The investigation of landscape, nature and ecology in contemporary art has its roots, in part, in the legacy of Romanticism and the search for man's place within the world.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Eco-art Pedagogy as Eco-art Practice By Ann T. Rosenthal

At the heart of eco-art practice is the desire to educate. Interpretive signage along a trail can instruct directly, as in Ruth Wallen's "Children's Forest Nature Walk" or Erica Fielder's informative panels along the California Coast. Sometimes our pedagogy is more subtle, coaxing the senses and the heart to "think like a mountain," seeing through the eyes of human and non-human "Others." The performances of Fern Shaffer and Othello Anderson, or the sculptural habitats created by Lynne Hull are a few examples. Restoration of damaged sites affirms our ability to heal scarred earth and poisoned water; revealing the effects of our neglect and inspiring our care. Working on interdisciplinary teams, restoration artists contribute their systems thinking to contextualize specialized knowledge and facilitate elegant solutions, as in the work of Betsy Damon or the team of Tim Collins and Reiko Goto. If education is at the core of our practice, then pedagogy is a potent tool. As such, engaging eco-art theory and practice in the classroom may be as much "eco-art" as reclaiming landfills, restoring watersheds, unearthing histories of place, and marking lived experience.

The Toolbox was made possible with the financial assistance of the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, and the Columbia Foundation.

The Toolbox was made possible with the financial assistance of the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, and the Columbia Foundation.

In talking to my eco-art colleagues, I have been delighted by the diversity of approaches in teaching eco-art. Student projects come in all forms and media: gardens, installations, sculpture, performance, cartography, digital media, theatre, writing, and site design and restoration. In parallel, teaching eco-art "theory" can deepen students' understanding of the causes of and possible solutions to social and environmental injustice, drawing upon ecology, geography, philosophy, history, literature, cultural and gender studies, urban planning and landscape architecture, to name just a few.

In "Ecology and Community," physicist Fritjof Capra contends that to cultivate ecoliteracy, we need to literally see the relationships, or patterns, between elements and members of a community:

The study of pattern, or of form, is the study of quality, which requires visualizing and mapping. Form and pattern must be visualized. This is a very important aspect of studying patterns, and it is the reason why, every time the study of pattern was in the forefront, artists contributed significantly to the advancement of science. (Capra 1994, 3)

The pattern-recognition skills shared by both scientists and artists are explored by Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligences. In defining the "naturalist" intelligence, Gardner states: " is possible that the pattern-recognizing talents of artists, poets, social scientists, and natural scientists are all built on the fundamental perceptual skills of naturalist intelligence." (Gardner 1999, 50)

How can ecoart pedagogy encourage our ability to recognize patterns and relationships, and thus foster ecoliteracy? Teaching both the theory and practice of ecoart within and beyond the classroom can be highly effective in developing:

- Systems Thinking: Recognizing patterns and relationships across disparate information and knowledge systems.

- Systems Practice: Developing imaginative forms, processes, and solutions that communicate or create new relationships and patterns across disciplines.

- Team Building: Working in cross-disciplinary collaborations, respecting what team member brings to problem solving.

- Team Process: Facilitating democratic and just decision making, sharing power and responsibility, and applying conflict resolution when needed.

- Project Assessment: Building feedback loops into processes to constructively evaluate individual and team efforts so that methodologies and outcomes can be more effective and resilient.

Eco-artists are crafting interdisciplinary, hands-on methodologies at all educational levels. In approaching K-12 education, Capra continues:

... the study of pattern comes naturally to children; to visualize pattern, to draw pattern, is natural. In traditional schooling this has not been encouraged. Art has been sort of on the side. We can make this a central feature of ecoliteracy: the visualization and study of pattern through the arts.(Capra 1994, 4)

Numerous studies indicate that arts education provides invaluable skills in harnessing and synthesizing the qualities of logic, organization, flexibility and insight; creative teamwork; learning that problems are opportunities not obstacles; and learning to discipline the imagination to solve difficult problems.

Addressing education at the college level, Dr. Vartan Gregorian, former President and Professor of History at Brown University, states:

... we have to develop creative multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches in our liberal arts curricula in order to provide intellectual coherence through interdisciplinary themes. There is no reason why scientific, historical, and literary themes cannot be taught through team teaching as well as multiple and comparative perspectives and expertise, in order to provide our students knowledge not only of disciplines but of their interconnectedness as well. (Gregorian 1993, 610-11).

The environment is an ideal "theme" to begin the work Dr. Gregorian suggests. Eco-artists can lead the way in developing interdisciplinary, eco-centric methodologies and curricula that transform our understanding of education while we expand the role of artists in effecting social and environmental change.

In this section of, we begin a conversation on the theory and practice of ecoart pedagogy. These initial projects in the Educator's Toolbox suggest the range and potential of this budding grove: from middle school through college and into the community; from compost bins to gardens and international exchanges. These first plantings are designed to wet your palette and entice your desire! Though they are drawn largely from the U.S. (due to familiarity, not intent), we hope in the coming months to highlight ecoart-ed worldwide. Thus we invite our colleagues near and far to share your strategies, projects, and syllabi, as well as your struggles and successes. In so doing, we will grow a rich resource for greening education through ecoart.

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