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Teaching Art in the Context of Everyday Life

by Don Krug (2003)

This is part of the Toolbox for Educators
    "In my dream, the angel shrugged and said, If we fail this time, it will be a failure of imagination and then she placed the world gently in the palm of my hand."
    -- Brian Andreas, 1994, Still Mostly True

Visual culture can be understood in relationship to the meanings and values of people's daily ways of living. Lucinda Furlong (1994) suggests that "how we experience the landscape is shaped not only by factors such as class, gender, race, age, and politics, but by the cultural forms employed to represent it" (Krug, 1997). The earth is an ecological community rich in biological, social, and cultural diversity. Human existence is one of the greatest contributors to the destruction of our fragile environment. Christo's (b.1935) "Earth Wrap" is one example of an artwork that depicts the dynamic tensions among human use of the earth and the industrial degradation that most often accompanies this use and human responsibility to act as stewards of the natural environment on a day to day basis. His artwork vividly warns us that the earth is not a package that can be exchanged for a new globe at the local outlet store.

Christo & Jeanne-Claude,
Christo & Jeanne-Claude, "Earth Wrap", Magazine cover from Time/Life Syndication.

The arts have often served political, institutional, expressive, sacred, and/or utilitarian roles simultaneously in society. Before the nineteenth century, Gowans (1971) suggests that most art was neither fine nor popular, but connected to lived experiences. Connecting art and life-centered issues is not new in art education. Culture is interdependent with nature and the arts represent some of the most telling and extraordinary examples of everyday life.

In this chapter, I will discuss an approach to curriculum integration that facilitates inquiry about art in the contexts of life-centered issues. I discuss these ideas [1] using the concept of interdependency. Examples are provided from an Art & Ecology [2] web site published on ArtsEdNet. [3] Emphasis is given to understanding the generalization [4] of interdependency in relationship to the dynamic interplay of certain social, historical and cultural issues and interests: philosophy - dominion, stewardship, and union, (Stankiewicz and Krug, 1997), perspectives - environmental design, ecological design, social ecology, ecological restoration, and the selection of teaching concepts - location, time, material, and change, (Krug, 1997). In conclusion, I discuss how educational experiences based on an integrated approach to studying about everyday life-centered issues can enable students to understand the ways in which many different realities are constructed from diverse cultural perspectives.

Identifying Life-Centered Issues

During my undergraduate education, I can still recall standing in front of a large abstract expressionist painting waiting to have an "aesthetic experience." The work didn't seem to move me in a way that allowed me to transcend my immediate experience. I searched for inherent meaning in the work but instead found my everyday encounters and situations to be extremely important to understanding the symbolism and metaphors that the artist used. I was unable to use a systematic approach to describing, interpreting, analyzing, and evaluating the art. Instead, I made random and systemic connections almost simultaneously, piecing together a story out of personal, historical, and social contexts. I was confused by any attempt to distance myself from the work in order to see it anew. My personal biases were evident, and rather than trying to hide them, it seemed more important to bring these issues to the surface so that I could examine them in light of their social, historical, and cultural formation. Even though I enjoyed the artwork immensely, I was uncertain of how I was to critique the work using an "educational model of art criticism." Imagine my disappointment when I realized the work did not move me in any of the ways that I had been reading about in the art education course literature.

Later, I was hired to teach art in grades K-5 and coordinate an aesthetic enrichment program called Learn by Looking in a small Midwest community. This federally funded consortium of three rural school districts purchased several hundred, art reproductions. I coordinated adult volunteers to instruct elementary students about artists and artwork at the school where I taught. At first, I struggled with the selection of artwork. Which artists were most significant for the students to learn about? Should I choose work around themes based on art history and art criticism instruction I had received at the university? Why would young K-5 grade students in a rural community find the work meaningful and relevant to their lives? In the end, this last question carried the most value for me as an art teacher. I quickly learned that students also had a hard time appreciating a laminated reproduction of a Mark Rothko (1903-1970) abstract painting. However, these same students participated with delight when their grandmother came to school to share how rabbit wool could be spun into yarn and dyed different colors using flower petals or vegetable scraps from a garden. Based on these experiences and classroom practices, I became interested in curriculum integration and life-centered issues. I began to realize that the arts should not be viewed as separate from other disciplines, and that the study of visual culture is an integral part of daily living.

Currently, I teach curriculum classes for undergraduate and graduate certification students at The Ohio State University. Students ask some of the same kinds of questions about knowledge selection and organization that I asked when getting started. One goal of the Ohio Department of Education calls for teaching with flexible educational programming in art education that is responsive to local and global concerns (Ohio Comprehensive Arts Education, 1996). I believe teachers should ask what is important to teach and why it is significant. Ideas can be connected to a diverse range of subject matter in art education and across other fields of study. Learning about ideas can invite questions from students about their sense of place in the world. What forms of inquiry are needed in order for students to investigate everyday issues within their own communities nationally and globally? Life-centered approaches encourage inquiry as a means for understanding ideas as part of lifelong learning. In this way, learning is part of continuous processes of critically investigating and generating knowledge and not acquiring content as an end in itself (Perkins and Blythe, 1994; Perrone, 1994). Life-centered issues encompass a broad range of subjects and reflect interpretations of people's social interests and differences. Educational tension runs deep about selecting "appropriate" curricular metaphors for planning educational experiences.

Metaphors are used as a way to understand curricular theories associated with our conceptual philosophies. Metaphors make relationships apparent that were not otherwise obvious. The power of metaphors should not be underestimated for it deeply affects our conceptual understanding of curriculum development. In the United States, curricular metaphors have been used to guide the way teachers develop written guidelines for classroom activities. Metaphors help people make sense of their everyday experiences (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), and have been used in education to make obscure theoretical arguments and relationships more apparent. Metaphors are a fundamental vehicle of human understanding. While I believe that educators should use curriculum metaphors as a way to guide their classroom practices and knowledge organization; it is important to know that the power of metaphors affect our thinking about the production, reproduction, and generation of knowledge. Curriculum metaphors have provided teachers with ways to conceptualize complex thoughts in a comprehensible way. They have the power to help teachers create new meanings that did not exist before. However, metaphors also filter what we see and have the potential to distort the meanings and values of pedagogy and visual culture.

Social interests strongly influence the formation of national, state, and district curriculum decisions and standards. They are fluid, contradictory, subject to change, and usually involve differences in people's perspectives of human issues that are deeply connected to past and existing historical, economic, and cultural contexts. As educators, our point of view affects what and how we teach. Students need opportunities to negotiate and reflect on everyday issues through classroom inquiry, writing, art making, and dialogue. In other articles I have suggested using an action-oriented approach to teaching about community concerns and ideas. An action-oriented inquiry approach is premised on constuctivist educational research (Birt, Krug, & Sheridan, 1997; Phillips, 1995; Prawat, 1995) that encompasses direct experiences, observations and reflection, critical thinking, and taking action. Kolb (1984) writes, "If the education begins by bringing out the learner's beliefs and theories, examining and testing them, and then integrating the new, more refined ideas into the person's belief systems, the learning process will be facilitated" (p. 28). As an art teacher for over twenty years in grades K-16, I believe that the arts represent processes and forms of inquiry, knowing, and participating in the world through affective, perceptual, kinesthetic, and cognitive experiences.

Below I talk about three sets of ideas about interdependency organized by philosophical positions, ecological perspectives, and concepts. The relationships among these ideas about interdependency are important for teachers to understand if they are going to develop curricula that is inquiry based and context rich.

Interpreting Life-Centered Issues about Interdependency

Interdependency is a concept about the relations of nature and culture. In ancient times, spiritual leaders mediated among people and the world of plants and animals. Cultures from around the world have interpreted ideas of earth, ecology, and environment through artifacts and practices in different ways. For example, tribal shamans of indigenous peoples have long represented the power, energy, and spirits of place as both male and female deities. In ancient Egypt, the world's vegetation was believed to have sprouted from the Earth father's back. The Algonquin people regarded the Earth as their mother. Similarly, creation myths of the Hopi tell of Tiowa or Spider Grandmother who in the beginning gave structure and form to the earth. Concepts of earth, ecology, and environment are also represented through objects and ritual practices in contemporary societies. "Shimenewa," ceremonial straw rope, is used to mark the spiritual power of place in Japan. In the Amazon region, shaman Pablo Amaringo (1943) creates paintings of animals, plants, spirits, and mythological beings as a way to help preserve this bioregion's ecosystem. Spiritual, social, and physical connections are also simultaneously referred to in the sandpaintings of Navajo healing ceremonies. Stones, plants, and sacred objects are often placed inside the painting to represent the interconnectedness of the physical, social, and spiritual needs of people and the earth's greater life forces.

Bea Zuehlke is a community artist spinning rabbit hair into yarn. 1988 Photograph © Don Krug
Bea Zuehlke is a community artist. In this photo she demonstrates to elementary students how to comb and card wool (rabbit hair) and spin it into yarn. 1988 Photograph © Don Krug
In the United States, the study of interdependency emerged in the 1960s as a response to growing concern about environmental issues that plague the earth. Though the Clean Air Act was passed in 1955 and the Wilderness Preservation Act was passed in 1964, the government did not act on behalf of the environment in a significant way until the 1970s, following the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. This event, initiated by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson, was observed in thousands of rallies, demonstrations, and clean-up initiatives around the country. Earth Day motivated a larger public to get involved in environmental affairs and established environmentalism as a worldwide movement. Following the event, membership in environmental organizations swelled to unprecedented levels, and politicians suddenly scurried to respond to voters' concerns.

In the 1950s, artist Robert Rauschenberg (b.1925) experimented with using new media that included everyday objects and materials in his work. "Earth Paintings" were indoor wall hangings composed of soil and grass. His "combines" extended the conception of painting as a flat two-dimensional space off the wall into the three dimensional space of the viewers. "Mud-Muse" (1968-1971) was an installation created in collaboration with engineers at Teledyne Inc. that re-circulated ordinary soil through a system of mechanical apparatuses. It drew attention to the taken-for-granted perception and use of natural "resources" in industrial societies. In the 1960s he featured the interdisciplinarity of his ideas in collage-like montages. "Earth Day" (1970) was a poster in a montage style commissioned by the American Environment Foundation and commemorates the first Earth Day. These early forms of environmental art explored ideas of the artist's relationship to society and society's interconnectedness with nature.

A number of federal laws were passed, beginning with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Solid Waste Disposal Act in 1970 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. President Richard Nixon also created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 to enforce the new laws. Environmentalism suffered a serious setback in the 1980s, when the federal government became more responsive to the demands of industry, development, ranching, mining, and logging. The budget of the EPA was slashed during this period and programs to develop alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power, were discontinued. In the 1990s, ecologists mediated relationships between humans and the environment by reintroducing native plants and animals into sites to help reclaim and sustain biodiversity. Ecology is a biological science in which the relationships of living organisms with each other and with their environment are studied.

Ecology and the environment are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Ecology is a concern for the maintenance of the integrity of natural systems, including homeostasis and diversity. A broad definition of environment simply is the objects and conditions surrounding someone. Wetlands and forests are two types of ecological systems or habitats vanishing around the world that ecologists are concerned about and that contemporary ecological artists are recreating on city streets, parks, and nature preserves.

Mary Jane Jacob (1994) suggests that new genre public art "must reach those for whom the art's subject is a critical life issue" (p. 54). What are these life-centered issues and how do they compose the social, cultural, and historic fabric of daily living? How have artists dealt with life-centered ecological issues through their art? Paolo Soleri (b.1919) created a plan for an Arizona community based on limited energy resources. Viet Ngo (b.1952) works with large-scale communities to construct sewage treatment plants that use plant life and wetlands to purify water. Alan Sonfist (b.1946) has restored portions of urban landscapes with historic memories by reintroducing indigenous plants and animals. Some contemporary ecological artists address broad life-centered issues such as unfair labor practices, overpopulation, water contamination, toxic chemicals, nuclear waste, fossil fuel consumption, animal extinction, animal rights, forest depletion, soil erosion, and changing clim ate patterns, to name a few ecological concerns. At the heart of these issues are views about community participation, communication, and ecological sustainability. (Krug, 1996)

Most ecological artworks are conceived as sanctuaries within which human beings can experience nature's beauty along with the natural abundance of ecological systems. Changes in the ways that people look at the relationships between nature and culture from ancient times to the present continue to evolve. People are beginning to understand that "the planet" includes their own backyards.

From a more contemporary and philosophical position, educators have generally identified three views that characterize approaches to interdependency: dominion - human control of nature, stewardship - human care of nature, and union - humans as part of nature. (Heimlich, 1992). It is important for elementary teachers to understand their own view of the interdependency of the environment and culture in order to understand and teach about contemporary ecological art.

Dominion is a view that humans should dominate nature. In art education, examples of this approach were prevalent in textbooks of the late 19th century that instructed students to re-imagine and re-design nature in unique ways through their art. Today, this anthropocentric view of controlling the natural environment is still prevalent in some environmental art projects that attempt to reshape natural spaces for the sake of urban renewal or public art that is premised strictly on order, beauty, and a purely formal aesthetic purpose.

Another view of interdependency has used scientific observation of nature as a means to affirm beliefs about caring for the natural world. Science and the arts have been combined and introduced to schoolchildren through nature study and outdoor education programs. Nature study is a form of stewardship that is concerned with both the aesthetic attributes of landscape design and a bioregions natural order. Much of the urban improvement of the early 20th century combined dominion with stewardship. There are many changing views in this area of environmental study. Some environmental design specialists have worked with educational and community groups to over-control the constructed space, in an attempt to produce and maintain a beautiful, harmonious physical environment. Some civic leaders have worked diligently to understand ecological relationships to achieve a careful balance between nature and constructed spaces.

Union is an orientation that values ecologically sustainable development. It is an approach to understanding interdependency arrived at by locating and not privileging humans within complex ecosystems of nature. Views of art and ecology premised on this perspective strive to understand the relationships of all living organisms within particular places through art. In art education, teachers are beginning to work for more inclusive approaches to integrated curricula that examine environmental issues through the study of various forms of visual culture.

Some contemporary ecological artists believe that what matters most are concerns about union or ecological sustainability. Educators and artists working toward ecological sustainability have as their task the responsibility of "finding alternatives to the practices that got us into the trouble in the first place; it is necessary to rethink agriculture, shelter, energy use, urban design, transportation, economics, community patterns, resource use, forestry, the importance of wilderness, and our central values" (Orr, 1992, p. 22).

One example of ecological sustainability through art is Mel Chin's (b.1957) Revival Field (1990-present) in St. Paul Minnesota. Chin worked with Rufus L. Chaney, a Senior Research Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to develop plans for the green remediation of toxic waste from the Pig's Eye landfill. Chaney developed a hyperaccumulator plant for extracting toxic substances from the soil through the plant's vascular system. The goal of the artist was to eventually restore the area for plants, animals, and humans. In this way art, aesthetics, ecology, and culture become inseparable. Methods commonly employed to initiate ecological sustainability include artistic actions, rituals, performances, and process dramas. It is important to understand, however, that ecological sustainability has many meanings. Van Der Ryn and Cowan (1996) point out, Sustainability is not a single movement or approach. It is as varied as the communities and interests currently grappling with the issues it raises. The shape that it will take is being contested now, and the stakes are high. On the one hand, sustainability is the province of global policy-makers and environmental experts flying at thirty-five thousand feet from conference to conference. On the other hand, sustainability is also the domain of grassroots environmental and social groups, indigenous peoples preserving traditional practices, and people committed to changing their own communities.

Change necessarily affects the ways people value and ascribe meaning to the things they make within particular places. Ideas of change are conditioned through enculturation and socialization. Most contemporary ecological artists are keenly attuned to the fluctuating interconnectedness of art, aesthetics, ecology, and culture. Artists are working collaboratively with members of communities to use their creative energies to solve real life-centered problems that affect the interdependency of nature and culture. Below, I will discuss a few ideas and issues that can be studied about interdependency through an integrated curricular approach in elementary education.

Ecological Art Perspectives

Barbara Westfall,
Barbara Westfall, "Daylighting the Woods", Girdled Aspen, Madison, Wisconsin, ©1993

Barbara Westfall resides in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, where she lives on a small working farm with her husband and son. Westfall is in the process of restoring sections of her family farmland to native prairie by planting indigenous grasses, such as, baby and big blue stem, species of wild flowers and other flora.

I have struggled over how to present these typologies [5] without suggesting that ideas and issues can fit neatly into any one type of category. Ecological ideas and issues involve differences in people's perspectives of human and environmental conditions. Such issues are deeply connected to past and existing social and cultural contexts. Raymond Williams (1961) used dominant, residual, and emergent points of view as a way to understand how issues affect what we experience, how changing perspectives influence the formation of diverse life styles, and how contexts contribute to our personal perspectives. Many issues addressed by ecological artists are connected to specific community concerns and environmental conditions associated with location, time, material, and change. For the purpose of studying about interdependency, a stream metaphor can be useful for students to understand how perspectives on ecological issues are very dynamic.

Perspectives change like a streams' many currents with different dimensions and directions. Typically in a society, one particular perspective is the strongest current or most dominant point of view. From the many perspectives that different people hold, no one current (perspective) ever quite dries up and its residual effect occasionally reappears. When the weather or conditions are suitable, a weaker or less powerful point of view might emerge and assume more force and prominence only to decline when conditions particularly conducive to its newfound strength no longer prevail. Ecological artists interpret ideas of interdependency differently through their art. Andy Goldsworthy (1990) states, "When I touch a rock, I am touching and working the space around it. It is not independent of its surroundings and the way it sits tells how it came to be there." Art is a way to inquire critically about relationships and interactions of all life forms within their ecosystem. Artists such as Mel Chin, Viet Ngo, Alan Sonfist, and Nancy Holt (b.1938) introduce new plant life into toxic areas to help heal and sustain the interaction of land and life forms. They ask viewers of their art to reinterpret people's relationships to the land. When starting to plan a unit teachers might consider some of the following questions:

Inquiry Questions

    • What community ecological issues are of current concern?
    • Who should make decisions about public ecological art (e.g. about its creation, location, permanence, etc.)?
    • How can ideas and issues of interdependency be acted on and documented in your own community?
    • What parts of restoration processes should be considered art, and how are they understood as similar and different from methods of inquiry used in other disciplines, i.e., science, social studies, etc.?
    • What are some perspectives of interdependency that should be considered when investigating, making, recording, and exhibiting your artistic process and art?

Four ecological art perspectives - environmental design, ecological design, social restoration, and ecological restoration - encompass a wide range of interpretations of contemporary ecological art based on the philosophical positions of dominion, stewardship, and union discussed earlier. Dominion is a philosophical position held by some artists working with nature as a resource for particular aesthetic endeavors. Artists with an orientation to environmental design have been interested in designing the environment. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, artists, architects, designers, and civil engineers have explored ways to link art, aesthetics, ecology, and culture. Artists that address local ecological issues through their artwork might hold views associated with dominion and stewardship simultaneously. Artists who work in the area of ecological design are concerned with how the art they create is contingent on direct experiences and interactions with a particular place where the art is created. An ecological view of design considers the artwork within larger contexts of how people, plants, and animals are interconnected with each other, the site, and/or the earth.

An ecological ethic where humans live in relationship to larger communities of life has catalyzed some artists to create socially responsible artworks. Artists who explore social ecology critically examine everyday life experiences for bringing about positive ecological change. These artists strive to mediate ideas of union and stewardship by questioning the ecological impact of the built environment and social unrest. Guillermo Gσmez-Peρa (b.1955) writes, "Real life is calling. I can no longer ignore the clamor of disaster - economic, spiritual, environmental, political disaster - in the world in which I move" (in Krug, 1997). These artists scrutinize relations of power that produce community tensions about ecological issues. They encourage viewers to question individual and collective assumptions, beliefs, and practices and take action to bring about positive and healthy conditions of social change.

Ecological restoration projects usually involve long-term commitments that help reclaim and restore ecological systems. These artists typically hold a philosophical position of union. Ecological restoration artists attempt to alert viewers to environmental issues and problems through shock, humor, and educational documentation. They seek to educate the public to the systemic character of bioregions through the use of ritual, performance, and process drama. Some ecological artists engage people directly in environmental activities or actions by confronting environmentally unhealthy practices with social, ethical, and moral ecological concerns.

Location, Time, Material, and Change

At this point, let us now turn to a more practical look at how these philosophies and perspectives can be taught at an elementary level through the identification of four concepts of interdependency: location, time, material, and change. It is relatively easy to select an artist of renowned reputation or artwork based on resource availability or pre-made unit information about the environment. However, if we are asking students to understand the associated meanings of art within the contextual conditions of society, then it is necessary to do inquiry about the way these issues emerge, become dominant, and have residual effects on the formation of their self and social points of view. I believe that for students at an elementary grade level many of the ideas and issues discussed above are too complex, as stated, to ask young children to remember and apply to their day to day lives. A more approachable way for young children to understand these issues is through the following four concepts - location, time, material, and change - which are also frequently addressed by ecological artists. These concepts derive from the positions and perspectives above and can provide a more accessible way for teachers of elementary students to explore the many different meanings of interdependency. Teachers and students can also use these concepts to help examine ideas expressed through artworks across diverse subject areas such as reading, science, music, social studies, and to make connections with everyday life-centered issues.


The concept of location has been defined in many distinct ways with subtle distinctions such as, bioregion, space, locale, and place. To talk about this with students we might explore a bioregion such as an old growth forest was once populated by spotted owls. The plight of the spotted owl, now an endangered species, is particularly significant because it is also an indicator species. Its disappearance is a sign of forest depletion. Bioregions are geographic areas of land defined by physical factors such as soil, water, and climate and the associated biotic systems of living organisms within a region. Location has also been defined by geographic spaces and topological features. Landscape paintings represent this view of location. Culture and experience strongly influence how people interpret aspects of the physical landscape. In addition location has been defined by cultural boundaries - as the locale where culture is lived (Lippard, 1997). Artists such as Robert Glenn Ketchum (b.1947), Neil Jenny (b.1945), and Susan Middleton (unknown) and David Liitschwager (b.1961), have addressed these issues about locations through their art.

In recent years, ecological artists have conceived of place as the union among the physical, spiritual, historical, and social diversity of a particular geographic region. This concept of place includes how people understand themselves within the contexts of particular locations. Marlene Creates writes, "The land is important to me, but even more important is the idea that it becomes a place because someone has been there" (in Lippard, 1997, p. 32). Art critic, Lucy Lippard (1997) states, "The lure of the local is embedded in land, history, and culture and the possibilities they hold for place-specific, place-responsible public art and photography that share the goals of a 'humanistic geography, to recover the geographical imagination . . . and to introduce moral discourse. . .'" (p.14).

Inquiry Questions

    • How does the location of the artist's artwork affect the meaning of the work?
    • How would the meaning change if the work was produced somewhere else?
    • What are your local social concerns? How might you link these concerns with those of community agencies, government agencies, and businesses in your city or town?
    • How might you put these concerns forward through art?
    • How might artwork enhance a community?


Another dimension to making art is the temporal aspect of lived experiences. Andy Goldsworthy (b.1956) (1990) ponders, "Some places I return to over and over again, going deeper - a relationship made in layers over time." Throughout history, cultures have developed systems to measure time and used them to predict natural cycles of day and night, passing seasons, and other natural phenomena. Ecological artists frequently deal with the relationship between time and nature. For example, in the early 1970s Nancy Holt highlighted aspects of time in "Sun Tunnels." She positioned concrete pipes to catch the rising and setting sun for about ten days during the winter and summer solstices.

Western historians generally view time to be a simple, linear, chronological sequence of social events. However, there are cultural groups from around the world who view time differently, for example, as a circle based on folklore about creation myths or recurring cycles of seasonal change. Recent western scientific theory presents more fluid and unexpected definitions of time. Systems of measure like time can both limit and clarify our understanding of the complex relationships operating in integrated ecosystems.

Inquiry Questions

    • How can time be manipulated or incorporated into the design process?
    • What were the short and long term effects of the art form on the environment?
    • How do artists' deal with issues of time?
    • Some cultures use systems of time based on seasonal changes. What other kinds of time systems exist? How are they implemented?


When making art, the use of materials is not immaterial. Andy Goldsworthy (1990) reflects on his creative process, stating, "I stop at a place or pick up material because I feel that there is something to be discovered. Here is where I can learn." Contemporary ecological artists select material based on conceptual, cultural, and systemic circumstances of their particular project. Mel Chin used hyperaccumulator plants in "Revival Field" (1990-present), Viet Ngo used Lemnaceae or the lemna plant in his water cleansing and reclamation projects; and Ann Hamilton (b.1956) used one human being and 750,000 pennies, three sheep, straw, a tooth grinder, honey, a chair, and a felt hat to create her multisensory installation "Privations and Excesses." Materials are carefully selected and usually carry both literal and metaphoric meanings. A careful exploration of the potential meanings of materials used in various artworks will help students and teachers better understand contemporary ecological art.

Inquiry Questions

    • How does the artist's use of materials differ from those of other ecological artists?
    • Why is it important to consider materials when making a work of art?
    • How would the meaning of the art change if made from different material?


Barbara Westfall,
Barbara Westfall, "Daylighting the Woods", Girdled Aspen, Madison, Wisconsin, ©1993

Gathering Places and Daylighting the Woods are two works which highlight Westfall's ecological art interests, centered around issues of restoration, ecofeminism, and community action.

Change is an inherent certainty in life and affects all dimensions of existence. Andy Goldsworthy (1990) suggests that he has "become aware of how nature is in a constant state of change and how that change is the key to understanding." Involvement in art provides a means of gaining insights into changes in one's life and how subtle and profound forms of transformation expressed through art can convey ideas, expressions, and reactions to local community environments. Art can be an impetus for affirmation and positive socio-ecological change. These beliefs guide the work of many ecological artists.

For example, in 1992, Barbara Westfall (b.1958) worked with the University of Wisconsin Arboretum system to raise public awareness about seasonal changes that influence the maintenance of prairie landscape across the Midwest. Time was another concept that Westfall explored as she collaborated with Arboretum personnel. Each year the University staff girdle young aspen that begin to intrude into the open prairie grasses and foliage. The girdling process is used by the staff to kill the aspen. It is believed that the girdling process replicates the natural cycles of woodland growth and decay.

In Westfall's project titled, "Daylighting the Woods," she spent a year highlighting the act of girdling young aspen and burning open prairie. She stripped the trees' bark in sections approximately five feet from the ground and sanded their surfaces over a period of six months. Natural oils were used to draw attention to the human manipulation of stripping bark from the aspens to slowly kill the young trees. Later, controlled burning was used to stimulate new growth. Photographs were taken to document her working processes over the year and the photographs were exhibited during a performance designed to educate visitors at the arboretum about the effects of human intervention within natural ecological systems.

Inquiry Questions

    • What are some characteristics of change artists consider when making, recording, and exhibiting their artistic processes and art?
    • How would the meaning change if the artwork was larger, smaller, or designed differently?


In this chapter I have discussed an approach to curriculum integration that facilitates inquiry about art in the contexts of life-centered issues. I provided a range of ideas associated with the conceptual generalization of interdependency. I analyzed this generalization by clustering three typologies of social interests: philosophy (dominion, stewardship, and union), perspectives (environmental design, ecological design, social ecology, ecological restoration), teaching concepts (location, time, material, and change). I believe elementary students can begin to understand how many different realities are constructed from diverse cultural perspectives. However, for this to occur, students will need to be actively involved in their own learning, conduct collaborative inquiry, be allowed time to reflect, disagree, agree, and negotiate how they understand different interpretations about art and ecology. This includes asking questions and solving problems based on everyday encounters and events.

Of course, there are many ways that teachers can conceptualize curriculum. Certainly, curriculum development is influenced by a broad range of educational policies associated with community and educational curriculum standards, reform movements, and assessment structures. As we enter the twenty-first century, however, curricula based on projects, techniques, over-simplified metaphors, and pre-made units continue to "de-skill" (Apple & Christian-Smith, 1991) teachers and students. Curriculum activities should help to generate new knowledge about everyday life-centered issues. I believe curriculum represents living processes of classroom cultures that change over time and reflect a teacher's philosophical position and perspective (Dewey, 1938; Grauer, 1998). Ideas selected for study need to reflect the contextual meanings and values associated with our ability to hold multiple interpretations of an idea simultaneously. Dewey (1938) wrote that the value of educational experiences can be understood within the active interaction and continuity of knowledge in society and within classroom cultures. Educational experiences can be developed around personal and social knowledge across many different subject areas. It is for this reason that I advocate using an integrated curricular approach based on broad generalizations and life-centered issues.

End Notes

[1] Curriculum metaphors represent the "value placed" on educational ideas for organizing knowledge. The second edition of the Random House Dictionary discriminates among the meaning and value of significant mental activity and understanding as an idea, notion, thought, and conception. Because human consciousness and unconsciousness are partially socially constructed, any definition of an idea needs to be situated as a product of human cognitive recognition, inquiry, and representation. Idea, notion, thought, and conception are forms of language used to distinguish among denotative, connotative, intertextual, and intercultural forms of communication. For example, idea generally refers to cognitive activity of any degree of seriousness or triviality. However, an idea is commonly used for representing processes considered more important or elaborate than say a notion, thought, or concept. For instance, "teachers deliberate over idea of changing their classroom practices based on new school reform policies." On the other hand, a notion suggests a fleeting, vague, or imperfect thought. "The student-teacher had no notion of how to use a brayer in the printing process." Thought reflects a primary emphasis on processes of inquiry and typically denote less weighty and elaborate forms of representation than an idea. "While talking on the telephone, a thought occurred to the teacher about the days lesson." Conception indicates a thought that seems more complete and complex. "The teacher's concept of the curriculum was based on deliberate and reflective practices." Generalizations are broad-based ideas and processes that associate knowledge across particular disciplines or various fields of study. For example, "Teachers identified interdependency as a curricular generalization to help in the development of a unit of study which include ideas from several subject areas, including: art, math, science, reading, social studies, and language arts."

[2] Ecology is derived from the Greek word "oikos" meaning house. Metaphorically it can be understood to connote one's home or earth's house. ecology i-kδ-le-je,e- n, pl -gies [G Okologie, fr. φko- eco + logie - logy] (1873) 1: a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments. . . . eco- comes from [LL oeco- household, fr. Gk oik-, oiko, fr. fr. oikos house - more at VICINITY] 1: habitat or environment, 2: eco-logical or environmental (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, p. 365)

[3] ArtsEdNet is both a set of resources for teachers and an on-line exhibition of contemporary art. The Art & Ecology web site investigates artistic orientations, artworks, and community and/or global issues along with historic, critical, and aesthetic dimensions of art education, ecology, and interdisciplinary approaches to developing comprehensive curricula. It includes selected readings that cover a range of books for students and teachers on a variety of environmental, social, and cultural issues and from different subject areas. Art & Ecology: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Curriculum was the fifth in a series of ArtsEdNet Talk online exhibitions and discussions that focused on using a comprehensive approach to art education in the classroom. The Art & Ecology site can be accessed using the following URL: Krug, D. (1997). Art & ecology: Interdisciplinary approaches to curriculum, In ArtsEdNet/Art and Ecology.

[4] Subtle distinctions define how teachers' place value on cognitive processes and the representation of knowledge in relation to curriculum organization. Language marks conceptual understanding. Educational language can both limit and/or increase understanding of particular areas of study. I believe as an art teacher it is important to be aware of how we conceptualize and develop curricular experiences for students to learn about existing ideas and for generating new forms of knowledge.

[5] Typologies are systems of classification. Each ecological perspective (environmental design, ecological design, social restoration, and ecological restoration) is based on a broad philosophical position, worldview. The work of the artists is not necessarily limited to any of the four perspectives. For instance, it was a matter of interpretation to group Andy Goldsworthy's work as a form of ecological design. Many artists do not associate themselves with any of these categories selected and some of their work addresses issues related to more than one typology. Similarly, the concept typologies are only separated as a way to help focus attention on a few of the many important environmental concepts used by contemporary ecological art. The concepts should not be viewed as mutually exclusive categories. Instead, the perspectives and concepts are identified as a way to help teachers identify and organize information about interdependency.


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