francisco: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 2011, p.161, http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/2011ASPC..441..161V, accessed 11 Dec. 2019.

The Artful Environmentalist

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Susan Hoenig, Connected, 2019, black walnut ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

How many types of trees and plants can you identify in your local ecosystem? Do you know what specimens are native to the region? How can we become more ethical and sustainable environmentalists, while maintaining a thriving practice as creatives? The multidisciplinary art of Susan Hoenig helps us to answer the aforementioned questions, and become attuned to forming a balance with our natural resources.

Hoenig’s artistic practice is environmentally sustainable, which is an essential solution to the ecological problems that confront a materials-based artist. Making art has many social, emotional and cognitive benefits for individuals, but the media used to create art can have negative outcomes on the environment if not treated properly or sourced sustainably. Hoenig uses organic materials, and profoundly transforms the physical environment while treading lightly within nature. Her work has an overarching pedagogical framework that compels us to learn more about the world around us and develop empathetic responses to the ways we interact with natural settings and lifeforms.

Two ongoing bodies of Hoenig’s work, which have activist, aesthetic and pedagogical implications, are her Ecological Leaf Sculptures at Graeber Woods Preserve Frankin Township, New Jersey and her ecologically themed black walnut ink paintings.

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Susan Hoenig, Red Oak Leaf Sculpture, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

The Ecological Leaf Sculptures (2016-) are large stone outlines of leaves displayed beneath the tree within Graeber Woods that they represent. There are eleven sculptures in total among 96 acres of trails winding through a diverse ecosystem of forest, meadow, marsh and stream. Hoenig leads walking tours to educate the public about the understory (flora growing beneath the canopy) of the forest. Ten of the leaves are from a common tree, native to the Eastern United States (Red Oak, Bigtooth Aspen, American Beech, Black Birch, Tulip Poplar, Shagbark Hickory, Red Maple, Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood and Black Walnut). The one cultivar (a plant produced by selective breeding) is the Liberty Elm, which has been selectively bred to resist Dutch elm disease. The scale and graphic simplicity of the sculptures makes future identification of these tree species much easier.

Hoenig’s series of Black Walnut ink paintings is another body of work that aesthetically raises our consciousness about the natural world we collectively occupy. During mast years, she collects walnuts from the leaf sculpture site at Graeber Woods Preserve, and transforms them into ink. She also collects and uses other nuts like acorns, winged-seed pods, husks and other small seeds to create prints that make associations to many diverse species of leaves. In the painting Connected (2019), Hoenig overlaid an image of a tree trunk and roots on top of a silhouette of the artist’s arm and hand. While the trunk is a darker shade than the hand, everything seemingly blends together as the roots and fingers conjoin. This painting symbolizes an interconnection between ourselves and the natural world, which is a relationship we need to foster by realizing that our actions have tangible consequences on the climate and environment. If we disrupt nature’s due course, then the whole cycle of life is in danger of being ruptured.

In the Anthropocene, we are at risk of losing many natural resources that we rely on each day. Whether it is because we are ignorant or willfully ignorant, we are taking our ecosystems for granted. Susan Hoenig’s art makes it possible to reflect on environmental transformation and climate change in both a symbolic and very real manner. It also encourages us to find creative ways to depict and express both subtle and profound properties of our natural surroundings. It is an understandable impulse to want to document the beauty that envelops us. Art has a longstanding tradition of visually expressing the relationship between humans and their habitats. Doing so using sustainable materials, helps to ensure that current and future generations might be able to enjoy and maintain an interconnected and artful collaboration with nature.

The environment is changing before our eyes, both due to natural cycles and our interference with natural rhythms. Art helps us to become careful and discerning observers of physical environments. When utilized to make connections between the Earth and our connections to it, art can evoke empathetic responses to the impact of ecological issues and the affect that it has on us all.