Activism Through Art
Laney College EcoArt class inspires students to express environmental concerns through artwork
“Were we supposed to pick her up?” asked Sharon Siskin, EcoArt Matters teacher at Laney College, wondering whether she was supposed to drive a student to class. “Let’s just see if she’s waiting on the bench where she was last week.” Giving rides to students may seem odd for a college instructor. So does providing communal lunches, which are typically vegetarian, organic, and GMO free. But in EcoArt, these perks are not just part of the norm, they are part of a strategy.
Photo by Sharon Siskin
When Andrée Singer Thompson created EcoArt Matters in 2005, her goal was to develop a class to train passionate and skilled artists to express environmental concerns in their work. The loud and quirky course Thompson created “to bring creative attention to urgent environmental and social justice issues,” stands opposite compulsory environmental studies education, which is more concerned with facts and processes. And her plan to activate and inspire students seems to be working.
Thompson and Siskin, who now co-teach the class, recognize that students who are oriented towards success in school and arrive at class on time are not always the same students who are most aligned with the course’s ecological teachings. So on this Tuesday morning in November it was vital that they seek out the student in question, fearful she wouldn’t show up to class without a ride. She wasn’t on the bench.
What is EcoArt?
Thompson, a long-time artist and teacher, was inspired to start EcoArt after teaching ceramics at an upstate New York camp for inner city girls. She found that many of the campers suffered from “nature deficit disorder,” and began to merge her art class with ecosystem literacy. They made clay planters with red dirt inside (or as she told the campers, “worm poop!”) and decorated them with symbols. “I was so excited and they were so happy and excited by this program, that I developed it for college,” she said. Thompson works under the premise that artists are practiced in “thinking sideways,” a saying from Václav Havel, the Czech President and visionary of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, who is an inspiration to Thompson’s teachings.
The Laney College EcoArt class covers topics that are cutting-edge, including disability advocacy, art in prisons, and the environmental impact of modern consumerism. Siskin, who is a long-time community and social justice artist, runs the course Facebook page, which highlights class events and promotes student gallery pieces.
Thompson and Siskin, both Women Environmental Artists Directory board members, have access to many Bay Area artists working in the field. They also book scientists and other experts as guest lecturers for the class. On this particular Tuesday, when I was sitting in on the class, the theme was art programs in prisons; guests included Carol Newborg, who has worked with Arts-in-Corrections, an organization that uses art to reduce recidivism, and Richard Kamler, a former artist-in-residence at San Quentin State Prison.
In addition to discussing art in prisons, the class discussion turned to the Bioneers conference, a three-day event in San Rafael, California, that draws leading environmental speakers like Bill McKibben, Gloria Steinem, and Jane Goodall. The 2014 event included Naomi Klein and Eve Ensler. Thompson sometimes pays out of pocket to provide tickets for students, recognizing that students revel in the experience for weeks and months afterwards. Reflecting on her favorite Bioneers presentations, Alida Line, a long-time student in environmental arts, said, “Of course Paul Stamets, I love him. It was a really interesting [talk] about the bees and the mushrooms, and such. Bees are becoming something we really desperately need.”
EcoArt students also take many field trips. Recent trips include a visit to the Recology Center in San Francisco, an employee-owned company that envisions a world without waste, and to Oakland’s People’s Climate March in September.
Photo by Amanda Koehn
EcoArt students range in age and experience — some are professional artists, others are young career-starters, and some are adults experiencing higher education for the first time. In this sense, EcoArt is a difficult class, especially for professionals with full-time jobs. Nancer Lemoins, a social justice artist and student said, “I’m incredibly busy in my life, just overwhelmingly busy, but I really make this a priority, because it’s so interesting.” In some ways, the open-minded atmosphere of a community college like Laney is preferable to larger universities. Thompson recalls a time she guest taught at a four-year college, expecting to dive right into sustainable solutions but was “shocked” by students’ lack of environmental understanding. “Next time I went back, I started from scratch,” she said.
The Challenge of Environmental Art Education
In the United States, the state of environmental education is complex at best. The subject is typically underfunded and basic environmental science classes at the K-12 level often lack focus, with so many ecological issues to consider in the short timeframe of a single quarter or semester. Moreover, lessons in sustainability tend to conflict with other educational goals, which rely upon negligible changes in our norms to maintain American success and lifestyle. A paradox is created between environmental science and art, as science is taught to be objective and rational, whereas art often involves activism and passion. Intertwining these concepts can prove lofty at any level of education, let alone in K-12 classes.
Urgent environmental issues also bring a lot of weight to the classroom. “I began to understand if I just give [students] all the dire information, they’re feeling helpless and hopeless,” Thompson said. To avoid this, Thompson has tried to structure classes so that bleak topics are followed by something more hopeful.
There is also the challenge of balancing artistic vision and activism. “Coming at it from an artistic point of view, or art for art’s sake, the challenge of this class is to keep your aesthetic of beauty… [while] spreading information,” Thompson explained. Moreover, it can be challenging to keep art students, some of who may not take to activism readily, informed and interested. And those who do become activists are surrounded by a larger culture of apathy, an issue often discussed in class. “These are huge issues and they’re all connected,” said student Liz Dunlap, in response to a Bioneers talk. “How do we tell those stories? How do we communicate more clearly and get rid of this stigma that we’re crazy radicals, because we’re not.”
Art and Activism
During a roundtable to discuss final artistic projects, Barbara Greenstein, another student in the class, was pitching a collection involving local availability of sustainably sourced fish. The class was supportive, but also critical, especially with regards to what “sustainable” branding means and who is providing the certification. Thompson and Siskin were quick to ask what experts were verifying sustainability claims and whether Greenstein took the claims at face value. Greenstein said she was going to look into it.
The activism inspired by EcoArt also extends beyond the classroom. Line chose trash as her “core issue” for the class, and says she helped implement a recycling program at Laney College. Another student, Anna Lackey, inspired by the film Bag It, is attempting to live without any use of plastic, quite a lifestyle change. “I’ve become a vegetarian — almost a vegan,” she said. (She blogs about the change here). A former student, Dominique Dominguez, went on to silk-screen canvas shopping bags with environmental messages, selling the bags locally in the Bay Area.
And Thompson isn’t done yet. “One of the courses I’d like to develop is working more with other disciplines, developing [curriculum] on how to prepare for the challenges of climate change.” This could be an interdepartmental program that focusing on a range of climate related issues, including disaster preparedness, alternative energy, extraction technologies like fracking, and urban farming. Her working title for the program is “Resiliency in Climate Change.”
For the moment, Thompson remains content with her EcoArt course. “My greatest hope is [that students] would use their creative energy to help develop solutions for environmental and social justice issues,” she said. “Or they would at least become activists about it. And at the best, they would vote.”
And she doesn’t seem too far off. Line, who now considers herself an activist, said, “she really did change my life and I tell people all the time, but I don’t think she believes it.”