How Canadian environmental artists see their work as a form of environmental education

Yakamovich, J., & Wright, T. (2021). Care-full, convivial, curious: Weaving Canadian artists' conceptions of art as a form of transformative environmental education. The Journal Of Environmental Education, 52, 223 - 238.

Dominant cultural norms in the Western world include anthropocentrism, or valuing human life above non-human life, and a dependence on capitalism and fossil fuels. These cultural norms have contributed to a lack of respect for environmental health, which has led to environmental degradation and a slow response to the current climate crisis and sixth mass extinction. Art is a tool that can question, shift, and recreate cultural norms. Artmaking can therefore be a powerful force in reorienting cultural norms to value ecological health and sustainability. This study investigated how contemporary art in EE can foster sustainability, and how Canadian-based visual artists conceived of their work as a form of transformative environmental education.

The researchers used existing art education frameworks to inform their interview process and how they interpreted data. Rita Irwin is a Canadian art educator who developed the a/r/tography framework, which is a concept that identifies artists as researchers and teachers. They also built on the common pedagogical strategy of combining theory and practice, by adding a bridge between the two, which they called “poiesis,” which is the Greek word for “making.”

This study was conducted in the summer of 2018. The researchers used the snowball sampling method, where one contact in the sample leads to additional contacts, to gather a sample of 24 Canadian-based visual, installation, and performance artists. The artists had to self-identify as an emerging, mid-career, or established artist with at least one body of environmentally-related work. Each artist participated in a semi-structured interview, either over the phone or in-person. Interview questions focused on the artists' current work and how they perceived art as a form of education and tool for cultural change. Interviews were transcribed, and the qualitative data was analyzed to illuminate patterns across the interviewee responses.

In accordance with the a/r/tography framework, artists saw themselves as researchers and educators, and believed their ability to create change was local and place-based. Three primary patterns were revealed in the data analysis, relating to the ways the artists saw their work as environmental education: 1) making connections, 2) asking questions, and 3) stewarding self and others. The theme of making connections centered around an artists' ability to make connections between individuals, communities, their audience, and environmental concepts. Many artists identified disconnection, both in communities and between humans and nature, as a source of concern that they hope to combat in their work. Interviewees felt as though their art created connections between the 'self' and 'other' to reduce barriers between humans and more-than-humans.

The theme of asking questions was built on the frequent response that art should create questions, instead of providing answers, and in this way, stimulate curiosity. This theme was linked to the a/r/tography framework by connecting the importance of asking questions to the role of artists as researchers. While making art, the artist is asking and trying to answer their own questions and hoping to create questions in the minds of their audience. This practice of creating questions for the viewer showed how many interviewees identified their art as a form of environmental education. Interviewees who thought of environmental art as research said that the approach should be curious, open-ended, and conversational.

The theme of environmental art as stewardship arose from responses that posited that making art can be a healing process that can, in its own way, care for communities, and stimulate social and environmental justice. Stewardship, which was also referred to as “taking care” was linked to the educator role in the a/r/tography framework. Interviewees also said that taking care of self and others should be practical, ethical, and effective.

This study had a few limitations. The researchers largely discussed artmaking in the context of colonial academic settings and systems. The researchers acknowledged that more attention should be given to non-Western knowledge systems, such as decolonized knowledge production, land-based education, and oral storytelling. Although this study aimed to illuminate common themes across the interviewed artists, there were significant differences between each artists' background, art practice, and experiences. Canada itself is full of diverse regions and communities, each with different perspectives on the country's history, education system, and environmental issues.

The researchers recommended environmental art be used as a form of transformative environmental education to shift socio ecological cultural norms. To foster artmaking that is a form of EE, artists should also see themselves as researchers and educators, because they have the opportunity to spur curiosity and practice stewardship. Environmental artists can also serve as a bridge between environmental theory and practice. Government administrators, policymakers, environmental educators, and other stakeholders in the EE space should support environmental artists and should employ environmental artmaking as a form of EE. The researchers also recommended increasing collaboration between environmental artists and environmental scientists to facilitate the creative dissemination and communication of important environmental topics. The themes identified in this paper, and how they connected to the a/r/tography framework, could be used by EE program directors and other practitioners to create art-based pedagogy for transformative environmental education.

The Bottom Line

<p>Environmental artmaking can be a powerful force in reorienting cultural norms to value ecological health and sustainability. This study aimed to understand how Canadian environmental artists see their work as a form of transformative environmental education, through 24 semi-structured interviews with artists. Patterns in the interviews illuminated three major trends: artists linked their work to environmental education through 1) making connections, 2) asking questions, and 3) engaging in stewardship. Environmental artists should create connections between culture and nature, act as researchers by asking important questions, and act as educators by promoting stewardship of self and others. Environmental artists should connect with environmental scientists to promote collaboration and facilitate the creative communication of important environmental topics. Policymakers and stakeholders in EE should support environmental artists and employ environmental artmaking as a form of EE, as it has the potential to generate meaningful cultural shifts towards sustainability.</p>

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