I had the privilege this Spring to facilitate a multimedia mural that engaged an entire student body at a K – 3rd grade elementary school in Petaluma with this question. Further questions followed: Why create art? Why care for our environment and our local species? What are some names of local species? What is the relationship between a butterfly and steelhead trout and why does this matter? And what do these questions have to do with our school??
My hope for the school and students through the creation of this mural: To inspire and create beauty, stewardship and pride for one’s local ecology – the ecology of the elementary school, surrounding community neighborhood, and natural watershed landscape.
The students, teachers, and I explored these questions and answers while collaboratively dreaming up, designing, and creating a multimedia mural that would celebrate the local Petaluma watershed. Choosing this theme was easy, the students were luckily learning about steelhead and environmental stewardship in their classes. Collectively, we realized that the austere and boring 300 foot long chain link fence in front of the entrance of the school desperately needed color, beautification and a welcoming attitude. Materials and mural design came next – surplus factory fabric was collected for weaving strips of color to create the landscape background, donated wood was shaped and cut into steelhead trout, monarch butterflies, and trillium flowers, and paint generously donated by Friedman’s Home Improvement was used to paint these local species.
Weaving the connection between art and ecology
So back to the original question – how can art deepen our understanding and connection with science and the local ecology? Art allowed and demanded that the students engage their classroom and local knowledge of the watershed landscape on creative, physical, and intellectual levels. While weaving, they physically created and felt the motions of a flowing river and the peaks and valleys of the rolling Petaluma hills.
The students had freedom towards how to paint and represent the local species – ranging from very realistic to extraordinarily magically – learning color mixing techniques, observational skills, and pattern recognition. Throughout the project, they worked in pairs and small groups, learning how to successfully work as a team and collaboratively make choices. The students experienced an environmental art project – learning with just a few surplus resources what a team can do to transform a boring fence into beautiful color piece of art. Finally, they transferred classroom knowledge to the outdoors and had fun!
I am grateful that such an art creation can offer such multidimensional learning opportunities for the students and community. The excitement, joy, and intelligence of the students was so influential towards the success of this project. The result? Students finished the mural feeling pride and connection for their school and its beautification, their local watershed and its species, and inspired to further care their place of home.