Collaborating with Kids for a Green New World

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Ido’s hand. “My mom is an artist…we made objects we want to protect…I made a waterfall because in my generation I don’t think there will be anymore.” Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel.

The enduring understanding among scientists is that climate change is happening all around us at an accelerated pace. Recently published climate reports from around the globe have provided the details of the effects humans have had on the Earth, and the dire consequences that are likely to occur if we don’t take action collectively.

Human-centered impact on the environment isn’t a novel theory or occurrence. Examples of ethical awareness for maintaining the world around us come from a diverse array of ancient, modern and contemporary sources, which include both historical and mythological accounts. One of these more illustrious examples is the biblical narrative of Noah’s Ark, which is a cautionary tale of how humans corrupted the once pristine landscape by disrespecting its natural resources, as well as one another. While the tale of Noah’s Ark is one of fiction, the idea that our actions have consequences on the world around us is blatantly evident. Throughout the human timeline, species and civilizations have come and gone due to human behaviors such as over hunting, warfare, industrialization and pollution.

Today’s generations face a serious quandary in light of the global crisis of environmental decline. We have witnessed the decline of 60% of the worlds wildlife population between 1970 and 2014 (see: WWF, 2018). The causes for such catastrophic events largely include the abuse of wildlife and natural resources for human profit or personal gain (i.e. trophy hunting, factory farming, deforestation of unique ecosystems).

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‘Help the elephants.’ Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

In the educational sphere, some liberal arts and science curricula have evolved to include a strong ecological focus and there is overwhelming support among Americans for teaching students about climate change, although it is still a contentious issue (see: Cheskis, Marlon, Wang and Leiserowitz, 2018). The arts and natural sciences are essential disciplines where students and educators can engage in experiential learning and develop a sense of understanding about themselves and the world around them. In the process, they can explore the effects that scientific and artistic reflection and production have within our culture. Through making insightful connections to their cultural and ecological environment, they may realize the moral role they can take on as makers and become more self sufficient and cooperative in the production and sharing of resources (instead of being largely reliant on consumer goods). Hopefully they will make connections regarding their role as consumers and producers and become more aware about making ethical decisions that support the maintenance and preservation of the environment. The essential question that gets addressed through learning processes and activities is: “how can we coexist with the natural world and become effective in informing others about the need to maintain a clean and ethical relationship with the environment?” Some follow up and alternative fundamental queries include:

  • What can we learn through responding to works of art, making works of art and presenting works of art that discuss ideas about our natural environment?
  • How does learning about art, ecology, ethical maintenance and environmentalism influence how we interpret the world around us?
  • How can we use art and environmental science to engage in the larger social ecological framework?

A recent collaboration between multidisciplinary visual artist Melanie Daniel and a group of 4th graders at an environmental science school, presents compelling responses to these prompts. Daniel’s own artistic practice focuses on climate related issues and she currently holds a three year long position as the Padnos Distinguished Visiting Artist at the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The residency is an endowed chair and gives Daniel a framework to do art-centered socially engaged projects with the greater community.

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Artists at work making molds. Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The process for Daniel’s collaborative project with 4th graders began with each student constructing plaster hands using an alginate mold (a type of slime that hardens and can be filled with plaster or other material). The molds captured the precise details of each student’s hand, which resulted in a highly personalized sculpture. Later in the year, the students sculpted clay objects that represented a living entity in the world they wanted to protect (i.e. flora, fauna, geological formations, insects, etc.). The object that the students created sit in the palm of the hand, as if the molds of the students hands are nurturing and safeguarding the object. The hands are currently installed in the gallery at the Alexander Calder Art Center‘s Pandos Gallery at GVSU, where they are aligned in a row, providing a symbolic wall of hope. The exhibition is titled Offering.

Daniel and the students also compiled an accompanying catalogue consisting of drawings of their chosen objects and a short paragraph of why they chose that object and the significance it has to them. The students’ drawings and written responses are highly effective and while many have a humorous tone, the overarching theme is one of loss, when recognizing that perhaps some or all of these entities will no longer exist in the future. According to Daniel, the students asked poignant questions while they were working such as: “how will (future) kids know what a snake really looks like when it moves if it is extinct?”

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Student’s sculptures (installation shot). Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The project has been beneficial for both the students, as well as Daniel herself. Through thinking about current issues, communicating unique ideas and making art, they developed a sense of stewardship for their surroundings. The installation reflects how the students exhibited empathy and made serious connections between their generation’s actions and the natural world. Additionally, they posited some suggestions for maintaining and repairing the world around them. Regarding the experience of working with young creative individuals, Daniel remarks: “Although I teach undergrads, it’s the little kids that blow my mind. They’re less self conscious, more engaged and deeply curious. They also have much better attention spans than their older cohorts and can apply themselves to a new task and utterly lose themselves to it.”

A reason that science and art work well as co-relational subjects in the curriculum, is that both disciplines start with imagination and employ exploration, discoveries and insights through an empirical lens and process. Essential habits of mind that are learned through science and art are: theory testing (hypothesis, inquiry, exploration of materials), flexible purposing (exploring new avenues as research/exploration leads to discoveries) and judgements in the absence of rule (both disciplines seek to break new ground in terms of how we analyze and contextualize natural phenomena).

When visual artists team up with young creative and inquiring minds, the possibilities for innovative results are enormous (as seen in the aforementioned project). One of the ways we can help our natural environment is to focus on individual and communal production methods that cut down on waste and mass consumption. Art can teach us to be sustainable (see: Kallis, 2014) and to create something unique from raw and found materials. Art also challenges us to dream big and produce ethically for the world we would like to see and experience.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cheskis, A., Marlon, A., Wang, X., Leiserowitz, A. (2018). Americans Support Teaching Children about Global Warming. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/americans-support-teaching-children-global-warming/

Kallis, Sharon. 2014. Common Threads: weaving community through collaborative eco-art. British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland. https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-10/wwfintl_livingplanet_full.pdf

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Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art

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Mark Dion, installation view of Neukom Vivarium, 2006. Photo by Vmenkov

The art critic Ben Davis (2018) recently described the artist curated works at the 33 Bienal de Sao Paulo (components of a show curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro) as “eschewing spectacle in favor of a much more contemplative” experience, which is focused on using works of art to develop the viewer’s attention span. Davis stated:

“today’s endless slurry of bad news mixed with frenetic entertainment—which is replicated in the intellectual, optical, and spatial overload of a lot of international art shows—tends to render the mind frantic. It paralyzes extended analysis by the same measure that it overpowers any more-than-superficial aesthetic experience. And so, art’s use as a space to train attention may be less superfluous than it seems, and worth salvaging.”

In Pérez-Barreiro’s exhibition titled Affective Affinities, comprehensive scrutiny and deeply reflective assessments take priority over aesthetic convergence and art for entertainment’s sake. Pérez-Barreiro selected seven artist/curators to curate ‘mini-exhibitions’ that feature their own work along with work by other artists of their choice. This open ended concept allows for significant affinities to be realized amongst a group of diverse modern and contemporary artists (and the inventor of Kindergarten, Friedrich Fröbel!).

Affective Affinities (on view through December 9, 2018), offers a respite to the banal, superfluous, abject, depressing, and perverse headlines currently dominating Brazil’s cultural landscape. While art alone cannot solve all of society’s problems, taking time to look at and engage with artwork helps us to become better focused, make qualitative relationships and judgements (Eisner, 2002), and be more in-tune with our critical thinking skills. Because of these aforementioned benefits, art makes us more attentive to the complexities of a world in flux and therefore enable us to make adjustments to life’s challenges by crafting innovative solutions in collaboration with other disciplines.

Spectacle is all around us. We have access to vast amounts of information at our fingertips, however, the amount of mis-information and sensationalized media we are collectively subjected to is at an all time high. Too often, our obsession with spectacle translates to moments in culture where entertainment or scandal overshadows the potential teachable moments and reflective outcomes that works of art can provide. Modern Museums (such as Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1677, and the Louvre Museum in Paris, founded in 1793) opened as public spaces where people of all social and economic statuses could go to learn about objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance.  Some contemporary museums seem to have lost sight of this democratic ideology and have become sites of divisive controversy and exhibitions for entertainments sake. Instead of focusing on blockbuster exhibitions, or populist exhibitions (exhibitions for entertainment’s sake), today’s museums should be designing shows that make viewing art relevant to the lives of the viewers and the diverse communities where the museums are located. Artworks and their curatorial incorporation into exhibitions should be culturally appropriate, serve an educational purpose, and all the while, their inclusion should remain open-ended enough to account for inquiry based viewing and mindful enduring understandings on the part of the gallery goer. In other words, artworks in museum exhibitions should hold our attention and leave us inspired to learn more about the content long after we’ve left the museum’s majestic galleries.

One of the many important ‘Habits of Mind’ that art offers us is the ability to pay close attention to details or ‘noticing deeply.’ Most artists scrutinize each and every aspect of a work of art during the creative process. Whether they are drawing sketches for a painting or writing a proposal for a large-scale public art commission, artists meticulously plan, revise, and consider many different facets and perspectives before their work is presented to the discerning public. Paying close attention to details continues to be an important aspect during the presentation of a work of art in the form of critiques by fellow artists, curators, art critics, and anyone else who finds themselves standing in front of the artwork. In fact, the Feldman Method for Art Criticism requires the critic to spend a great deal of time with a work of art in order to truly engage with its stylistic and symbolic elements. Multiple viewings are typically required to fully describe, analyze, interpret, and make judgements about an artwork.

Art education teaches us to pay close attention and to become adept ‘part to whole’ and ‘whole to part’ thinkers. A mastery of inductive (part to whole) and deductive (whole to part) reasoning is necessary to our participation in daily life. Mastery of anything requires education and experience. Similar to other areas of growth such as speech and movement, we develop artistically through “phases.” That is to say that a child’s (or older beginner’s) understanding of pictorial and symbolic issues transform through time with experience and education. A good framework for assessing artistic development is the ‘multi-dimensional model’ of artistic development, suggested by Linda Louis (2013). This model acknowledges a key fundamental element of artistic development, which is that exploration leads to discovery, which leads to insight. An earlier philosophy regarding artistic development came from Viktor Lowenfeld, who was a pioneering theorist on the way children’s art progressed through what he called “stages.” While his model of artistic development inspired the contemporary multi-dimensional model, the multi-dimensional model provided by Linda Louis is more apt because it recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages and can be both phase one and phase two (or three & four, and so on) learners at the same time…The six phases of artistic development are: 

  1. Explorers/Discoverers
  2. Deliberators/Planners
  3. Communicators
  4. Inventors
  5. Illusionists
  6. Expressers

In the multidimensional model of artistic development (Louis, 2013), young artists develop as inductive thinkers around phase number two (Deliberators/Planners). They create imagery and symbolic meaning by piecing together parts to form a whole. This is why you’ll generally observe them creating a figure that is depicted in multiple parts (separate shapes for each body part and confined shapes) rather than render a whole interconnected image. Additionally, Deliberators/Planners are becoming quite observant of their environment, therefore, attention to details are given significance within their artwork (skin tones, facial features, accessories, etc). As the child moves from phase two into phase three, they begin to think deductively, while shifting to inductive thinking as needed. The most important element in their work is their desire to be understood as a communicator of information and therefore, they focus on image making using conventions that serve depiction.

As the child receives more artistic education and experience, they become meaningfully expressive, which means that they feel their art must say something significant. In other words, both the thematic concept and aesthetic experience informs their artwork. They consider their work to be a fluid body (series, period, style), which takes the viewer’s experience and perception into account. In fact, they are able to view their own work through a critical and reflective lens. They’re interested in a cultural discourse, which includes the art world (the history of art, as well as the current visual culture). Often times, they’ll appropriate works of art or iconography from visual culture to make a statement related to their experience within the cultural landscape. It is more important than ever to qualify this phase with prior artistic learning (throughout each phase, students are building skills and exploring materials in a developmentally appropriate manner), so that the students can utilize their combined artistic experience to create personally meaningful, expressive work. 

Professional artists seamlessly fuse inductive and deductive thinking in the planning, communicating, inventing, and expressing of their artwork. Making art is a multi-disciplinary process, which starts with a ‘big idea’ (a.k.a an inspiration, framework, theory, or thematic focus), and continues with essential questions, within which the artist must reflect the most important issues, problems, and debates related to their big idea. In other words, within a body of work, the artist poses significant questions, issues, and/or problems that they want their work to address and realizes the aesthetic and expressive strategies they will use to communicate these themes.

In educational settings, the ‘big idea’ directs the information and concepts that are included in a curriculum. It is followed by essential questions, which are open-ended, exploratory, and allow for student-centered inquiry. Finally, enduring understandings are what makes the big ideas and essential questions relevant in the lives of each student.

Both professional artists and professional educators have to hone in on the necessary details that are imperative to successfully express big ideas, essential questions, and enduring understandings to a diverse group of individuals. A successful work of art should have relevance and capture the attention of its viewers, while a successful curriculum should be relevant and engaging to students. This is why Ben Davis argues that utilizing art to train our attention can be a good thing. While all forms of art can be beneficial in strengthening our attention span, there are some artists whose work especially requires a high level of attention. Two of these contemporary artists are Mark Dion and Alisha Wessler.

Mark Dion’s work is the epitome of multi-disciplinary art-centered inquiry. Dion’s practice blurs the boundaries between art and science in an effort to explore the objective and subjective nature of our natural environment and human psyche. This is the case with his most renowned work of art titled Neukom Vivarium (2006). At first glance, a viewer will recognize this work as a fallen tree, covered in moss and other plants. Some might recognize the 80 foot tree as a Western hemlock, which is a native species on the West Coast of the United States. It is Dion’s intention for the viewer to inquire about the significant meaning of installing a giant tree at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington. Dion acknowledged this to be true when he stated:

“I think that one of the important things about this work is that it’s really not an intensely positive, back-to-nature kind of experience. In some ways, this project is an abomination. We’re taking a tree that is an ecosystem—a dead tree, but a living system—and we are re-contextualizing it and taking it to another site. We’re putting it in a sort of Sleeping Beauty coffin, a greenhouse we’re building around it. And we’re pumping it up with a life support system—an incredibly complex system of air, humidity, water, and soil enhancement—to keep it going. All those things are substituting what nature does, emphasizing how, once that’s gone, it’s incredibly difficult, expensive, and technological to approximate that system—to take this tree and to build the next generation of forests on it. So, this piece is in some way perverse. It shows that, despite all of our technology and money, when we destroy a natural system, it’s virtually impossible to get it back. In a sense, we’re building a failure.” (See: https://art21.org/read/mark-dion-neukom-vivarium/)

Apart from the overarching big idea of humanity’s impact on the environment, Dion wants us to pay close attention to the details that are not so obvious, such as the smallest elements of an ecosystem. These facets such as lichen, small insects, and microscopic bacteria, are often harder to discern via the naked eye, and are largely overlooked when gazing at the gargantuan specimen of Tsuga heterophylla. While the hemlock tree’s life came to an end, new life has formed and continues to grow on and around the fallen tree, albeit due to human interaction such as climate control in the form of the artist built greenhouse enclosing the tree, essentially keeping the complex ecosystem alive on life support. One essential question in Neukom Vivarium is “what makes up an ecosystem?” Dion’s answer to the essential question of “what makes up an ecosystem?” is revealed by providing visitors with magnifying glasses and illustrated field guides featuring the organisms that the viewer is likely to see while gazing at the tree through the lens of the magnifying glass. This is where an attention to details formulate significant meaning within the work of art. Dion engages us to explore and spend quality time with the thriving yet delicate ecosystem that he has preserved. We alternate between our magnifying glasses and our field guides and our attention becomes focused on identifying and observing the various specimens of animal and plant life. We can see the complex communities of insects, lichen, and bacteria living as if they were in their natural habitat. Our attention span is held steadfast by the wonders of the natural environment. Perhaps, during the elongated moment of careful and astute observation, we forget that we’re inside a human made environment and that everything we’re looking at would cease to live if removed from its life support. However, the moment we step back and put down our magnifying glasses, our awareness of the tragic situation comes to light.

If we hadn’t experienced this installation and we were just walking past a dead tree in the forest, would we consider the possibility that there is an abundance of life within the confines of this tree? If we didn’t take the time to scrutinize the tree’s nooks and crannies, we’d likely miss out on the thriving life within the fallen tree. And while it may seem like there is an abundance of other trees surrounding this deceased tree, would we realize that this complex ecosystem, which nature incredibly maintains, is in danger of vanishing before our very eyes due to our civilization’s polluting of the elements (air, water, humidity, and soil) that are needed to sustain all natural life on Earth? The enduring understanding in Dion’s installation is that life cannot sustain itself without the basic elements, which include healthy air, humidity, water, and soil. Once these elements are gone or negatively altered, it will be nearly impossible to get them back. Dion’s work raises our consciousness and awareness about nature’s intricacies and how fragile our natural resources truly are in our hands.

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Alisha Wessler, detail of From Afar It Is An Island (Case 1), 2013,
aqua resin, pigment, cardboard, sodium chloride, wax, clay, fabric, thread, wood, bone, fur, leather, citrus peels, petrified carrot, bird feet, dried kelp, milkweed seed pod, modeling material, foam, glassine envelopes, polystyrene, tissue paper, found hardware, insect pins, iron and wood stands, museum vitrines. Courtesy of the artist.

Another artist whose work requires an elongated attention span is Alisha Wessler. Things are not always what they seem in her intricate constructs, which blur the lines between reality and fantasy, biology and cryptozoology, and fossil and artifact. In order to take in Wessler’s highly detailed work, a viewer needs to exercise a great deal of scrutiny.  For example, Objects and their Doubles (2017) presents tactile objects –such as aqua resin, a plastic umbrella handle, metal rod, wood, flattened pinecone, polymer clay, iron hook, rope, embroidered thread, dental mold, rusted wire, rock, water caltrop (devil pod), leather glove, leather glove tip, steel rod, cholla cactus skeleton, milkweed seedpod, human hair, pigment, dried plant, paper, methyl cellulose, fishing net, fabric, and thread– juxtaposed with the artist’s technical rendering of that same object in watercolor and ink. Similarly to the work of Joseph Kosuth, Wessler employs visual tautology, where representational objects appear the same but are manifested through different materials. At first glance, the eye is tricked into thinking that these materials are not what they seem.

Wessler is very skilled at manipulating materials to make graphite look like lace (Pictures on Surrounding Objects, 2013), and objects like citrus peels, petrified carrots, birds feet, dried kelp, and milkweed seed pods, to resemble ancient relics that could have likely been uncovered during an archeological dig (From Afar It Is An Island [Case I], 2013). If you casually walk by the pedestal or display cases containing her work, you’re likely to miss the hidden properties and characteristics latent within these seemingly inscrutable works of art. If a viewer pays careful attention to all the fine nuances, akin to the way a keen archeologist studies arcane antiquities, they will come to the realization that these ‘artifacts’ are in fact, ordinary objects imbued with novel taxonomies.

Wessler’s artistic process is also very detail and time oriented. In order to manipulate everyday objects into astonishing hybrids, she utilizes an alchemy-like art methodology where materials are ‘cured’ and chemically transformed through dehydration or crystallization (to name a few of the experimental processes Wessler employs), after which they’re further manipulated by more traditional artistic actions like painting, sculpting (additive and reductive), and sewing. Wessler’s big idea is that ordinary objects have extraordinary underlying qualities. Her essential questions include “how can I fuse two opposing elements together to create new and mysterious hybrids?” and “how can materials be manipulated in uncanny ways to express indeterminate dualities?” The enduring understandings are that things are not always what they seem and that artists can create symbolic new meanings and perspectives through an experimental transformation and repurposing of materials.

Throughout the course of this blog, the enormous benefits of creating art have been explored. The multi-dimensional phases of artistic development (mentioned earlier in this post) illustrates how explorations in creating art lead to discoveries and insights, which enable highly significant and personal modes of expression. Because artists always seek big ideas, ask essential questions, and synthesize important ideas and core processes (enduing understandings), creating art makes us life-long learners inside and outside of the classroom or art studio. From the cited examples of artworks by Dion and Wessler, it is evident that viewing art is also largely beneficial to our lives. Studies have shown that spending ample time identifying and articulating the intricate layers and details within works of art improves our cognition, our ability to think critically, and our emotional wellbeing. In an age of 24 hour news cycles and constant burlesque distractions, the benefits of creating, presenting, viewing, and responding to art are seriously needed.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Davis, Ben. “What will art galleries look like in the future?” The Australian, 15 April 2016, https://theartsandeducation.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/2c030-whatwillartgallerieslooklikeinthefuture.pdf.

Davis, Ben. “The Bienal de Sao Paulo Makes a Bold Attempt to Change the Way We Look at Art. Can It Work?” Artnet, 17 Sept. 2018, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/33rd-bienal-de-sao-paulo-1347956.

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.

 

Activating Art and Education for Activism

“Art isn’t functional.” Too often, I hear this statement (or a variation of it) when I engage in a conversation with someone who is outside of the art field. Of course, this statement doesn’t paint a representative image of art’s contribution to our culture. In an era of alternative facts and attacks on culture and education, it is even more important that we set the record straight about how the arts have profound benefits on our development as lifelong creative learners, leaders, and members of democratic communities.

In prior posts, I have explained how in past and present civilizations, art has had a utilitarian role that influences our history, cultural identity, labor, and the ways we communicate and collaborate together. Throughout these posts (see the five links in previous sentence), I have given examples of how artists such as Pablo Helguera, Tanya Aguiñiga, Chloë Bass, Vik Muniz, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Krzysztof Wodiczko (to name a few…refer to previous posts for more!) create works of art that address and engage with communities and diverse populations.

The artist as activist or better yet, the artist as ally, uses a variety of artistic processes to facilitate progressive and pragmatic solutions to complex issues. Mel Chin is one of the most prominent artistic ally’s for environmental and social justice causes. Chin’s multi-disciplinary work has always had political intent, however, he truly began to combine art and activism with Revival Field (1990-1993 and ongoing throughout the United States and Europe), an ecological land artwork realized through a collaboration with agronomist Dr. Rufus Chaney. Revival Field is notable for the interdisciplinary collaboration between an artist and scientist on a major environmental project, which yielded significant scientific results.

The first Revival Field was built within Pig’s Eye Landfill, a State Superfund site in St. Paul, Minnesota that has been severely contaminated by hazardous waste. The soil in the affected area became replete with heavy metals that are detrimental to the natural ecology. The environmental artwork installed at Pig’s Eye Landfill consisted of a partitioned off ‘control area’ encapsulated by a circular chain linked fence where Chin and Dr. Chaney planted hyperaccumulators, a type of plant that absorbs heavy metals and revitalizes the soil. In addition to allowing for the natural ecosystem to rehabilitate itself, Chin and Dr. Chaney discovered that the toxic heavy metals absorbed by the plants were being soaked up through the leaves and stems in their purest forms. Through a process known as “phytoremediation” or “green remediation,” the metal soaked plants were harvested and incinerated in order to recycle the metals.

Revival Field is a great example of how art cannot be neatly defined or declared to be without function. Artists and scientists have many like-minded interests, and the scientific process and artistic process have many similarities. For example, both disciplines seek to explore and represent the human experience in relation to natural phenomena. They each start with a big question or a problem that needs solutions and are not afraid to make bold choices when confronted with the unknown. Scientists and artists both engage in empirical processes and experimentation, whether it is in a studio or a laboratory. Art is a potent way to transform the systematic empirical investigation of observable phenomena (which is quantitative science) into a compelling human experience that makes us feel strongly about issues and reflect upon our values. Chin’s collaboration with Dr. Chaney reflects Joseph Beuys‘ philosophy that everyone can be an artist. So many of today’s problems require thoughtful social and empathetic responses, which are not easily realized by teaching pre-set standards and using quantitative analysis. Artful learning is the key to unleashing the creativity and ingenuity that is needed to make judgements in the absence of rules and be flexible to take on the unexpected circumstances in life. In the educational environment, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) needs to become STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics), because of these aforementioned reasons (and more!).

Another project that Chin initiated called Flint Fit, transforms an ecological crisis into a thriving business and community building initiative. The project was started to address pollution, an overarching issue that strongly affects the daily lives of residents of Flint, Michigan. Flint’s watersheds are extremely devastated due to inadequate water treatment, which resulted in incredibly high levels of lead in the drinking water. As a result, Flint residents have been instructed to use only bottled or filtered water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. This reliance on bottled water has created another environmental crisis: plastic pollution. Flint Fit addresses this issue by organizing groups within the community to collect empty plastic water bottles (residents collected 90,000 bottles over the course of six weeks in the Fall of 2017!), which are then transported to a factory in Greensboro, North Carolina and turned into fabric.

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Flint Fit installation view at Queens Museum, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Michigan native, Tracy Reese, a well-known fashion designer working in New York City, designed an inaugural collection of garments that inspired by water (it’s life-giving properties and power), Flint’s industrious history, and the strength and vitality of the Flint community. The fabric from the recycled plastic bottles was then used by individuals from the commercial sewing program at St Luke N.E.W. Life Center in Flint. The Flint Fit model can provide a sustainable enterprise for the communities as Chin explains:

“A new enterprise can be developed through recycling, design, manufacturing, and retail. As an artist, I see Flint Fit as an art project with diverse engagement as its medium; but it can grow into a design and marketing enterprise on a national level providing a new source of identity, income stream, a shared pride and notoriety of a positive kind for all the players involved.

In the current exhibition Mel Chin: All Over The Place, The Queens Museum poignantly chose to display documentation and the fashion line realized from Flint Fit within a gallery that houses the long-term exhibition From Watersheds to Faucets: The Marvel of New York City’s Water Supply System. The exhibition features an impressive relief map of New York’s water supply system, which was designed for the 1939-40 World’s Fair in order to educate New Yorkers about where the water they use in their homes comes from. This was clearly an astute curatorial decision aimed to increase our environmental awareness and consider the necessary role water plays within our community and in our own personal lives.

Flint Fit is a great example of how art (and fashion) makes bold statements about the human condition and develop mindfulness, positivity, and empathy amongst members of a community. In the educational sphere, students and educators can collaborate on a multidisciplinary art project (bringing together a collective of different departments such as science, math, foreign language, phys ed, etc.) that addresses a school-wide issue in order to develop a collective identity, raise awareness, celebrate a communal pride for the school, and perhaps even fundraise for a charitable cause (such as better/more nutritious lunches, cultural and team-building field trips, or new resources for learning).

So for those of you who were in doubt, do you see now how art and art-centered education is not only functional but a necessity?


Mel Chin: All Over The Place is on view at the Queens Museum through August 12, 2018.

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art – Body, Mind, and the Environment

Art and science are more similar than they are different. Artists and scientists use similar methods or habits of mind such as theory testing (concept/hypothesis, trial and error), flexible purposing (ability to shift aims while working), and weighing alternatives (the ability to see things from multiple perspectives). Furthermore, artists and scientists explore various organic and synthetic materials and change their properties or qualities to create something new. In today’s volatile climate, where science and the humanities are eschewed in favor of ‘alternative facts,’ artists can fight back by presenting awe-inspiring work that unites disciplines such as science, technology, and history. There is a lot of potential for the artist and scientist to collaborate inside and outside of the studio or laboratory. Additionally, when scientific research is presented in the form of an art project (such as Love Motel for Insects), it humanizes the data and communicates an empathetic message that is accessible to everyone in the public sphere.

The common thread between the artists discussed in this post, is their use of organic and inorganic mediums as a vehicle for promoting a conversation about our relationship with the world and our fragile existence within nature. Referencing their knowledge and research of biology, ecology, medical science, climate science, and social history, their artwork is a visual metaphor for the paradoxical conflation of the human made and natural world. Juxtaposing organic materials and phenomena with synthetic art materials and processes, contemporary artists: Vanessa Albury, Nene Humphrey, Kristen Holcomb, and Jordan Eagles, explore the association between the body, mind, and the environment. At large, these works of art present aesthetic reflections of mortality, spirituality, and scientific inquiry.

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Vanessa Albury, Arctic, Future Relics (Distant Mountains), 2016, Selenium-toned Gelatin Silver Print mounted to museum board and wood, 42″ x 32″ x 8″.

Vanessa Albury’s photographs take glacial ice-caps in the Arctic Circle as subject matter. Her series Arctic, Future Relicswhich was realized during a residency in Svalbard, Norway, documents the melting of glaciers due to climate change. The ephemeral essence of these glaciers are memorialized in time through the photographic process. Ghostly in their aesthetic form, these epic photographs capture the essence of these majestic ecological forms throughout the process of decay.

Microscope_Hand Drawing Amygdala from Nene Humphrey on Vimeo.

In her series of layered drawings created by using high-powered microscopes, Nene Humphrey explores the connection between aesthetics and the deep cellular workings of the amygdala where our emotions reside. The resulting images are intimate artistic expressions of our psyche that deals with themes of loss and mourning.

Jordan Eagles ‘paints’ using animal blood mixed with multiple layers of clear resin. His unique style of work came about through rigorous theory testing and trial and error. He incorporates gradations of “aged blood” that create various deep black fields in stages of decomposition and illuminates the consistency and texture of the blood. These abstract works of art can resemble other natural and synthetic imagery such as Rorschach inkblot test patterns, magnified biological cells, and lava. The work explores how we think about our bodies and address issues of mortality.

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Kristin Holcomb, Transformations #81, pigment print, 11.5 x 17.5 inches.

Similarly to Vanessa Albury, Kristin Holcomb observes nature taking its course and captures the transformative process through the lens of her camera. Her abstract photographs are of surfaces of walls after years of being changed by weather, paint, rust, and algae. The walls themselves become complex, organic or synthetic ‘paintings’ with the passing of time. The Transformations series of photographs are about rebirth and the possibility of beauty in destruction.

The aforementioned artists are just a few inspirational examples of how art, science, and technology can have a symbiotic relationship and result in strong inter-disciplinary learning capabilities. Having students reflect and respond to their natural surroundings through art is a good way for them to develop a lifelong thirst for knowledge and become more environmentally and socially conscious.

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art – Art and Ecology

Brandon Ballengée’s Love Motel for Insects and Amy Youngs’ Holodeck for House Crickets are great examples of how contemporary art has the ability to enhance a K-12 curriculum that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) learning. 

Love Motel for Insects (2001-ongoing) is a public art installation raising awareness about local ecosystems by connecting humans and nocturnal anthropods in a symbiotic relationship. The nocturnal insects are attracted by UV lights, creating a performative scene when the sun goes down. These ‘social sculptures’ bring humans and insects together in an intimate setting and offers a unique opportunity to witness tiny and often elusive organisms in action. Ballengée accompanies these installations with talks and workshops for individuals and groups of all ages.

Holodeck for House Crickets from Amy Youngs on Vimeo.

Holodeck For House Crickets (2005) was a whimsical installation that envisioned what life is like for house crickets by re-presenting them in an eco-friendly environment inside of a glass terrarium that simulates the cricket’s desired natural environment. These house crickets were originally bred in a climate-controlled laboratory to be sold in pet stores as food for reptiles. These crickets could not return to their natural environments because the environment outside of the laboratory was not conducive to their wellbeing. Youngs wondered where these domesticated crickets would choose to live if they had the choice and created an interactive installation as a result of her inquiry. Holodeck For House Crickets provides a safe bubble for the crickets to thrive and interact with one another. The artificial and natural setting provided an environment where the house crickets thrived. It also allowed for an intimate viewing experience that raised awareness about the crickets and their role in the environment.

Love Motel for Insects and Holodeck For House Crickets illustrate how we can utilize art in a non-intrusive manner to create something that gives us insight into the natural world. This type of experiential learning develops our thirst for inquiry and empathy for the environment. Visual arts and the sciences focus on making explorations, discoveries, and insights about the world around us. The scientific method and the process that an artist embarks on are not too dissimilar. Both the scientist and the artist establish their subject matter via an inquiry based process. They both research their subject matter extensively, pay close attention to details, make diagrams and sketches, work with a variety of materials (and make something new from existing materials), test their hypothesis (the artist makes studies in the studio while the scientist conducts experiments in the lab), and revise their project(s) as needed. The arts make scientific analysis and data more personal because artistic expression creatively encapsulates the human experience on a social and emotional level. When the two disciplines are combined in the classroom, students develop habits of mind that make them creative problem solvers and innovators while working on an issue that they find value in.

Art educators can effectively collaborate with science educators to create a learning segments that combine the artistic process with the scientific method. For example, looking at work by Brandon Ballengée and Amy Youngs, and studying ecosystems, students can create their own unique eco-art projects that include making aesthetic and hospitable habitats for local wildlife.