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Art and Environment: An Innovative Field Course for Artists

Written by Erika Osborne, SoGES 2014-2015 Resident Fellow and Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History

Artists are creators of culture. They are sponges of the world around them, regurgitating what they see and experience into forms that act as communication tools for the larger public. For professional artists, contemporary issues like climate change, land use and ecology are prominent playing fields for creation. The work produced by these artists is getting recognized in and outside of the field. It can be found on the covers of leading art magazines such as Art Forum and Art in America, and simultaneously in publications such as National Geographic and Sierra Magazine. Collectives have formed and the line between disciplines has dissolved to generate projects and endeavors that are hybrids of artistic practice, design, science and activism. The field is rich.

So, how does this filter into art education at the university level? It often doesn’t. The model of discipline-specific studio courses, coupled with the notion that the individual student is the sole originator of ideas, still rules the field. Only in the past 15 years have select art educators in a few institutions around the world began to teach environmentally minded studio courses that break this model. With a mind to more fully align my life practice with my teaching practice, I became one of those educators nearly 10 years ago. Through positions I held before accepting a job at Colorado State University in 2013, I taught courses with titles like Land Arts of the American West, Wilderness Studio, Place: Appalachia and Art and Environment. Some of these courses fell snugly into the traditional three credit hour, semester-long studio course and others required anywhere from 3 – 12 weeks working out in the field on a 24/7 basis.

This fall was my first attempt at running such a course at Colorado State University. With support from my department, I set forth planning an interdisciplinary, upper-division undergraduate and graduate level course designed to increase awareness for the interactivity of studio artists and the environment. The course was intended to be part studio and part seminar with the student objectives being: to better understand the field of environmental art and the practitioners working within that field, to develop constructive and aesthetic methods of interacting with the environment in their studio practice, to apply information gleaned from guest experts in various fields to their own work and methodology, to expand their formal vocabulary by engaging interdisciplinary practices while working side by side with peers from differing artistic backgrounds and levels of experience, and of course, to begin to engage the world as a stage for art making. 

Once the course went online, it was clear that it was highly desired. Very soon after registration began, there was an enrollment of 21 students (with a wait list of five) for what I titled, Art and Environment. These numbers are considered exceptionally high for any upper-level art course, not to mention an experimental course running for the first time. I had expected ten at most. Students from all areas of the art department enrolled – with participants from graphic design, sculpture, metals, ceramics, printmaking, painting and drawing.

The three course topics – Earth and Sky: The Micro and the Macro, Contemporary Environmental Issues: People and Place, and Sustainability: A Holistic Approach to Art Making provided the context for participants to gain knowledge from experts in various fields and apply that to their art making practices. Over the course of the semester, students participated in six field trips led by experts from other fields. We stargazed with Astronomer, Dr. Roger Culver and studied soils with SoGES director and soil scientist, Dr. Diana Wall . We explored the intersection of art and activism with the Fractivist, Shane Davis, and we studied fire and climate change in the High Park area with Dr. Monique Rocca. For the sustainability section of the course, we took a full-day field trip to the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt, Colorado to tour the most mature food forest in the United States with its founder and director Jerome Osentowski. Afterwards we visited the new Basalt Food Garden – a local park turned into a public permaculture site – with Stephanie Syson. Our time in Basalt was compared and contrasted with a tour, led by Patricia Conine, of the very different food-system preservation model found at the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation. In addition to the hands-on experience these field trips provided, students in the course read and discussed a comprehensive list of texts and gained exposure to artists working within the genre through a series of artist presentations - all of this giving them a broad range of knowledge to create work for the studio portion of the course.

The students consumed all that they encountered. For some, it sparked ways of working that questioned their use of materials. For example, a graduate student in metalworking started to question the mining practices associated with the metals he had been using. This led to deep research and product outcomes that began to address a more sustainable working practice, and one that examined its own use of raw material. For others, the course provided rich conceptual ground for the future development of their work. Undergraduate students in graphic design took issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing to heart and created a billboard design, stickers and various posters to express their concerns about the extraction method. This led to exploring the idea further through projects outside of Art and Environment.     

For all the students, the course deeply effected they way that they viewed their place in the world as artists. After expressing on many occasions that Art and Environment was “the best class we have ever taken”, or that “there needs to be more classes like this”, students would often describe how the ideas presented in the class had given them hope that art did in fact have a place in the larger environmental dialog. They began to see how their art making could work in tandem with science and policy to produce and promote solutions to problems affecting nearly every aspect of their lives. It gave them hope that art, indeed, has the potential to create lasting change.

Photo captions:

Photo #1: Graduate Student, Ben Isaiah creates a fanny pack for guerilla style mining reclaimation.

Photo #2: Tour of Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute.

Photo #3: Tour of the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation.

Photo #4: Undergraduate Audrey Ancell explores the complexities of the intersection between nature and technology.



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