Nature’s Classroom

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

Forest schools are a popular pedagogical method and physical educational environment throughout Scandinavian countries. Beginning in Sweden and Denmark during the 1950s, Forest Schools provide students and teachers with the means and experiences to develop strong bonds between themselves and nature. The typical forest school curriculum involves a series of outdoor instruction where students learn how to interact with nature and sustainably become independent and holistic providers for themselves and others. They build knowledge around different types of ecosystems, which is simultaneously incorporated into multidisciplinary learning situations (i.e. learning math, science and language arts from natural phenomena). When I was in eight grade, my class took a trip to Nature’s Classroom, a remote outdoor school where we transcended the traditional classroom setting and worked collaboratively as students and teachers to foster a greater awareness for nature and the role we have in sustaining, preserving and improving our unique world. Hands on inquiry-based experiences supporting food sovereignty, communal living and orienteering, have had an enduring impact on my love and devotion for the great outdoors. To this day, I consider myself to be a lifelong learner outside of traditional classroom walls.

While there are ample opportunities to engage all students and communities through outdoor enrichment, inequity is at the crux of the issue. Sadly, the use of public space and natural environments feels like a privileged discussion to have, due to the fact that so many communities are excluded from utilizing safe outdoor spaces. Browsing maps of urban settings reveals the disparity between availability to public space and socioeconomic class systems. Furthermore, simply having access to parks nearby doesn’t address the fact that there’s implicit and explicit bias around the use and understandings of ecosystems. We need to find a way to make this a human right. Incorporating forest schools as a collaboration between public parks (or community nonprofit green spaces) and public schools is a real possibility if education at large would get the funding it deserves.

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Ana Mendieta, Tree of Life, 1974, color photograph. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, L.L.C. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York and Paris and Alison Jacques Gallery, London.

In regions of the world that face serious consequences with regards to resuming in-person learning, forest schools present one viable option that can uphold physical distancing and promote better health and wellness. Being outdoors has proven to be a more effective and safer environment for mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Besides the health benefits, forest schools have enormous impact on scaffolding students’ appreciation for themselves, each other and the natural world at large. Educating present and future generations to respect, love and care for natural resources is vital in the face of accelerated climate change and habitat loss cause by human’s political, economic and social behavior.

Outdoor learning is replete with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics) benefits, which are important for preparing students to become innovators and critical thinkers both professionally and personally. STEAM is recognized because these disciplines work well concurrently. In the wilderness, natural objects provide myriad ways to explore, discover and make insights that support STEAM subjects. As this blog has consistently argued (see: previous STEAM themed posts), the ‘A’ in STEAM is the binder that holds the other subjects together. Art is everywhere in a world that rewards sensory qualities and social engagement. Art is at once tangible and conceptual. It encompasses both abstract concepts like formalism (the way art is made in terms that are purely visual and/or material) and social and cultural experiences (the artistic process). Nature is full of aesthetic and contextual properties and occurrences that coincide with theories and methodologies in visual art.  Art allows for personal expression and the envelopment of processes that reveal the humanitarian nature within science, technology, math and engineering.

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

I have frequently written about artists who make work that coexists with ecology, while also seeking to educate others about the beauty, as well as the social, emotional and cognitive benefits of understanding the natural world. These artists include Susan Hoenig (see: The Artful Environmentalist), Maren Hassinger (see: Tree of Knowledge), Michael Wang, Alan Sonfist (see: Back to Nature: Learning about ecosystems of the past and building future ecological awareness), Agnes Denes, Joseph Beuys, Mel Chin (see: Activating Art and Education for Activism), Mark Dion (see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art) and Ana Mendieta (see: Chutes and Scaffolds). Each of the aforementioned artists represent practical and expressive ways of re-imagining and heightening our senses to issues concerning the global environment. Beuys (7000 Oaks), Chin (Revival Field), Denes (The Living Pyramid), Dion (Neukom Vivarium), Sonfist (Time Landscape) and Wang (Extinct in New York) each created works of art that seek to recuperate and re-imagine contemporary (largely urban) landscapes in a manner that reflects thriving wildernesses of the past. Hassinger (Pink Trash), Mendieta (Tree of Life) and Hoenig (Ecological Leaf Sculptures) collaborate with existing natural structures by including their own aesthetic flair. In Mendieta’s case it is her own body and in Hassinger and Hoenig’s practices, it is a light manipulation or transformation of found objects to create site-specific installations that bring awareness to the prowess and complexity of natural forms.

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Mary Mattingly, Core, 2020, living sculpture. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Artful explorations towards addressing issues like climate change, deforestation and pollution, result in insights that have ramifications on multidisciplinary learning (the STEM subjects). When Mel Chin collaborated with Dr. Rufus Chaney, USDA’s senior research agronomist, they discovered a breakthrough in the practice of soil remediation. When Mary Mattingly created Swale and Core (see: Down to Earth: Extraordinary STEAM Learning), she utilized techniques and principles from engineering, mathematics and science to address food sovereignty and soil and water safety. Education via the outdoors is a way for individuals to acquire a multitude of social and professional skills, while partaking in embodied experiences that help shape their perception about themselves, their peers and their environment. We all are subjected to the effects of climate change, which include the rise in pandemics. It would behoove educational policy makers, school boards and administrators to consider safe alternatives to physical school environments, especially by advocating for scenarios that involve collaborative opportunities where students can achieve positive outdoor experiences. The outdoor environment should be seen as a place that encourages, motivates, engages and inspires playful and serious learning, relationships and insights. We should all have opportunities to safely enjoy the fruits of natural knowledge that blossoms in nature’s classroom.

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 to transform 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 in Franklin 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 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 common trees, 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 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 natural resources that we rely on each day. Whether it is because we are uniformed or indifferent, 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 will 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 relationship to it, art can evoke empathetic responses to the impact of ecological issues and the effect that it has on us all.

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.

Artful Nurturing

Nature has a unique way of creatively making its mark. Examples can be seen via the intricate lines, shape and harmony of the spider’s web, or the heavy impasto texture and abstract sculptural form of mound building termite’s hills.

Although humans have learned by observing natural phenomena for centuries, our ability to design beyond the limits of our genetic construction has led to the creation of cultural movements such as visual art, music, film and literature. While our collective culture has developed artistically and created a whole new world through new media like the internet and virtual reality, some artists have reflected back upon natural phenomena and explored patterns between our materialized environment and the innate behaviors of the animal and plant kingdoms.

The artist Martin Roth created work in collaboration with wildlife. Through a process that combined laboratory science and studio art, Roth nurtured living organisms in sterile or manufactured settings. Roth studied painting for his MFA, but came to realize that the pigments on the canvas weren’t enough of a vessel for the potent energy he desired to create. So he chose organic matter as his medium. He asserted that “by working with something that was living, changing, growing, I felt like there was actual energy in the work” (Rachel & Roth, 2017).

For example, one of Roth’s works is a ‘drawing’ that is simultaneously a habitat for worms. The worms have taken residency inside of a glass frame and as they move through the soil lines, shapes and values manifest. While Roth turned the traditional technique of drawing on its head, his work still adheres to the enduring aesthetic notions of artistic composition. Roth painted, sculpted and drew by employing a push and pull between artificial and natural materials and subject matter. Roth’s work grows over time, its properties change and it either evolves or comes to an end. It imitates life itself.

 

Roth played with the grid, a time-honored compositional framework in Western art, with his installation titled In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets. The basis behind this work was that a basement (inside the Austrian Cultural Forum New York) full of lavender plants arranged in a compact grid, would grow as a result of Twitter rants from Donald Trump and other inflammatory agitators. As Trump and other blowhards angrily tweeted (and were re-tweeted), the intensity of the fluorescent lights got brighter and the plants grew bigger. The artwork provided a cathartic release from the tension of current events and sociocultural turmoil. The lavender plant symbolizes a direct contrast to the vitriol of the ferocious rants. Lavender is used in horticultural therapy to offer relief from anxiety and depression. The burgeoning rows of lavender, with their colorful hues and sweet fragrance, offered a counterbalance to the stressful and bleak moments society manufactures. 

The concept of nurturing human cognition and emotion through creative play with materials is also a major concept of Kindergarten pedagogy. The foundation of Kindergarten, which was developed by Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, combines children’s innate and learned abilities, in order to scaffold their growth into the adult world. Fröbel’s Kindergartens combined both organic activities such as gardening and dancing with human manufacturing and technology, which culminated through his series of ‘gifts’ (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). This methodology is largely incorporated today, especially in Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools.

The duality between inborn knowledge and experiential learning was significantly addressed by two of the foremost figures in developmental psychology: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. These are the two contributed fundamental insights into how our minds develop. Piaget asserted that cognition comes about through set stages, while Vygotsky proclaimed that development is continual.  If you have ever heard the phrase ‘nature versus nurture,’ it is basically an abstract that describes the differences in both phychologist’s theories. We now have come to largely accept that these theories are both valid and should be fused together to develop educational curricula and make judgements regarding social, emotional and cognitive learning.

Art educator Judith Burton (2000), argues that young minds develop through both individual and cultural experience. She suggests that art is an effective method of communicating the complex nature of the living environment. We all have an inclination to make our mark on the world. Without any prior references, the earliest humans developed an archetypal visual vocabulary, where similar marks and symbols have been found in locations thousands of miles apart. This shows how expression and symbolic communication is a natural response to the human condition.

Through combining a personalized artistic style and using their culturally formed and learned experiences, a child can create their own profound mark within humanity. Burton claims that this reason is why both the child-centered notion of mind informing art education and the belief in laissez-faire teaching are inadequate. It is not ‘nature versus nurture,’ but rather both working in tandem that lets the child be liberated to think and create compelling visual narratives. The research of Piaget and Vygotsky and its updated scrutiny by Burton, signify that it is a combination of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ that account for a person’s development. In other words, while we all have the natural ability to learn and develop, how we perceive the world largely depends on our experience, environment and education (Zucker, 2018).

Through reflecting on the elements of nature and nurture in Roth’s art, we can discover a lot about ourselves and the ways we are both in-tune and out of touch with our natural environment and each other.


This post is dedicated to Martin Roth who passed away at the age of 41 on June 14, 2019.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Burton, Judith. (2000). “The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited.” Studies in Art Education, 17-32.

Rachel, T. Cole and Roth, Martin. “Martin Roth on collaborating with nature.” The Creative Independent, 30 Nov. 2017. https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/martin-roth-on-collaborating-with-nature/

Putting Art Education on the Map

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Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) from atop Rozel Point, in mid-April 2005.

Geography is the study of people, places, things, and the environment. Geographers, the practitioners of geography, scrutinize the relationship between natural and synthetic environments. Geography is akin to art because both disciplines seek to communicate humanity’s reciprocal relationship with the world. While geography uses data and research methods to study people, places, things, and natural phenomena, artists use symbolic expression to humanize these aforementioned relationships. Because the environment and its impact on both perception and culture has enormous effects on the way we communicate, environmental geography has inspired artistic movements of the past such as the Hudson River School, as well as the contemporary Land Art zeitgeist.

The Hudson River School painters were so taken with the pristine landscape of the mid-19th century Hudson Valley (in New York state) that they captured its glory and essence within their large oil paintings. These paintings visualize a unique moment in time as observed and experienced by the artists themselves. The motive of the artists from the Hudson River School was to symbolically depict their discovery and exploration of the natural scenery surrounding the cities and towns that had been settled in the relatively young United States of America. They also wanted to show the possibilities for humans and nature to coexist in an era that was experiencing rapid industrialization and development (of course, this was somewhat of a false modesty since the indigenous Native Americans were already achieving this prior to the arrival of European colonists).

While there were stylistic elements in the paintings by Hudson River School artists (such as color, line, scale, and texture) that they enhanced for dramatic effect (after all, the movement was inspired by the highly idealized and subjective style of 18th and 19th Century Romanticism), a glimpse of Thomas Cole’s painting A View of Two Lakes, And Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning (1844), and a photograph of North South Lake from 2018 by avid Hudson Valley and Catskills hiker Brian Paul, shows that the scenery featured in Cole’s painting is largely intact to this day. This is one example of  how geographically themed art from the past can inform us about the similarities and differences between the civilizations of the past and present. In some cases, the environment has changed so drastically that renderings from the past are nearly unrecognizable today. For example, the way that historical artists such as William Merritt Chase and Henry Gritten depicted the Gowanus Bay (namesake to the contemporary Gowanus Canal) in New York City compared with contemporary works of art by Steven Hirsch and Sto Len, reflect the alarming effects of human made pollution (due to unregulated industry that began shortly after Chase and Gritten painted their depictions of the bay), which resulted in the Gowanus Canal becoming a designated Superfund site. While landscapes depict natural geography, cityscapes portray the communities that humans have designed constructed. The social emotional role that cityscapes play in our relationship and experience with the world around us has been described in a previous post, citing examples of artwork by Romare Bearden and Martin Wong.

Land art is a conceptual public art movement that started in the 1960’s and 70’s with an aim to direct art’s focus back to the natural environment. Just like the Hudson River School painters, land artists wanted to create bold forms of visual expression that would inspire awe and interest in nature and present a stark contrast to the urban and industrial scenes prevalent throughout the modern world. While there are no strict stylistic guideline’s for defining the movement, the common theme has been the use of natural materials found in situ to create large scale works of art that transform the landscape of remote geographical locations. Artists like Robert Smithson, whose landmark land artwork, Spiral Jetty (1970), exists on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah. The massive sculpture was constructed entirely from mud, basalt rock, salt crystals, and water. In other words, Smithson created the entire 15 foot wide work of art from the natural materials on site. Because the sculpture protrudes out into Great Salt Lake, it is periodically covered by water (although recent droughts have made its visibility more prominent) and subjected to natural elements, which can potentially cause its physical deterioration (or destruction). The work of art is currently maintained by Dia Foundation whose ongoing mission is to preserve the sculpture, which is threatened due to both natural and human made reasons. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty has become a major tourist destination for art lovers and interested travelers alike. It has even been added to geographical maps of the region and declared by the state of Utah to be its official artwork. 

Although self declared as not being land artists, Husband and wife artist duo, Christo and Jean-Claude, have artfully raised awareness for the natural environment by encircling and covering natural and physical objects in brightly hued fabric or other materials. For example, their project Surrounded Islands, emphasized the geographical location of eleven islands within Biscayne Bay in Greater Miami, Florida by forming a bright pink outline around each island. The floating pink fabric surrounding each land mass highlighted the islands’ tropical flora, the array of colors noticeable in the water of Biscayne Bay, and visual effects of the Floridian sky. As a result of Christo and Jean-Claude’s creative endeavor, forty tons of garbage was removed from within the eleven islands.

While Christo and Jean-Claude’s Land Art installations have all been ephemeral, the impactful qualities of each project have culminated in a longstanding dialogue regarding environmental conservation and cultural identity. While some critics applauded the couple for their contributions to environmental and cultural awareness (See: Fineberg, 2004; Galloway, 1995), others have highlighted the controversy their projects have caused among some groups living in the region where Christo and Jean-Claude’s work was proposed and/or displayed.  The conversation regarding the merit of Christo and Jean-Claude’s work is a fine example of how geographical regions are made up of a diverse range of individuals with a variety of opinions on culture, aesthetics, and the environment. Christo and Jean-Claude’s work is crucial to the conversation regarding what outcomes public art should account for in relationship to the people and the physical spaces where the work is installed. In other words, is the project beneficial to the people and the environment that encompass the geographic location where a public artist(s) chooses to work?

This brings us to the concept of placemaking and the public artist’s responsibility for addressing cultural geography in an empathetic and mindful way. A good example of a successful public art project that brought the public together in a positive way, is Wrapped Reichstag by Christo and Jean-Claude. In addition to working with the natural environment, Christo and Jean-Claude have employed their signature style of aesthetic wrapping over human-made geographical landmarks such as Germany’s Reichstag. After planning Wrapped Reichstag for over twenty years, the duo finally put their plan to action on June 24, 1995. The wrapping of this historic building  was a cathartic expression in light of Germany’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The building’s geographical location, just meters from the wall that divided Germany in two, provided a poignant symbolic metaphor of a country that suffered from political, cultural, and social emotional schizophrenia during and in the immediate wake of the Cold War. By wrapping the building in a manner that resembled the way we wrap presents, the artists re-presented the Reichstag to the German people signifying a celebratory moment in their history. The response to the public artwork was overwhelmingly positive with large crowds of German citizens (former citizens of East and West Germany) gleefully gathering around the site during the project’s construction and throughout its display.

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Justin Blinder, Vacated, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Artists such as Paula Scher and Justin Blinder have also creatively utilized geography to address social, economic, and political concerns. Paula Scher’s painted maps of the United States employ elements of art and principals of design such as color, line, and typography to communicate a wide degree of information such as local population, real estate costs, demographics, voting trends, political affiliations, transportation systems, and weather patterns. Scher’s maps are replete with information, but there is a very personal element to each large scale painting. This is evident in the blatant gestural marks and painterly like textures, which emphasize Scher’s personal emotional response to the data being presented. There is provocative political commentary within many of the social, economic, and environmentally themed maps, where it is clear through the expressionistic painting style that Scher feels a sense of urgency to address and raise our awareness to these issues. Overall, these maps, which also include the durations of driving from city to city, time zones and area codes, afford us a wealth of different perspectives for understanding our vastly diverse Nation.

Justin Blinder’s Vacated series (2013) addresses the rapid and turbulent changes to neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan by documenting the process of gentrification using a cache of images collected through Google Street View. About his process, which is a combination of data mining, computer programing, and geographic mapping, Blinder stated:

Vacated reverse engineers Google Street View to highlight the changing landscape of various neighborhoods throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. The project finds cached, historic images of New York City hiding in plain sight on Google Street View. These images are algorithmically extracted by merging the Department of City Planning’s PLUTO dataset with Google Street View, and searching for all properties that have been altered or constructed since Google Street View began (2007.)”

In the GIF image above, Blinder depicts a vacant lot and adjacent family homes turn into a massive luxury condo on the corner of McGuinness Blvd. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The drastic transformation from small multifamily homes and mom and pop storefronts into impersonal looking condos with chain retailers is both visually and emotionally stirring. One of the negative effects of gentrification is that it negates a neighborhood’s architectural character by favoring bland and uniform residential towers over historic architecture. Additionally, gentrification displaces many longtime residents who contributed to the fabric of their neighborhood for generations, which greatly shifts a neighborhood’s demographics and culture.

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Guadalupe Maravilla, Requiem for my border crossing and Tripa Chuca on view at The Whitney Museum. Photograph by Adam Zucker

In addition to documenting and expressing their relationship to world around them, artists, being creative and visionary people, might also choose create imagined geography. For example, Guadalupe Maravilla’s series of collaborative drawings called Requiem for my border crossing were realized through a collaboration between the El Salvador born artist and undocumented U.S. immigrants engaging in the popular Salvadoran game called Tripa Chuca (translation: dirty guts),where players each take turns drawing lines paper. The rule of the game is that these lines can not intersect. The fantastical drawings in Requiem for my border crossing were inspired by maps from a 16th Century Aztec codice that documents the indigenous peoples called the Toltec and Chichimec, who lived in areas that make up modern day Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Using the maps in the codice as a starting point, Maravilla and his collaborators embarked in a symbolic dialogue between historical and contemporary experiences of cultural identity and immigration. Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Ville Fantôme (1996) is a scale model of an idealized cityscape featuring references to a variety of the world’s civilizations, which the artist describes as “a peaceful city where everybody is free. It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life. It’s a melting pot of all the races in the world. Here you live in a paradise, just like heaven.” With global civilization in a constant state of flux and turmoil, envisioning a better and more unified world has been a key component of many artists’ practice.

Because geography and art are both disciplines that contextualize human experience within the world, it is beneficial they are presented in a way that has profound consequences for lifelong learning. An art-centered geography curriculum should promote understanding, communication, and connectivity across borders and state lines (also discussed in a previous post called Transcending Boundaries, which cites the work of Tanya Aguiñiga and AMBOS). It should seek to express and depict unique visions that celebrate local and global communities and preserve our shared natural resources.

Through a variety of independent and collaborative projects, students can harness the power of art to become emerging geographers and community development planners. An example of a project would be to have students design their own unique neighborhood maps, based on their experiences, prior knowledge, and research on their own communities (an overarching theme within this unit is think locally act globally). For inspiration, students can be shown Romare Bearden’s The Block, Martin Wong’s La Vida, and Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Ville Fantôme. Students should describe what they see, identify the types of people and buildings that make up the compositions, and judge whether the depiction is realistic, imagined, or a mix of the two. Next, they can discuss the information saturated maps of Paula Scher and Justin Blinder’s Vacated project. Students should be prompted to describe their neighborhood in terms of its resources (or lack thereof) and elaborate on whether they’ve noticed any social, economic, or environmental changes.

Students will then be asked to discuss what community means to them, brainstorm several ideas about what makes a good community, and be given a homework assignment to interview people within their own communities in order to find out what others think the epitome of a good community should encompass. During studio time, Students will re-imagine their neighborhood in a highly personalized manner, which reflects what they believe represents a good community. Taking the role of a community development planner, students will create 2D paper collage maps of their neighborhoods that incorporates their needs and interests and the interests and needs of their neighbors. They can include whatever else they think would make their neighborhood collectively better, such as parks, public plazas, restaurants, better infrastructure (such as public transportation and bike paths), or quality affordable housing. This project can also be extended to incorporate 3D paper attachments in order to make scale models of the maps they have designed. Students will present upon why they believe they have improved their neighborhood for themselves and the other people who live there. 

In order to maintain and repair the natural environment, and make communities more equitable and sustainable, it will take a great deal of pragmatic knowledge along with outside the box thinking. The practical knowledge acquired from learning geography in tandem with the innovative processes and empathy learned from the arts, might just inspire generations of students to become stewards of their world.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Davis, Ben. 2018. “Congolese Artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Most Ambitious Work Is an Intricate Dream City. Here’s How to Understand It.” Artnethttps://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/bodys-isek-kingelez-1308167

Fineberg, Jonathan. 2004. Christo and Jeanne-Claude: On the Way to The Gates: Central Park, New York City. Yale University Press: New York.

Galloway, David. 1995) “Packaging the Past.” Art in America. 83. 86-89, 133.

Marshall, Julia & David M. Donahue. 2014. Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom. Teacher’s College Press: New York.

 

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.