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.

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.

Labor of love: art, activism, collaborative learning

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Sol Aramendi, Apple Eco Power. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

Creating art and reflecting on artwork is often a cooperative experience that supports empathic responses to lived experiences. Both the artist and the viewer put effort into formulating understandings of issues affecting the cultural environment. In this respect, art informs us about the lives of others and raises our consciousness regarding how we view ourselves and others within the culture at large.

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El Coop Mobile, Installation at Queens Museum. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

Making art is a labor of love that employs a combination of social, emotional and cognitive actions. Artists make art because they care about expressing themes that impact the human experience. Art is a wonderful methodology for experiential learning, because it allows the artist and viewer to engage in a cooperative dialogue. The artist makes the artwork around a theme of their interest, and then it is left to the viewer to find value within the work and make their own unique connections to it.

I advocate throughout this blog that art doesn’t have to be realized within the traditional ‘art world’ (see: Danto, 1964). I disagree with the idea that something is only defined as art if it is established by art academics, critics and institutional professionals. While not everyone who makes art is going to be recognized in the field of fine arts, everyone has the ability to live artfully. Living artfully means translating the studio habits of mind that we learn from the arts (see: Educating Through Art) into everyday actions. Contemporary artists like Sol Aramendi, are making an important contribution to both the institutional art world and the larger world outside of the creative sector.

Aramendi immigrated from Argentina 17 years ago and collaborates with local immigrant populations to realize socially engaged artworks. Her recent creative partnerships include the Workers’ Studio, an ongoing project with women day laborers who come from diverse backgrounds. The common thread between Aramendi and the women laborers is their advocacy for workers’ to reverse the exploitation of labor, which includes wage theft and unsafe working conditions. Under the auspices of the Workers’ Studio, art making is the vehicle for raising awareness in support of equal, equitable and justice driven labor systems.

Aramendi’s artistic initiative is a form of social sculpture (see: Everybody is an Artist), where the act of making art reflects social conditions such as immigration and the right to a living wage. The Workers’ Studio is nomadic, meaning that it can be successfully implemented in all sorts of environments. This element is important both functionally and symbolically for addressing themes of labor and immigration. Because the project can move from place to place, it is easily accessible to a wide group of participants, whose narratives signify a vibrant tapestry of experience and creativity. The artistic contributions, which are on display in an exhibition at the Queens Museum titled Workers’ Studio: El Co-op (curated by Eva Mayhabal Davis), come from women who have organized into co-op businesses, where each worker owns a share in the company. The co-ops who have artworks featured in the exhibition are: Love & Learn Childcare Cooperative, Apple Eco Cleaning, Brightly Port Richmond Cleaning Cooperative, and Mirror Beauty Cooperative. The work created by the workers of these co-ops include photographs, writings and mixed-media objects. There are several workshops and events throughout the course of the exhibition (on view until January 12, 2020) that support creative discourse and action around the issues of labor and worker organization.

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Materials and resources at the El Coop Mobile. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

One of the benefits of participatory art projects, is the collaborative/cooperative learning aspect that comes from sharing and relating experiences. Collaborative/cooperative learning expands our ability to understand and express ourselves through scaffolding and building upon each other’s skills and resources. In the educational realm, this pedagogical approach “promotes interaction among students and shared responsibility for academic achievement” (Stein and Hurd, 2000).  Similarly, the work created through the Workers’ Studio supports the reciprocity of ideas, resources and authority, in order to benefit all members of the collective. The personal stories that are expressed via the creative process inform us about the power of coming together and raise our consciousness towards advocating for worker’s rights, and human rights. You can see the labor of love within the imagery and materials on display.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Danto, Arthur C. “The Artworld” (1964) Journal of Philosophy LXI, 571-584.

Stein, Ruth Federman & Hurd, Sandra. Using Student Teams in the Classroom. Bolton MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 2000. admin.leeuniversity.edu/Media/Website%20Resources/pdf/cte/SteinHurd_UsingStudentTeams.pdf.

The Fourth Grade Project

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Installation view of archival pigment prints from The Fourth Grade Project by Judy Gelles, in the exhibition Overlap: Life Tapestries on view at Pen + Brush, New York. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Students from around the world are the subjects and co-collaborators of an ongoing participatory artwork and educational experience titled The Fourth Grade Project. The project was initiated by Judy Gelles, a contemporary artist who works as a photographer. Gelles travels internationally to visit with students in their schools, and have a dialogue about their life experiences. The students are only a decade old but they have incredible insight about the world around them. Gelles photographs the students in rear perspective view, so that they remain anonymous. The final prints include verbatim text juxtaposed with each student’s portrait. The text tells their personal narratives, which were prompted by three questions: Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?

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Judy Gelles, Lived Closer: USA California Private School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The eloquent responses to these questions reflect the students’ sociocultural understandings. Each student has a unique perspective regarding how they see themselves in the scope of the human condition. While there is diversity in their responses due to the different geographical regions they represent, the stories they share signify several commonalities. They worry about themselves and their family; feel stressed about their performance in school and/or in social and athletic settings; and contemplate the future. They also express their aspirations for happiness and success. All children deserve to feel safe and valued in their schools, families and communities. The Fourth Grade Project makes it clear that this is not the case for all school aged children around the world. Too many students are worried about violence and sociocultural woes affecting them, their classmates and their families. An essential question for us to collectively address is how to bridge the social, cultural and economic gaps that create inequitable situations within society?

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Judy Gelles, Be Murdered, South Africa: Public School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The Fourth Grade Project is being utilized as a way for students across the globe to feel empowered expressing themselves and learning about one another. In doing so, they will make connections between their own stories and those of other students. Gelles is working with educators and administrators in Philadelphia to create a curriculum that can be implemented in schools throughout the world. What Gelles and the classroom teachers have noticed, is that giving students the agency to express themselves via the three aforementioned queries, benefits their participation and involvement in school. Students were struggling to make connections between their lives and the required reading, which impacted the development of their literary and writing skills. By making stories relatable to their social, emotional and cultural experiences, students were passionate about reading and writing. As a result of participating in the project, both quantitative and qualitative assessments of the students’ work supported their individual growth in English Language Arts (ELA). Furthermore, by reading the students’ stories, teachers and administrators gain significant insight into the myriad of social issues affecting their students. Due to overcrowded schools and large class sizes, it is often difficult for educators to spend enough time with each student to have dialogues about their lives outside of school. This project enables teachers to learn more about what personal concerns might be affecting a student’s performance in class. In addition to this dialogue being beneficial for educators to gain greater understandings about their students, classmates also gain insight into their peers’ innermost feelings. These compassionate responses build a more empathetic environment where everyone in the school works together and is supportive of each other’s physical and emotional space.

Understanding one another and being able to show empathy for what others are enduring is a major lesson that the arts can teach us (see: Exhibiting Empathy and Educating Through Art). Through social and emotional learning and reflections on personal and collective experiences, The Fourth Grade Project has the potential to help students grow academically and personally.

 

Back to Nature: Learning about ecosystems of the past and building future ecological awareness

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Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some people call New York City a ‘concrete jungle.’ This metaphor refers in part to the city’s lack of greenery and the plethora of large concrete and glass structures in its stead. However, New York City was once a lush natural environment and our urbanization of the land has displaced generations of natural growth. The large swaths of commuters, tourists and residents that hustle and bustle across the metropolis probably don’t often think of a pre-colonial Manhattan and the diverse island ecosystem that existed.

We can learn a lot from artworks that re-present the lost ecosystem of the city. Michael Wang and Alan Sonfist both incorporate scientific processes into their artistic practice. Their work aims to raise our awareness about how post-industrial human beings have transformed, molded and largely stripped the land of its natural essence. Through bringing the results of their scientific research into cultural spaces, their work invites us to view an ecosystem that once did not have to be nurtured by an artist. Our consumer-driven interactions with the world around us have made these artworks necessary in order to experience the landscapes of the past.

Artists throughout history have become awestruck by nature and portray it in all its glory and lushness. The paintings of the Hudson River School artists depict nearly pristine views of America’s landscape right as the industrial revolution transformed forests and valleys into sprawling towns and large cities. These artists were rebelling against what they saw as a grave danger to humanity: our sociocultural and economic influence on the environment. Wang’s Extinct in New York (2019-ongoing) and Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1965-present) attempt to revive the actual ecological features of New York City that have been erased by urbanization and consumerism.

Wang and Sonfist use natural resources as their art materials. Their work begins with analysis of quantitative data, historical accounts and archival imagery.  Thanks to the careful documentation by both artists and scientists, Sonfist and Wang were able to fulfill their objectives to re-present New York City’s lost and disappearing fauna.

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Michael Wang, Extinct in New York. Installation photograph at LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island. Courtesy of LMCC and Sacks & Co.

Extinct in New York, which was just recently on display at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) Arts Center on Governors Island, creates a space where viewers can observe live specimens of specific native plants, algae and lichen that have vanished from New York City’s ecosystem. Wang’s extensive research accompanies the live specimens in a publication detailing the name of each plant, algae or lichen, and the last time it was found in its natural setting. The installation of these specimens resembles a greenhouse laboratory and, sure enough, it requires nurturing care from gallery staff, local students and volunteers. When the project is de-installed, the goal is to re-introduce the plants, algae and lichen to the land where they once grew unrestrained. The irony is that now they will require the care of human beings in managed spaces like urban community gardens and public parks. Alongside the live materials, Wang displays photographs and botanical drawings that document and express the traces of nature and its ephemerality.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present, site-specific land art. Courtesy of the artist.

Time Landscape recreates a pre-colonial natural forest, which would have provided sustenance, shelter and community to the indigenous peoples of what is now the five boroughs. Sonfist designed a plot of land, which is located at the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in downtown Manhattan, to resemble the likeness of a natural forest that would have been observed prior to European interference. The initial planting process depicted the three phases of natural forest growth: seeds to saplings to grown trees and mature plants. Now, the land artwork is ripe with old growth and is even susceptible to post-colonial species of fauna (which are periodically weeded out by Parks Department workers). Time Landscape is a living sculpture, which could also be considered as a memorial to a past ecological epoch. It raises our social, emotional and cognitive awareness to the prowess and fragility of our natural world.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present. Courtesy of the artist.

In the Anthropocene era, it is important that our educational settings provide real-world and hands-on learning scenarios for students to explore, discover and make insightful responses to the environment. In order to do this, teachers will likely require support from their administration and professional development to learn ways that they can incorporate environmental issues into their curriculum.

Brooklyn College’s Graduate Art Education program has implemented a Summer course called Human Tracks in the Urban Landscape, which focuses on inquiry-based pedagogical frameworks that current and future art and science educators can use in their classrooms. Using Prospect Park as both a case study and experiential site, the course combines classroom discussions where educators learn the natural history of New York’s ecology, with on-site and studio based explorations, such as projects, installations and performances. At the end of the course, educators produce multi-disciplinary projects that combine artistic and scientific processes and address a specific ecological topic of interest.

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Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

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Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, detail of Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

When I took this course in its inaugural year (2017), my team (consisting of three art educators including myself) researched the history of foraging in New York City parks and came up with a list of edible plants that thrived in Prospect Park. We focused on native and invasive species that could be foraged and utilized by local communities as nutritional sources of food, as well as ways to sustainably interact with the park’s natural resources. We created a temporary site-specific installation and performance, where we juxtaposed the park’s useful natural elements with the abundance of consumer-based refuse (fast food wrappers, plastic bottles and junk food scraps) that were littered throughout the landscape. The result was a ‘picnic’ of foraged plants and trash. The idea for this installation started with an adverse reaction to being in the park. I could not enjoy myself because I was preoccupied with the amount of litter strewn across the natural space. The trash was distracting me from the abundant paths that surrounded us. I tried to move forward, but I kept thinking ‘how could we let our natural oasis get this way?’ As an artist, my concerns are visualizing and documenting experiences that focus on our accountability to our surroundings.

 

My strong reaction to the amount of garbage in Prospect Park led me to wonder why there isn’t a campaign to promote the clean and sustainable use of the park as a natural resource within the urban ecology. There are lots of plants for anyone in the city to enjoy for medicinal, culinary or other purposes (like creating fabrics and dyes). Ultimately, we need to take in knowledge about the natural scenery and take out the litter that threatens our local resources. We can promote a healthy relationship by thinking about what we consume and how it affects the environment. Learning to forage is one of the best things that I have learned, especially because mushrooms in particular are quite pricey in city markets! I hope more people will trust what is available around them in nature versus what is pre-packaged and mass-consumed. Perhaps through the incorporation of art and ecology curricula within our city’s schools, generations of students will gain expertise regarding the use of natural resources and become stewards to the ecosystems that exist within the urban landscape.

Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Blueroom (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran)/Tom Little (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is a great city, but not one that you might automatically think of when discussing global issues. However, the Steel City has been getting a lot of attention regarding global affairs lately. President Trump declared on June 1, 2017, when withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement that: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” As a counter to Trump’s unabashed and callous attitude on the climate crisis, Pittsburgh’s mayor Bill Peduto responded: “as the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy and future.”

Pittsburgh is once again in the cultural spotlight of an international dialogue with another global city via an artist initiated installation called The Other Apartment on view at the Mattress Factory. The Other Apartment, a collaboration between artists Jon Rubin, based in Pittsburgh, and Sohrab Kashani, based in Tehran, Iran, explores the beneficial impact that creative collaboration has on shifting the oft-negative narrative between the United States and Iran. It largely speaks to artists’ abilities to think outside of the box, embrace ambiguity and make social, emotional and cognitive connections with others (all studio habits of mind that the arts teach us).

This is such an important project that is taking place at a time when the United States is increasingly engaging in volatile diplomacy, and isolating itself from the global community. While it may seem insurmountable to bridge the gap between two very contentious nations, artworks such as The Other Apartment make connections when it may otherwise seem impossible to do so. Art communicates beyond social constructs like geographical boundaries and demarcated borders, and gives us access to intimate spaces and unique cultural insights that are typically marginalized and overshadowed by conflict and propaganda. Within Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, Rubin and Kashani have created an exact replica of Kashani’s apartment in Tehran. They worked with fabricators to make duplicates of all the objects within Kashani’s flat. The fact that a likeness of Kashani’s space is on display within a public museum is fitting, because for the past eleven years he has opened up his Tehran home to the public as an exhibition space and artist residency.

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Event Room Watching II (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran)/Tom Little (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

It is remarkable that Rubin and Kashani are fulfilling this collaboration without being in the same physical place due to Iranians being affected by Trump’s travel ban. Therefore, the artists had to work from detailed photographs and utilize telecommunication technology to transform the Mattress Factory’s gallery into Kashani’s apartment. Throughout the course of the exhibition, which runs through July 2020, the two artists will work in tandem to develop events, exhibitions, art objects and programming. Every happening that transpires in one space will be identically reproduced in the other space.

The Other Apartment could inspire classroom projects (The Other Classroom perhaps…) where students from two distant regions of the world connect and collaborate with each other, creating a communal classroom full of students who may never have the opportunity to meet in person. It is a great way to learn about other’s experiences and build empathy for one another. Students and educators could come up with a learning segment where each classroom has an opportunity to address a topic that they want to share with their cooperating class, and conduct a series of activities to be performed collectively that seek to realize common aims and objectives. The exchange of empirical cultural and social knowledge would be beneficial for a diverse body of students to foster both personal and professional relationships with one another.

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Studio Opening (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Shirin Rezaee (Tehran)/Jon Rubin (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

The Other Apartment is an example of how art can foster diplomacy and deep sociocultural understandings. Reflecting on creative endeavors like this, it is clear that migration has a profound effect on society at large; and it is imperative that we open our minds, borders and communities to others who are eager to share their culture, knowledge, creativity and passion with the world.

 

No Room to Play

“There was a time when we wore flowers on our heads…wishing it would never get dark so we could continue to play. We chased freedom and joy every day. We learnt about fear, delight and laughter……but ended up running the race.

But there was a day when we weren’t told the truth.We didn’t know enough to understand the bad news.Others took our decisions, others took our strength. Welcome to earth. There was a time when we wore flowers on our heads……but then it became cold in the summer and hot in the winter. We were promised Neverland.That imaginary faraway place……but true happiness never came.We wander now in darkness and despair.” – Narration from No Room to Play by Minerva Cuevas (2019).

Minerva Cuevas’ video No Room to Play (2019) portrays a cautionary dystopian narrative, in which urban public playgrounds are left to decay. The inspiration for the video comes from Post-WWII Western civilization, where urbanization and increased competition, in such forms as organized sports, economic and social status often overrule the importance of free play.

No Room to Play is symbolic of the decline of play, public space and autonomy, which psychologist Peter Gray recognizes as a major contemporary issue that is harmful for children’s development. A primary reason for this, Gray asserts, is that there is an incredible amount of herding of young minds and bodies within today’s society. Whether at home or in school, adults are directing the activities that children partake in, and children are learning that their free-will comes at a price, such as rigid judgement and assessment from adults. With children spending longer hours at school (or organized sports/clubs) under the tutelage of adults, and less time engaging in self-directed actions with their peers, they are being stifled socially and emotionally. This also takes a toll on their ability to think creatively, because they are often not given enough agency to think outside of the box or make judgements in the absence of rules (see: Eisner, 2002).

Cuevas’ poignant video blurs the lines between science fiction, fantasy and the realistic outlook of Gray’s assertion that children are more anxious and depressed than ever (Gray, 2010), because their inclination to play is not being supported within our modern society.

Screen Shot 2019-10-21 at 11.21.33 PM

Still from Minerva Cuevas’ No Room to Play, 2019, video retro-projection on hanging screen, 6’29.” On view at Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College in the exhibition Minerva Cuevas: Disidencia.

As dark and moody scenes of an abandoned playground are featured on screen, the voice of a German girl narrates how the loss of playgrounds affect children’s sense of place and self. Some of the playgrounds have naturalistic elements that resemble plants and animals, which alludes to the idea of Kindergarten (literally meaning a ‘children-garden’), a pedagogical model that supports growth through playful learning and activities that build upon children’s experience, emotions and intellect (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). Friedrich Fröbel, who coined the name Kindergarten, believed that children should be nurtured like plants in a garden. In a depressing turn of events, the public spaces for play in No Room to Play have fallen into a total state of despair, suggesting a metaphor for the loss of environmental resources and the ability to provide a nourishing setting for children’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Our current trajectory of creating massive urbanized and commercial environments stresses competitiveness and production (mass produced labor) over natural processes of human development.

Having agency to partake in unadulterated child-centered moments of play has significant benefits on children’s creative and cognitive development (see: Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art). Children learn dynamic lessons and skills such as cooperation, procedural knowledge, patience and empathy by developing and implementing their own frameworks of play. Furthermore, play has been recognized by generations as a vital element of the human condition, as evident in constructivist  pedagogical models such as the Reggio Emilia Approach. To strip current and future generations of ample playtime, is an affront on nature.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Eisner, Elliot. The Arts and the Creation of Mind, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002.

Feldman, Claire Alaina, Bogossian, Gabriel, Farkas, Solange and Press Clayton. “Minerva Cuevas: Disidencia, exhibition catalogue, Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, New York, 2019. https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/wsas/artsculture/mishkingallery/documents/MC_Disidencia_FINAL_LR.pdf

Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders.” Psychology Today, 26 Jan 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-decline-play-and-rise-in-childrens-mental-disorders