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.

Weaving together history, experience and STEAM based learning

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Soft Monitor (Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman), C O M P U T E R 1.0. Courtesy of Soft Monitor.

Soft Monitor is an art, science, technology and engineering initiative exploring how to divert the detrimental effects of ‘screen time’ and make digital media more holistic. The endeavor is a collaboration between Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman, who each have backgrounds in arts-centered research, and provide aesthetically captivating insights into how technology informs our social, cultural and cognitive experiences. Through a materials based exploration into themes including computing and interpersonal communication, Soft Monitor’s multidisciplinary artwork personalizes the oft-impersonal nature of being immersed and reliant upon technology. The duo’s work is supported by a Materials-Based Research grant from the Center for Craft, which “encourages mutually-beneficial collaboration between craft and the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

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A 19th century Jacquard loom with information punch cards at the National Museum of Scotland. The programmable loom inspired Manganiello and Goldman’s 21st century C O M P U T E R 1.0. Photo by Stephencdickson.

Manganiello and Goldman began working together in 2017. Their inaugural project is a large-scale multimedia installation called C O M P U T E R 1.0, which addresses the intersection of art, math, science and history. The artwork is a massive handwoven textile, created using hollow polymer tubing and natural fiber thread. A series of pigmented liquid, oil and air pixels are pumped into the tubes in a sequence that is programmed from data dictated by motion sensors, computer-controlled valves, air compressors and pumps. When the artwork is activated, it forms a compelling visual pattern that is meant to operate as a lo-fi computer display. Its ancient, natural materials and techniques juxtapose contemporary digital technologies, telling an open-ended story of technology’s successes, failures, promises and deceptions.

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C O M P U T E R 1.0 on Vimeo. Courtesy of Soft Monitor.

C O M P U T E R 1.0 pays homage to the craft-based origins of contemporary computing. In 1801, a French master silk weaver named Joseph Marie Jacquard, developed the first programmable loom known simply as the Jacquard loom or the Jacquard machine. The loom’s design and programmable function was an inspiration for the production of additional programmable machines, including a seminal digital compiler that IBM utilized in their construction of the modern day computer. Jacquard’s invention helped lead the industrial revolution, which shifted the prerequisite of manual labor from skilled artisans –including master weavers– to an automated workforce that didn’t require highly trained and technical labor. Unfortunately, the arts, which were integral to daily life, faced an existential crisis within the public’s perception from thereon in. On a grand scale, it seems more desirable and convenient to produce and consume mass produced objects than to devote the time and experiential knowledge necessary to design and craft quality goods. The problem with this ideology is that it is detrimental to our creative development. This thinking has led to the lack of art educational offerings in schools and the defunding of the arts in general.

When we reduce honing specific skills, techniques and creative processes in favor of mass produced objects, we become less creative and more dependent on imported and exported labor. This way of life significantly impacts our critical thinking skills and  autonomy. Social anthropologist, Tim Ingold, states that we ‘think through making’ (Ingold, 2015). Through explorations with materials, we web together a series of experiences that lead to a mindful interaction with our cognition and the materials and environment around us. During that moment of making, we gain insight to phenomena through experiential improvisations using different materials and techniques. Thinking through making is the crux of Fröbel’s Kindergarten, the Reggio Emilia approach and Montessori education (see: Penfold, 2019). Each of these early childhood learning methods focus on student-centered learning, where relationship driven environments afford the child a path towards self-directed and empirical learning. Students are given a liberal offering of materials and allowed the freedom to explore, discover and make insightful connections that are relevant to their daily lives. This freedom, accompanied with the instructional scaffolding and motivation from educators, provides a continuum of discourse around a student’s experience and provides a visual process for building upon observations in a collaborative environment. The aforementioned mindset and methodology was consistently supported in pedagogical circles until World War II, when the arms and space races made STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Education the focus of K-12 and higher educational curricula. As Sterling and Burke (1997) reflected, the relationship between the arts and technology faltered in the period following World War II. More local and national funds were allocated for STEM subjects in schools, starting with the 1958 National Defense Education Act (see: Jolly, 2009). Art education has further suffered from stringent sociopolitical policies like the No Child Left Behind act, which results in teachers having to “teach to the test” in order to have their students pass required standardized exams.  The focus on assessment through quantitative data means less funding or the outright cutting of arts education in schools across the United States. In recent history, the arts have been propelled back into educational frameworks, as a component of the STEM curriculum because of its recognized benefits on facilitating student inquiry, critical thinking, interpersonal dialogue and social engagement (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits).

The resurgent relationship between art, technology, science, engineering and mathematics within formal and informal education is not surprising. Combined, these disciplines have advanced many important social, cultural and economic breakthroughs. Throughout the decades before and after the industrial revolution, art was an important subject for students to learn in primary, secondary and university settings. In previous posts, I have described how the arts were historically seen as a counterbalance to the dehumanization of the worker in light of industrialization (see: Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World). As John Ruskin, the leading Victorian era cultural critic, aptly put it: “Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality.” Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest proponents for art education to be included in the Colonial school curriculum. Art educational courses in early American schools generally concentrated on teaching creative skills that could be useful in designing modern architecture and industrial mechanisms. Specialized trade schools, designed to incorporate artistic techniques and artisan principles that promoted valued craftsmanship, were established for industrial laborers. Vocational training prior to World War II was known as “industrial arts,” and recognized the importance of artistic development as a means to develop “a mutual understanding of the importance of process in the creation of a product, an appreciation of elaborate sequencing, a valuing of cooperative teamwork in project oriented work, an acknowledgment of the value of uniqueness and adaptation as contrasted to rigid conformity and a mutual respect for the concrete and the visual as well as the abstract and the conceptual ” (Sterling & Burke, 1997). The symbiotic relationship between the arts and skilled utilitarian labor is a major component of the digital age, with artists and collectives like Soft Monitor, who are providing innovative and critical designs to respond sustainably and creatively to sociocultural and environmental issues.

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Soft Monitor, C O M P U T E R 1.0. Courtesy of the artists.

In today’s digitally saturated culture, C O M P U T E R  1.0, “seeks to function as a historical lens that asks us to make inquiries into how our relationship to computing technology has been fraught with juxtaposed promises of utopian and dystopian futures, while the reality consistently finds itself somewhere in between.” An essential question that the artists pose through their work is: “are we better off since the advent of programming and sophisticated technological automation?” C O M P U T E R 1.0 prompts our collective conscious to recall and observe the myriad ways our society has been dealing with a digital existentialism. According to the artists,  “C O M P U T E R  1 . 0  is the physical display of the eternally uncertain potential of technology.”

C O M P U T E R 1.0 also seeks to operate as a prototype for a digital display screen that would be more beneficial to our bodies and minds than the current screens on our smartphones, tablets and computers. Most of us spend a significant amount of time enveloped by the artificial blue light that our screens emit (see: Heiting, 2017). This blue light has negative impacts on our physical and mental well-being, interfering with everything from sleep to creativity (see: Ruder, 2019). In light of our technological conditioning, Soft Monitor aims to utilize the physical and emotional lightness and comfort of textiles in a manner that could function as a personalized display screen. They are doing this by minimizing the use of blue light in favor of a screen constructed entirely from soft, natural and ancient materials such as flax, water and air. The artists intend to use both simple and intricate woven patterns to project images and text from their textile display screen.

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Soft Monitor (Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman). Courtesy of the artists.

I recently spoke with Victoria Manganiello about her STEAM-centered explorations and how collaborating with experts in other disciplines (like science, technology and engineering) has informed her work as a solo artist and as part of Soft Monitor. I wanted to know how working in a multidisciplinary artistic duo has influenced her own expertise, knowledge and comfort in subjects outside of the arts; and whether she feels it is necessary and beneficial for the arts to be included in projects that have scientific or technological objectives.

She began by stating that “As a visual artist, I have always found inspiration in the science, technology and engineering fields and in particular, from their histories.” She is especially interested in the contributions that women have made to textiles that had an impact in diverse fields including medicine, agriculture, fashion, art and space travel; and is working on a documentary series, called Woman Interwoven, which explores and presents the stories and multifaceted identities of women through their craft-based practices.

As for scaffolding inspiration, knowledge and personal growth through collaboration, she elaborates that “I’ve learned about circuitry, biology, chemistry, and engineering while working with collaborators and those things have in turn informed other projects. And while I’m still an amateur at best in those disciplines, I have had some opportunities to try them in real life which might be an experience unique to an artist. And perhaps, not knowing what I don’t know has given me an optimism that’s led to an innovation only available to a novice.”

Manganiello’s philosophy regarding art’s benefits on learning and exploring other subjects is a great quote to conclude with. She expressed, “For me, art is a way for us to understand the experience of individuals as a way to understand larger phenomena in our societies and environments. If we can make other disciplines artful, that might mean connecting them to lived experiences. I think that would at least make the STEM disciplines more interesting or accessible to learners but further, it will make them more ‘human’ and perhaps allow us to understand their uses for good and betterment. For example, if when I had learned about electricity in grade school I was shown a project like The Knitted Radio by Ebru Kurbak and Irene Posch, I might have been able to both understand the concepts with more clarity, be offered the precedent as an opportunity to see myself actually applying them, and a reason to use something like electricity to connect with humanity.”


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Heiting, Gary OD. “Blue light: It’s both bad and good for you.” All About Vision, November 2017. https://www.allaboutvision.com/cvs/blue-light.htm

Ingold, Tim. 2015.Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Jolly, Jennifer L. “The National Defense Education Act, Current STEM Initiative, and the Gifted” Gifted Child, 32 (2) Spring 2009. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ835843.pdf

Penfold, Louisa. “Five key early childhood educators! A post for parents.” Art. Play. Children. Learning, 27 May 2019. http://www.louisapenfold.com/five-key-early-childhood-educators/

Ruder, Bradley Debra. “Screen Time and the Brain.” Harvard Medical School News, 19 June 2019. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/screen-time-brain

Sterling, Carol. & Burke, Fred G. “Vocational Education and the Arts Education: An Important Synergy.” Counterfocus, n17 Apr 1997.

Wien, Carol Anne, et al. 2011. Learning to Document in Reggio Inspired Education. ECRP, 13 (2).

Art Education in an Age of Social Distancing

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Art critic Andrew Russeth (@AndrewRusseth) has been making astute connections between contemporary artworks and the current sociocultural situation on Twitter. The image is from a performative activation of Franz Erhard Walther’s Werksatz (Workset) 2008.

By its very nature, engaging in art, whether making, teaching, viewing or discussing, is a social and embodied action. Therefore, in the wake of numerous art museums and schools temporarily shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many professionals are largely left in uncharted territory as to how they can maintain their work in light of significant disruptions to their everyday practices.

Thankfully, the World Wide Web is replete with resources and peer support groups full of experiential learners who are all going through this together. Below are some resources that should be helpful for a wide range of art educators who are faced with the daunting task of transforming a highly interpersonal and hands-on pedagogy into an online curriculum.  Since online teaching is not often taught in traditional art educational programs, it is necessary to learn from the experiences of others who have a prior history and acumen for online pedagogy.

The first resource I would like to share with you is a publication by two academic technology specialists called “Teaching Effectively During Times of Disruption.” This guidebook from Jenae Cohn and Beth Seltzer, is intended to provide educators with tools and methodologies for harnessing virtual resources so that they can transform and scaffold their traditional classroom experience within a thriving online environment. The next resource is a great example of an online instructional platform called Art Prof, which makes the transfer of art education an equal and equitable experience.

Art Prof  has specifically been developed for artists and educators to interact remotely on a global scale. Founded by seasoned artists and educators, Art Prof features video tutorials for students to learn technique and skill building, as well as live critique sessions, where students are mentored by a team of experienced art teachers. In fulfilling their mission of “removing barriers that exist due to the cost of higher ed & private classes,” the site is completely free. Below is a link to a YouTube video by Art Prof’s co-founder, Clara Lieu, providing five examples of effective methods for teaching studio art online:

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Social media platforms are being utilized by educators as a technology driven way of facilitating the creation and sharing of ideas, career interests and other forms of expression through virtual communities and networks (see: Obar and Wildman, 2015). The premise of the Facebook group “How the hell do we do this? Teaching Visual Art Online” is simple. It consists of “a bunch of Art Educators trying to make their way through teaching their disciplines online through a pandemic!” Upon joining the group, you will be able to write and read posts from colleagues in the field of art education who are seeking and finding ways to successfully teach their primary, secondary and higher education students remotely.

Individual artists like Allie Olson have also taken to social media in order to provide accessible and engaging content for learners who are stuck at home. Olson, a visual artist who lost her restaurant job due to the pandemic, started Allieville, a series of daily web-based participatory learning videos for young kids. Allie makes learning fun and developmentally appropriate, through a unique blend of somatic and social and emotional learning.

As any of my readers know, I am a firm believer that the arts have a significant and transformative impact on living, learning and loving. However, artistic engagement shouldn’t come at the price of putting the community at risk. I strongly agree with the decisions that numerous museums, galleries and schools have made to close temporarily, in order to deal with the growing health crisis (as a consolation, you can still visit some of these art institutions virtually). As you have hopefully seen via the aforementioned resources, there are many ways to engage in being artful while practicing social distancing. Ultimately these methods should be learned and developed experientially, and alongside individuals who have prior knowledge and experience being artfully remote and coaching others to do so as well.

Above all else, please practice self-care and be empathetic and aware of the needs of those in your community who are struggling and are more vulnerable than you. Be well and be kind. Help out in any way that you can. Even in practicing social distancing, we can draw ourselves close to each other and meaningfully persevere as local and global communities (as seen in various heartwarming videos of quarantined Italian citizens engaging in collaborative creative activities).


Note: I have setup a page that will continually be updated with a list of resources for making, viewing, presenting and responding to art remotely. Included, is a Google Document I created with lesson plans, materials and ideas for educators and home-school teachers to utilize with their students in remote settings. 


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cohn, Jenea and Seltzer, Beth. “Teaching Effectively During Times of Disruption.” Accessed 12 March 2020 https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ccsudB2vwZ_GJYoKlFzGbtnmftGcXwCIwxzf-jkkoCU/preview?fbclid=IwAR3gncmQOKP2ET_XrdzuLrzRuTSZerl5TxY1oc-6t2OvJ5jsAogMSINpxnE#heading=h.npxreacymcxf

Obar, Jonathan A.; Wildman, Steve. “Social media definition and the governance challenge: An introduction to the special issue”. Telecommunications Policy. 39 (9), 2015. pp. 745–750.

Down to Earth: Extraordinary STEAM Learning

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

Visualizing the cosmos and our own Earthly phenomena has been a hotbed for artistic thinking and learning since the earliest forms of human expression. From making representational associations of celestial bodies (constellations) to designing sustainable interactive environments (Eco-art, land art, etc), art has been a key element to the exploration and understanding of our natural and metaphysical world. Through a combination of imagination, resourcefulness, experimentation and technology, massive and mystifying issues like cosmology and the Anthropocene are contextualized into tangible visions that have potential to impact viewers on a social and emotional level.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artful Equations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Artful Environmentalist

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

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

Hoenig’s artistic practice is environmentally sustainable, which is an essential solution to the ecological problems that confront a materials-based artist. Making art has many social, emotional and cognitive benefits for individuals, but the media used to create art can have negative outcomes on the environment if not treated properly or sourced sustainably. Hoenig uses organic materials 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/

Artful Qualitization: Ecotones

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Installation view of Meghann Riepenhoff: Ecotone
© Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Meghann Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes prints combine the physicality and symbolic nature of art making in conjunction with Mother Nature’s expressive forces. This collaboration is an awe-inspiring presentation of the clash between environmental cycles and humanity. The cyanotypes are reactions to changing environments due to human interaction and other forces. The prints are part artistic exploration and part scientific experimentation. They are qualitative interpretations of the quantitative data and scientific analysis that measure weather patterns, natural cycles and humanity’s environmental impact.

Riepenhoff’s choice of medium and materials are in dialogue with the past and present fields of aesthetics and science. Cyanotypes are well suited for studying the living environment, as well as producing works of art. Invented in the early-mid 19th century, the alternative photographic process was popularized by Anna Atkins, a botanist and photographer from England. Atkins utilized cyanotypes as a way to document the intricacies of plants and other natural objects by combining her astute eye as a photographer with her knowledge of plant taxonomy. She printed limited edition books of her prints, including Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (October, 1843), which is considered to be the first book illustrated with photographs.

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Installation view of Meghann Riepenhoff: Ecotone
© Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes offer a potent representation of the stress we put on our environment in an alluring and artful manner. For example, Littoral Drift #1170 (Polyptych, Great Salt Lake, UT 08.25.18, Lapping Waves at Shoreline of Antelope Island) was created by placing a sheet of paper prepared with cyanotype chemistry on the shoreline of the south side of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which is experiencing record low water levels. The Great Salt Lake is divided by a causeway built in the 1950s by the Morrison-Knudsen construction company for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The causeway has restricted the flow of the water between the north and south sides, making levels of salinity uneven and affecting wildlife such as the brine shrimp population. The two sides of the lake are notably different colors and altogether the lake is characterized as an ecotone, which is defined as a region of transition where two or more distinct biological habitats abut. Riepenhoff juxtaposed the south shoreline print with works made on the opposite side of the lake, to symbolize the aesthetic difference in each region’s water composition. This process is akin to the scientific method where systematic observation and measurement are used to test a theory, in this case: what is the difference in water quality on opposite sides of the Great Salt Lake due to its status as an ecotone?

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Erasure #4 (Bainbridge Island, WA 03.24.18, .23” Precipitation), 2018
Dynamic Cyanotype
Approximately 89” x 42” (226 x 106.5 cm)
© Meghann Riepenhoff, Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Riepenhoff also explores the aesthetic and vigorous qualities of storm water in another series of cyanotypes called Erasures. These prints are made when the storm runoff hits the prepared cyanotype paper. The length of the storm and the volume of water washing away large quantities of the cyanotype chemistry, results in a light tone with marks that recall painterly brushstrokes.

Data for weather and climate in the form of graphs and Doppler imagery is something that we rely on heavily each day. These data sets tell us about what to expect, but it is often hard to envision the environmental impact of the meteorological event until it is experienced. Art has a compelling way of making implied information relevant to our sense of visual perception, while leaving room for the viewer to interpret and include experiential elements.

Riepenhoff’s artwork visualizes the intricate force and physicality of storms and the variance of ecosystems in real time. The resulting engagement with nature is a subjective approach to capturing the essence of the biosphere and our individual interactions with nature. She can’t control the strength of a wave, the duration of the rainfall or the strength of the storm, but she makes a conscious effort to decide where to place her paper and how long to leave it out in the elements. The overarching result is a body of work that traces both the environment’s volatility and the artist’s deliberate choices.

This duality between consciousness and exploration is a crux of artful learning. The arts help us to develop critical thinking and flexible purposing skills that probe and conceptualize natural and cultural phenomena. The benefit of art-centered learning in scientific research and educational curricula, is that it adds an element of lived experience and personalization to a field largely engrossed in quantitative data and academic research. Art illuminates the ways that we interact with our environment and each other, and its captivating properties can raise awareness for issues affecting our shared natural resources. This is the case for Riepenhoff’s work, which subtly and discerningly depicts our interaction with the rest of the natural world.


Selected works from the Ecotone and Erasure series are on view at Yossi Milo Gallery (245 Tenth Avenue, New York, NY 10001) through June 22, 2019.

 

Artful Quantification: Environmental Graphiti

In an age where data seems to dictate many aspects of our culture, it is nice to see the artful interpretations of Alisa Singer, who transforms quantitative scientific analysis on climate change into colorful and expressive works of art.

Previously, I discussed the work of Nancy Graves, who blurred the line between abstract and representational paintings with her series of works that commented on satellite imagery and mapping technology. Graves’ imagery showed the ways that maps can be a form of both objective and subjective information.

Like Graves, Alisa Singer utilizes the evocative nature of art in order to bring awareness to the way civilizations rely heavily on data and infographics, while not always forming a personal and meaningful relationship to the information. Big data is daunting, and unless you have a background studying it, charts and graphs feel largely removed from the lived experience. In her series of digital paintings called Environmental Graphiti, Singer analyzes charts and graphs from world climate reports, in order to re-present them in a way that stirs emotional responses and aims to get viewers to make deeper connections to climate change. The title of the series incorporates a playful rewording of the art style graffiti to describe the fusion of quantitative data and emotive art. It is an apt name for Singer’s contemporary and hip artworks that resemble the aesthetic and conceptual nature of painterly public art, while spreading scientific awareness.

The elements of art such as color, line and shape have symbolic properties that communicate and make associations to mood, memory and archetypal signifiers. In Singer’s work, these elements are incorporated along with principals of design such as balance, unity and contrast, in order to create compositions that effectively symbolize causes, effects and actions related to addressing climate change.

5c. Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise lo res

Alisa Singer, Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise, Digital Art on Metal 30″ W X 40″ H. Courtesy of the artist.

 

The Environmental Graphiti paintings are categorized into three identifying topics:

  • WHY is our climate changing? → Gallery A
  • HOW is climate change affecting our world? → Gallery B
  • WHO is at risk? → Gallery C
  • WHAT can we do to address climate change? → Gallery

One example of the ‘WHY’ is Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise, a semi-abstract digital painting inspired by a graph from the Third National Climate Assessment, Climate Change Impacts in the United States, USGCRP (2014). Singer uses warm and cool colors in a manner that symbolizes the temperature changes due to greenhouse gas emissions. In ‘HOW,’ paintings like Wildfires expressively portray how climate change is affecting natural disasters by changing the conditions of soil and moisture. The result is an increase in drier conditions that provide ample kindling for devastating wildfires.

 

‘WHO’ is at risk? Every living being on the planet is affected due to a myriad of factors such as disease, caused by rising temperatures, displacement of water sources caused by agriculture and industry. The painting Vector-Borne Diseases resembles the form of a mosquito filled in with a palette of vibrant colors, gesturally blended together. The mosquito is actually composed of text (see sketch above) related to vector-borne diseases such as Dengue Fever, Malaria and Zika. The enduring question of ‘WHAT’ we can do to address climate change, is presented through works such as Climate Change Mitigation and U.N. Sustainability Goals. In this digital artwork, Singer illuminates the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which was adopted in 2015. The original chart that the painting was based on, shows the correlation between sustainable development that protects the environment, and social development such as poverty eradication and reducing inequalities. The painting translates the U.N.’s graph into  glittering bands of color, as if to symbolize the hope and perseverance for reversing negative cultural and environmental trends.

75c. Climate Change and UN Sustainability Goals

Alisa Singer, Climate Change Mitigation and U.N. Sustainability Goals, Digital Art on Metal 30″ W X 35.4″ H. Courtesy of the artist.

Singer’s combination of art and science helps make data more appealing and compelling because it transforms big data into a visual narrative that can be described, analyzed and valued using both concrete and abstract thought. We are able to assign feelings to the quantitative information due to the elements of art and design at play in these compositions. This adds a component of compassion and enables us to make connections between statistics and our daily life experiences.

While data is a great way for scientists and policy makers to organize and keep track of their research and facts, it isn’t always the best determiner for learning. Not everyone in the populace thinks along analytical mindsets (see: Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences). Learning is experiential; based on a combination of observation, socialization and the connections we make between ourselves and the world around us. These elements cannot often be neatly charted or mapped out. The work of artists like Singer and Graves, eloquently express how a painting can be worth ‘a thousand words,’ or in the case of the Environmental Graphiti series, sets of raw climate data.