CUST-ERST 2114 Workshop: Ecological Art
Dr. Jessica Marion Barr, Cultural Studies and Bachelor of Arts and Science (B.A.S.)
When you think about environmental remediation, which disciplines come to mind – engineering, chemistry, environmental sciences… visual arts? Trent’s Dr. Jessica Marion Barr is showing students that art can have a significant impact on restoring damaged ecosystems through a new Ecological Art course.
“I was keen to expand and share my own ecological art practice and to introduce students to some of the history and techniques of environmental art,” she says. “Ecological art is a genre or artistic practice that aims to preserve, remediate, or draw attention to pressing environmental issues.”
Combining theory and practice
Professor Barr’s inspiration for the new course came from other hands-on workshop art courses offered through Trent’s Cultural Studies program. As a studio art course, CUST-ERST 2114 Workshop: Ecological Art includes robust historical and theoretical components.
“We examine histories of environmental or land art up to more recent ecologically sensitive activist-oriented art that involves remediation and drawing attention to pressing environmental issues,” explains Prof. Barr. “On the practical side, we spend a lot of time outdoors salvaging or foraging for different materials and then working together to process them.”
The art is not restricted to drawing and painting. It also involves weaving or textile art.
“We sometimes joke that this is literally a basket weaving course,” she laughs. Joking aside, the stitching is both literal and figurative. “While we work, we are weaving into these processes a much deeper and more profound kind of thinking around relationships between humans and environments, Indigenous knowledge, and the conceptualization of human nature.”
Using art to control invasive species
The course reflects Trent University’s broader inter-disciplinary mandate by incorporating research on issues such as climate change, bioremediation, and invasive species. Invasive species – especially plant species such as buckthorn – is a big local environmental issue.
“Buckthorn grows everywhere in Peterborough, so we harvest it and make it into an ink or dye, and then the students work on drawing and painting using the inks they’ve made themselves,” says Prof. Barr.
Changing thinking, world views, and perspectives
Students in the course report a profound impact on their thinking, skills, and approaches to creativity.
“The course has opened me up to so many new artistic practices and ideas I would not have been exposed to otherwise,” says Simone Zhu, who is going into her second year of a joint major in Cultural Studies and Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. “I think my biggest takeaway would be that art, as small-scale ecological interventions, has a role to play in the imagining and creation of a society that lives as an integral and regenerative part of the environment.”
For Harper Caldwell, a second year International Development Studies student interested in human rights, the course provided new insights into global activism.
“Before starting this class I had a very narrow perspective on what activism looked like, mainly having experiences with demonstrations, blockades, political action through contacting local and federal politicians, signing petitions, and donating money and resources to various organizations,” she explains. “This course showed me that art can be a powerful form of activism without being inherently political, and often more accessible to a wider audience.”
Harper’s project focused on the pollution caused by the influx of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. She created a dress made out of discarded masks – a statement piece that attracted coverage by her local newspaper in Kingston.
“I had never thought of myself as an artist,” adds Sandra Kasturi, another student in the course and Trent employee currently pursuing a second degree, this time in Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences. “I took the course mostly because I thought I would enjoy it and to further my degree, but Prof. Barr and the course have changed the way I look at the world, which is amazing.”