• "Revisioning the Great Lakes" is an exhibit of student art created through field research at the University of Michigan. Photo by Tamar Charney.

People who study the natural world often do field research. They go to learn about plants, animals, and the ecosystems we live in. But scientists aren’t the only ones who can make use of time spent studying the outdoors. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports:


People who study the natural world often do field research. They go to learn about plants, animals, and the ecosystems we live in. But scientists aren’t the only ones who can make use of time spent studying the outdoors. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports.

A group of students from the University of Michigan have stopped spreading sand on the floor and hanging sticks from a gallery ceiling to watch a video….

(video sound of slosh slosh on the trawl line a bass)

The tape is of a trip they took…to sail, to camp, to hike, to learn about the aquatic life in the great lakes….

(video sound of phylo arthro arthrabida crustratia (fade under))

…And to do some field research. But these students aren’t scientists…. they’re artists. And they are in the process of putting together an art exhibit.

“This exhibit is based on a semesters worth of investigation that art class has been pursuing.”

Joe Trumpey is a professor of art at the University of Michigan. He also teaches scientific illustration. And for years he’s been taking those students to the dessert, and even the jungle, to learn in the real world — instead of the classroom — about flora and fauna and the cells and structures they draw. Now he’s bringing this same method to a studio art class – to encourage these students to develop a relationship with the ecosystems of the Great Lakes region.

“Like any interpersonal relationship, a friendship, a marriage, anything you need to spend time and communicate with each other and to sit in a studio and think well I can make this all up in my head and its all fine. I’ve seen it in books. I’ve seen the pictures, but it isn’t the same as being out there and feeling the wind and the smell and the elements and everything else that’s associated with a particular environment.”

But they did more than just experience the land. Gerry Mull is a graduate student in Fine Arts and a member of the class.

“We explored a lot of environmental issues around the Great Lakes, talked to sea grant people and people doing different kinds of about ecological problems with the Great Lakes.

It was only after learning about fisheries, the food chain, the history of the Lake Michigan sand dunes, the economic impact of Great Lakes shipping, and the plants and animals here that the students got down to the business of creating art out of what they learned.

Gerry Moll has hung long pieces of what looks like brown grass from the ceiling. 24 big primitive forms that resemble sturgeon hover over sand he’s spread out on the floor. He says he hopes his piece creates a longing in the people that see it for the huge number of these fish that used to swim in this region.

“A kind of longing, a dream, a vision of something better, of more sturgeon in the Great Lakes, of what its like and how important it is to have these other beings in our lives. And a lot of fields do that but I think art does it in a special way.”

What these students are doing falls loosely under the category of ecological art — there’s a number of branches of this field – There are artists who actually restore the environment – creating fish habitats or cleaning up a Brownfield as their art. Then there are artists like Gerry Mull who are trying to rekindle our concern for nature. The University of Michigan is in the process of developing an art curriculum that focuses on the environment. And the University of Michigan isn’t alone. Environmental issues are popping up in arts schools and art classes of all levels. Don Krug is a professor of art education at Ohio State University.

“I think it is being taught more and more in higher education and I think it finds its way into art education in public schools in terms of units of study but there is a growing interest and I think if you look at universities throughout the United States there are more and more programs addressing these issues.”

Krug along with the Getty Museum has even developed on-line curriculum materials to help teachers get their students involved in creating art that draws on environmental and ecological issues. University of Michigan Art Professor Joe Trumpey says it only makes sense that art would be addressing something as fundamental as the health of our planet.

“The environment is something that all of humankind shares. Contemporary North American Society has moved away from family farms and is spending time outdoors. Long term relationships outdoors mean a weekend here and a weekend there I don’t think is the same sort of relationship as we had 100 years ago. So, for me, to build work that highlights that, and maybe make it become more into the central focus of peoples lives and understanding about where their food comes from and the relationship between them, and the animals, the plants, the land and the air becomes very important.”

And for artists to create meaningful art about the natural world, Joe Trumpey says they are going to have to immerse themselves like a scientist in the field. Studying the ecosystems around us through paint, clay, charcoal, and the other tools of the artist. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.