Eco-Art Education in North America

By Katherine Lee

Table of Contents                                                                                                     

1.  Introduction

2.  Background

3. Case Studies of Eco-Art Education in North America 

4. The Influence of Eco-Artists on Art Education in North America 

5. Conclusion

6. References

7. About the Author

1.  Introduction

This entry aims to shed light on how eco-art education in North America can support students’ ecological literacy and develop awareness in environmental, social, cultural, political, and economic issues through art making. An analysis of the background of eco-art education, including its definition, history, and a variety of theoretical and pedagogical perspectives, will be provided in detail. Next, case studies from elementary and high school demonstrating eco-art’s positive effects on the development of students’ ecological literacy will be discussed. Lastly, the influence of eco-artists on art education in raising awareness about nature, community, and culture, within the context of students’ lives and their contributions to environmental sustainability, will be examined.

2. Background

Eco-art education, also known as environmental art education or ecological art education, can be defined as an integration between art education and environmental education, ‘as a means of developing awareness of and engagement with concepts such as interdependence, biodiversity, conservation, restoration and sustainability’ (Inwood, 2010, p. 2).  Eco-art education provides an original way of promoting ecological literacy and the fundamentals of environmental education through the established origins of environmental education (endowed in the ‘cognitive, positivist approach of science education’), combined with the artistic, affective, and visual methods of art education (Inwood, 2008, p. 58). 

The effect of humanity’s impact on the climate and its consequences such as global warming, pollution, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, and over-population constitute threatening and alarming issues that are difficult for the world to ignore. Eco-art education was born and developed precisely as a response to these environmental issues. Dynamic artists such as Hans Haacke and Brian Jungen have been instrumental to the creation of this movement in the last four decades (Inwood, 2013). Literature on the discussions and exploration of the emerging field of eco-art education in North America as a response to environmental degradation can also be traced back to the last four decades (Blandy and Hoffmann, 1993; Gablik, 1991; Neperud, 1973). The greater part of literature in this field is devoted to theoretical perspectives supporting the need for eco-art education and to pedagogical perspectives outlining methods of teaching this field in the classroom. Inwood (2005, 2010) laments the fact that very few applied studies have been carried out in this field and that explorations of educators’ perspectives on the implementation of eco-art education and the establishment of curricula and development at elementary and secondary school levels are also absent. 

Inwood (2005) states that the most convincing arguments about the need for eco-art education that emerged in the last decade are aligned with changes in the area of art education, ‘calling for a higher degree of social relevance for art education programs’ (p. 43). Several scholars have referenced Gablik’s (1991) work on connective aesthetics as having played an important role in the development of eco-art education. Gablik criticizes modernist art as being autonomous, unassociated, and focusing on individual creativity, which caters to a capitalistic and utilitarian society. Gablik (1991) argues that art should instead be focused on discourse, partnership, and interconnection. By linking art to everyday life, creative methods of targeting society’s social and environmental issues could become a vehicle for making positive social changes and raising awareness through the engagement of the public eye (Gablik, 1991). Blandy and Hoffman (1993), two art educators, concur with Gablik’s perspective and suggest that art should be seen as ‘a means to engage individuals in social and political issues in ways that empower them, create alliances and establish community’ (p. 29). From a pedagogical perspective, Hollis (1997) emphasizes the necessity for ‘an art curriculum that deals with ecological issues which can empower students with the understanding that they, as creative individuals, can have an active voice in protecting their environment and changing current devastating ecological trends’ (p. 21). 

The ideas proposed in the 1980’s and 1990’s that were discussed above have encouraged a discussion on suitable methods.Blandy and Hoffman (1993) suggest a bioregional perspective, where a shared appreciation of local identity is redeveloped by means of critical awareness and consideration of the unification of ecological communities, supporting an understanding of ‘the interdependence and interconnectedness of all things’ (p. 28). Garoian (1998) put forth a pedagogy for eco-art education ‘whose curricular metaphors are based on empathy, compassion and caring for the land’, and which ‘recognizes the community-based experiences of students as a complement to that of the teacher’s curriculum’ (p. 260). He states that art students are able to present a variety of environmental outlooks which symbolize their involvement with human and nonhuman societies.   

Alternative eco-art education pedagogies, specifically critical place-based pedagogies in art education, have stemmed from environmental education. Bowers (2001) argues that the lack of significant environmental education can be seen in American schools due to the preference for standardized and high stakes testing, which have led to a disregard for the importance of the ecological and the local. Place-based education is a reaction to systematic pedagogy that ignores events of ecological importance and local human citizenries (Graham, 2007).  Graham (2007) continues that ‘by connecting learning to real-world experiences, students can construct meaningful connections among cultural, political and social issues’ (p. 377).  

However, Gruenewald (2003) points to a problem in place-based education in which the latter emphasizes ecological and rural conditions but ignores components such as politics, disparity, and socio-cultural divergences which also play a role in environmental deterioration. Bowers (2001) claims that equally as troublesome is the disregard of ecological issues in local communities and cultures, which are vital for the natural world to survive in the scheme of critical theory. As a solution to such issues Graham (2007) proposes a critical pedagogy of place that considers the interconnections of ecological, social, cultural, economic, and political problems and provides opportunities for students to think critically and connect art and learning as a reaction to issues in ecology, nature, place and culture within their own lives and their local communities. Graham finds that art education shaped by critical place-based pedagogy questions the traditional forms of art and its limits capturing students in ‘reflective and transformative learning’ (p. 388). Critical place-based pedagogy can stimulate people’s curiosity about their environment, a consciousness about the cultural and social influences which endanger them and encourage them to make a change (Graham, 2007).   

3. Case Studies of Eco-Art Education in North America

Inwood’s case study, Cultivating Artistic Approaches to Environmental Learning: Exploring Eco-Art Education in Elementary Classrooms (2013)analyses four elementary teachers’ experiments with the design and implementation of curriculum and pedagogy of eco-art education across four different schools in Toronto, Canada. The study was conducted based on the belief that eco-art education could help develop students’ ecological literacy and awareness in environmental issues through cross-curricular learning.  Inwood (2013) reports that the team of teachers acknowledged the powerful ability of eco-art education in reinforcing students’ relationships with their own place. The teachers also agreed that the definition of eco-art education which focused on raising awareness of ‘human’s relationships with and/or impact on the earth’ rather than on the materials and methods used was more effective (Inwood, 2013, p. 137). Inwood (2013) highlighted one teacher’s reasoning about eco-art education: art is all art that conveys a respect for the earth, for our natural environment, the interconnectedness of our eco systems, and the importance of ecological literacy... I think the bottom line for me was always respect. And the kids got that very strong message — respect for self, respect for others, respect for community, respect for the world, respect for everything in it (p.137). 

Another case study was conducted with secondary students in an American high school in Virginia by Taylor, an art educator. In her article, It All Started with the Trash: Taking Steps toward Sustainable Art Education (1997),she highlights her attempts in developing students’ ecological literacy through emphasizing the environmental issue of trash, studying a variety of relevant artist studies and focusing discussion and work on community collaboration and stewardship. In one example, students had to work collaboratively in creating earthworks, products of an art movement which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, often using natural materials from the earth and being site-specific. Students created earthworks as a reaction to the immense amount of trash humans created that were harming the earth. These were then formulated outside the school in which they participated actively in listening, communal thinking, carefully choosing their medium, and then disclosing their knowledge of the genuine problem - themselves. Taylor (1997) writes that during these episodes, students appeared to be more aware of the materials they utilized, as they made sure to use items that would not harm the earth. As artworks were gradually deteriorating in time, students became more conscious of the environmental issues that existed in the community through relevant artist studies, the carefully chosen eco-friendly materials used and the realization of the amount of trash that was produced in the art room itself day to day. One student claimed ‘I never really thought about that much meaning in art before. It makes it more meaningful, you know?’ (Taylor 1997, p. 18). 

4. The Influence of Eco-Artists on Art Education in North America

Since the 1960s, artists from all realms of the arts in North America have not only been producing art to raise environmental awareness but have also been using art as a means of producing innovative and sustainable answers to environmental challenges in societies (Inwood, 2010). Gablik (1991) argues that the importance of individualism in contemporary aesthetics and the disconnect of art from the living creates a disengaged audience. She highlights the significance of artworks for promoting environmental issues and raising awareness and involvement amongst citizens. Graham (2007) builds on Gablik’s argument and states that the work of eco-artists breaks presumptions about our connection with the natural environment and advocates art as a vehicle for ‘interdisciplinary connections and active involvement in environmental restoration’ (p. 380). He states that introducing students to these kinds of artworks and ideas allows them to integrate crucial issues of society, politics and domination within the local context of their lives through the connection of art education. Anderson (2000) asserts that eco-artists view creating art as a community-based execution, which enhances ecological accountability and advocates community restoration.  

5.  Conclusion

Eco-art education as an emerging field of environmental education and art education in North America can support students’ ecological literacy and develop awareness in environmental, social, cultural, political and economic issues through art making. The demand for the interconnection between art and science by educators, critics and curators has been the grounds for the development of several theoretical perspectives on eco-art education in North America, along with the influence of eco-artists, dating back a few decades. Gablik’s (1991) work on connective aesthetics played an important role in the development of eco-art education. Pedagogical perspectives which derived from theoretical standpoints on eco-art education then evolved, specifically critical place-based pedagogies. Critical place-based pedagogies in arts education allow students to develop critical thinking skills and connect art and learning as a reaction to issues in ecology, nature, place and culture, within their own lives and communities (Graham, 2007). 

The two case studies at the elementary and high school level in Canada and the US were presented to show that the implementation of eco-art education can help develop students’ ecological literacy and awareness of social, cultural, political, economic and environmental issues. The influence of eco-artists on art education was also examined and proven to have a positive effect on raising students’ awareness of interdisciplinary issues and understanding art as community-based (Anderson, 2000; Gablik, 1991), and as an example of the ‘interdependence and interconnectedness of all things’ (Blandy and Hoffman, 1993). Most of the literature in the field is focused on theoretical and pedagogical perspectives, and further research needs to be done in understanding the perceptions of educators in implementing eco-art education curricula and pedagogy at elementary and secondary school levels (Inwood 2005, 2010).

6.  References

Anderson, H. (2000). A River Runs through It: Art Education and a River Environment. Art Education,53(6), 13-18.

Blandy, D., & Hoffman, E. (1993). Toward an Art Education of Place. Studies in Art Education,35(1), 22-33. doi:10.2307/1320835

Bowers, C. (2001). Educating for Eco-Justice and Community. Athens/London: University of Georgia Press.

Gablik, S. (1991). The Reenchantment of Art. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson.

Garoian, Charles R. (1998). Art Education and the Aesthetics of Land Use in the Age of Ecology. Studies in Art Education,39(3), 244-61.

Graham, M. A. (2007). Art, Ecology and Art Education: Locating Art Education in a Critical Place-Based Pedagogy. Studies in Art Education: A Journal of Issues and Research in Art Education,48(4), 375-391.

Gruenewald, D. (2003). The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place. Educational Researcher,32(4), 3-12.

Hollis, C. L. (1997). On Developing an Art and Ecology Curriculum. Art Education,50(6), 21-24.

Inwood, H. (2005). Investigating Educators' Attitudes Toward Eco-Art Education. Canadian Review of Art Education: Research & Issues32(1).

Inwood, H. (2008). Mapping Eco-Art Education. Canadian Review of Art Education: Research and Issues35, 57-73.

Inwood, H. (2010). Shades of Green: Growing Environmentalism through Art Education. Art Education63(6), 33-38.

Inwood, H. J. (2013). Cultivating Artistic Approaches to Environmental Learning: Exploring Eco-Art Education in Elementary Classrooms. International Electronic Journal of Environmental Education3(2), 129-145.

Neperud, R. (1973). Art Education: Towards an Environmental Aesthetic. Art Education,26(3), 7-10.

Neperud, R. W. (1997). Art, Ecology, and Art Education: Practices and Linkages. Art Education,50(6), 14-20.

Taylor, P. G. (1997). It all Started with the Trash: Taking Steps toward Sustainable Art Education. Art education50(2), 13-18.

 7. About the Author

 Katherine Lee

MEd, The University of Hong Kong