Diverse wilderness experiences have taught me the aesthetics of nature firsthand. My fascination with trees comes from having lived in places that had hardly any at all. When I lived in those places, I yearned deeply for the Northeastern hardwood forests of home. Often using the National Register of Big Trees as my guide, for the past seven years I have been seriously making paintings about the oldest trees that I can find near my home and in my travels.
This study is a result, too, of over a decade of work on ecology themes with my middle and high school art students. Because I have been lucky enough to share their concern and efforts, my struggles in ecology art education are very real, inspired both by nature, and by actual human faces.
Ecology artists are sensitive to the interconnectedness of all living things and seek to create form around this concept. It's true that from prehistory to the present, human beings have been trying to make sense of their relationship to nature through their art. What has changed though is a new attitude toward nature. Rather than the old "dominion over" idea, the new ecology model stresses interdependence with nature. Ecology art, by extension, is based on these principles.
Ecology art education on-line is a way of empowering persons to act on their ecology concerns by sharing art on the Internet. Through the tremendous power of the network, a single ecology art project can extend beyond the self, beyond a single culture, exponentially, through the computer. This on-line community of learners is an ecosystem, too, one that depends on interpersonal relationships, and interaction with each other, the subject matter, and the medium to exist and to grow.
Is there a difference between environmental education and ecology education? Evironmentalism can refer to the preservation and conservation of nature for human benefit. It is commonly known that ecology is the study of the interdependence of all organisms, with no one species having priority in the web of life. Education about each category naturally reflects the philosophy that is inherent in each one. Although the subject of old trees was used as the theme of this research project, any ecology subject matter that is interesting to the students would be appropriate to use for ecology art education on-line.
Based on my observation of students who zealously join environmental clubs at school, create compassionate art works about the earth, and network with each other at conferences and on hundreds of listservs, news groups, and Web sites on the Internet, there is a huge need for ecology art education in the school. This necessity is demonstrated by students themselves. It transcends changing state and federal environmental education agendas and seems to remain constant in spite of them. Art students want information and they want to become involved. This study is for them.
But why are telecommunications necessary in ecology art education? Millard Clements, professor of Environmental Conservation Education at New York University, encourages young ecologists to use the same technologies as the polluters. In no other way can important, timely information from a spectrum of ecology sources be made available nearly instantaneously. With every school in the country being connected to the Internet by the year 2000, there is an obvious need to address its impact on art education. For these reasons, this study is necessary in my academic discipline to investigate the capabilities of the Internet and World Wide Web for ecology art education, and to demonstrate the viability of research projects in art education on the Web.
Since electronic resources in art education were just developing at that time, I initially relied on the familiarity I had with Internet resources in environmental education. My involvement with telecommunications through my course work in Environmental Conservation Education, and the Navigating Global Cultures Distance Learning project at New York University had provided me with a good working knowledge of the Internet resources in environmental education. This background prepared me to see the need in my own discipline.
The following listservs formed the back bone of my electronic communication with teachers throughout the world: Kidsphere, EdNet, IECC (Intercultural E-mail Classroom Connection), EarthDay Online, EnviroLink, EcoNet, The Art Teacher Connection, EMIG, and ArtsEdNet.
Numerous sources in ecology, philosophy, education and the visual arts literature has informed this research over the years. By defining “art as an open concept,” Morris Weitz showed that art can easily integrate ecological issues and telecommunications. (Weitz,1962) Within his environmental aesthetics, Arnold Berleant declares that "The perceiver is an aspect of the perceived; person and environment are continuous."(Berleant, 1992) This sounds like a good idea in theory, but how can this perceptual shift be accomplished, especially with school age children? Here is where Berleant's theory of environmental aesthetics is so powerful and why it works so beautifully for A World Community of Old Trees. What he calls for is intense engagement with nature that actively employs all of our senses. For the viewer to become continuous with the environment, he asks for a passionate total sensory immersion in it. Yet, according to Berleant, this is not enough. The integrated self, not only the senses alone, must become activated in the aesthetic perception of environment.
For ecology art education, the entire student, complete with personal, cultural, and social history, must be engaged in this experience. The simple act of perceiving a tree, then, is not so simple then. For students participating in ecology art education, they are asked to confront that tree, or any other aspect of the physical world, with their total selves, completely. Then, they may give form to that complete engagement, with art media, and with language.
Aldo Leopold is recognized by most environmental historians as the originator of modern ecology theory. (Bramwell, 1989) In his Land Ethic , he replaces conventional anthropocentric environmentalism for biocentric ecology. (Leopold, 1949) The work of both Berleant and Leopold form the philosophical bases for A World Community of Old Trees.
The insights of William Doll in A Post-Modern Perspective on Curriculum are particularly appropriate for an ecology art education on-line since he argues for a "dialogic" rather than a didactic method. "An open, interactive, communal conversation is key to a post-modern curriculum." (Doll, 1993)
I used David W. Ecker's Matrix of Generic Questions for Curriculum Research and Development (Ecker, 1992) to examine past, present, and future projects, and combined it with Ecker and Kaelin's Levels of Discourse in Aesthetic Inquiry (Ecker & Kaelin, 1972) to situate criticism, meta-criticism, and theory successively in each of the research questions.
Suzi Gablik's The Re-Enchantment of Art is a valuable resource for establishing the tradition of ecology art. She calls for an art of involvement and empathy, and observes how art has progressed from ego-centric" to "socio-centric" to "eco-centric."(Gablik, 1991) These are critical thoughts for me because they establish artists as being able to accommodate emergent social issues, in this case, ecology-based art education in their work. Because of Gablik, I am able to perceive A World Community of Old Trees as a collaborative art piece. For the initiation of the on-line project, resource material on old and big trees is useful.
For all U.S. participants, the 1998 edition of The National Register of Big Trees , published by American Forests is available in print and on their Web site. (American Forests, 1998) Also, various state guides are readily available.
With all of this in mind, I have fused the Aesthetic Inquiry methodology of David Ecker and Eugene Kaelin, with Ecker's Matrix of Generic Questions for Curriculum Research & Development. Ecker's method was used as the phenomenological navigating tool for the study with its three distinct phases:
1. What was the case and What is the case?; 2. What could be the case?; and 3. What should be the case? (Ecker, 1992)
At each of the three phases I employed one of the three successive levels of discourse, criticism, meta-criticism, and theory, as outlined in Figure 1, Ecker and Kaelin's Levels of Discourse in Aesthetic Inquiry model. Their famous ladder diagram represents how "knowledge claims concerning the existence or interpretation of aesthetic objects derive from the art object," and that "each higher level of discourse has as its object of reference either one or more, perhaps all, of the strata located beneath it."(Ecker and Kaelin, 1972)
For example, for the first phase of this research, the Internet ecology art project survey, the method was operative at the critical level, where computer data on past and present ecology art projects was collected from sources on the Internet to determine the history and status of similar projects.
For the new Internet ecology art project in phase two, A World Community of Old Trees, the method of research operated at the meta-critical level, addressing the findings of phase one and launching a new internet ecology art project on the World Wide Web. The new project was, in fact, the metacritique in process.
Finally, at the third phase, the research method was positioned at the theoretical level, to examine the completed project and made recommendations for ecology art education on-line.
Figure 2 The Big Picture, gives form to my thinking about the study. The heartwood from which the other rings radiate, is my paintings of old trees. Each successive ring encompasses a wider frame of reference, until the total is wrapped by the ecology philosophy of Aldo Leopold as the final ring.
With Figure 3 A Closer Look, I try to structure my thinking about A World Community of Old Trees by applying a new radiating configuration to Ecker and Kaelin's Levels of Discourse ladder.
In this initial phase of the research first begun in 1994, I hoped to establish the history and current status of ecology art education on the Internet. Two questions are presented in one category because the method that was used for both was the same, phenomenological description of the data gleaned from: IECC, ArtsEdNet, EnviroLink, EdNet and EcoNet. Beginning with a posting on IECC Projects in September 1994, data was collected through e-mail queries on educational listservs over a period of two years. the findings were then indexed according to: contact teacher's subject area, art teacher participation, location of school, topic of project, grade level, length of project, procedure for participation, and format for disseminating imagery. Working at the critical level, I used phenomenological description to record my findings.
His 1993 article in Interpersonal Computing Technology:An Electronic Journal for the 21st Century describes how he and his students participated in this pioneering e-mail project. "This super project was the brain-child of four high school teachers, Tadeo Kawasaki and Mitsuru Takahashi of Katsuta, Japan, and middle school teachers, Sheldon Smith and Mike Lang of Atascadero, California." (Fromme, 1993)
At that time, through the IECC listserv, I had received e-mail notice of two other early on-line ecology projects. Although they did not specifically involve art, they demonstrated the tremendous possibilities for classroom collaborations on the Internet. Also, Texas art teacher, Lyn Belisle, conducted an exchange, The Green Dream Machine: Art, Ecology, and the Internet, that took place during the 1994-1995 school year. (Julian, 1997)
Based on my research of Internet resources that had no subscription fee, there were only four projects through the 1995 academic year that could qualify as specifically addressing ecology issues with on-line art: Project Ecology 1993, Project Ecology 1994, Project Ecology 1995, and The Green Dream Machine: Art, Ecology, and the Internet 1994-1995. They all used e-mail to promote their projects, and the finished art work was sent via snail mail to a final exhibition.
For finding more information on the current status I set a two hour time framework for searching the key words: ecology art, and ecology art projects, on the Web. The first link that appeared in the list was Art and Ecology: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Curriculum, http://web.cgrg.ohio-state.edu/COTA/arts_advocate/spring96/art_ecology.html> This site was for the National Colloquium for Teaching Contemporary Art at Ohio State University, held on June 28 to July 2, 1996. Returning to EnviroLink, EcoNet, and IECC brought only notices about A World Community of Old Trees. Then I opened the ArtsEdNet Web page.
From what I could determine from a timed Web search, and accessing known ecology, education project, and art education Web sites, Project Ecology was the only case that represented the current practice in July 1996, other than my own.
In examining the early projects, I noticed that they might be further expanded in six categories: participation, interaction, content, promotion, information collection and distribution, and evaluation. The dynamic and graphic nature of the World Wide Web made it possible to answer What could be the case? with a new project.
The Tree Museum held two sections within it: Web Sources, and Print Sources. Web Sources is open for the contribution of URL's (Web links) that contain information or imagery on the world's oldest trees. Bibliographic references from standard print media that are sent in are compiled in the section, Print Sources.
Tree Talk provides a space for participants to share ecological information on old trees by by sending in external Web links or e-mail postings. They may also send in photos and text. Embedded in the Tree Talk section is Commentree, the dialogue space for project participants and visitors. The entries in this section are arranged chronologically. The three main sections as outlined above, provided a basic armature, but because of the open concept of the project as a whole, and also each section and subsection, serendipitous events were welcomed and enjoyed.
My first task was to create a Web page and to install it on a server. I used only one resource, A Beginner's Guide to HTML, freely available at that time on Netscape 1.0. Although software programs for creating Web pages were just starting to come out at that time, I never needed to use them. In fact, I used only a handful of basic HTML commands to create and maintain the Web site, and still do. To constantly reinforce its presence, I used personal e-mail, listservs, and newsgroups, and filled out Mail-To forms on related Web sites.
Another interesting feature is that it is possible to put material on the site and then immediately e-mail the contributors to inform them of their URL.
When I turned in the finished dissertation to the School of Education at New York University on January 31, 1997, the Web project's Table of Contents listed contributions of photos, art work, a song, a video, tree facts, personal narratives, poems and stories from adults and children from around the world on over 100 separate Web pages.
In the Table of Contents, the Tree Gallery featured all of the student and adult artists as internal and external links. The Tree Museum's two sections, Web Sources and Print sources, each contained a lengthy list of citations referring to old trees submitted from participants around the world. The Tree Talk component at that time had 20 global contributions from persons sending in photos or text about the most extraordinary trees in their world. Now two and one half years old, A World Community of Old Trees is still growing with participation from over 24 states and 18 foreign countries. Please join us!
The overall potential of the Web for ecology art education was assessed by examining the material that came into the six metacritical points built into the project: 1. interaction, 2.participation, 3. content, 4. promotion, 5. information collection and distribution, and 6. evaluation. Based on my research, here are my recommendations in each of those categories for What should be the case?, for ecology art education on-line.
In A World Community of Old Trees comments were sent directly on Fill-Out and Mail-to Web forms, participants could interact with imagery already on the site by sending in graphics files in response to it, or by computer manipulation of existing project art.
Because of constraints on this research by New York University's Committee on Activities Involving Human Subjects for research with minors, methods for optimizing participant interaction, such as the use of a Web Board, were not available for use in this research. Participants were unable to communicate directly with each other. Further research, conducted outside of University constraints, is needed on participant interaction within a Web ecology art project.
What all of this suggests to me for future research is the identifying and isolating of interactivity factors on a Web ecology art project in order to examine their particular characteristics and to make recommendations to classroom art teachers about the nature of specific ones.
Yet, to optimize participation, various features of Web project design should be considered. Having text-based sections in addition to ones requesting visual collaborations was a good way to encourage participation from non-artists and to enrich the community. By making participation in an ecology art project an open rather than restricted category, A World Community of Old Trees was able to demonstrate the potential of the Web for engaging a large and diverse group in a relationship. However, any project will sit silently on a server unless deliberate thoughtful strategies for project promotion are initiated and repeated. Additional research should address these issues.
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