Ecoartists: Engaging Communities in a New Metaphor

A nonprofit explores radical approaches to restoring the earth


| February 3, 2005


Ecological art, or ecoart, is a blend of environmental activism, art, and community organizing. Patricia Watts founded the nonprofit ecoartspace in 1997 to 'use art as a tool.' Watts envisions the ecoartist as equal parts educator, visionary, and environmental consultant. To make her point, she describes a number of intriguing participatory art projects.

Artist Gregg Schlanger, for example, working on a commission from the Providence Office of Cultural Affairs, paid local teens minimum wage to help him cast 200 concrete sculptures of animals on Rhode Island's list of endangered species, which includes a range of animals from the bobcat to the Atlantic salmon. Residents of the low-income Smith Hill neighborhood, initially suspicious of the project, ultimately volunteered their yards, and after the project was finished, Schlanger says a local boy told him, 'You made the neighborhood different.'

In a much quieter project, artist Erica Fielder created large hats that double as birdfeeders. Fielder would set-up at either the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens or the Mendocino Art Center, then sit still for as long it took for birds to perch on her head. The goal, she says, was to 'begin experiencing a deeper kinship with a wild creature up close.' Onlookers were also invited to wear a birdfeeder hats while their host spoke about the interdependence of various species within a given watershed.

'These projects all offered the participating communities information about their environment that might otherwise have been filed away in a report and put on a bookshelf in a biologist's office or the local library,' writes Watts, who is currently working on a curriculum and teaching guidebook called Ecoart: Environmental Education.
-- Harry Sheff

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