a place for art in outdoor educationPosted: January 23, 2014
a short essay for the NAFSO Journal 2014*
Art is the means through which we may investigate, appreciate and express our relationships within the world. Contrary to popular opinion it is not just the production of art ‘objects’ for public consumption but more an intimate and personal process through which we test and apply our powers of observation and analysis. Such powers are not limited to empirical measurement but encompass and encourage multisensory and intuitive evaluation whose open-ended outcomes and expression may utilize a combination of disciplines from painting and sculpture to movement, film, writing and music. Quite simply Art, in whatever form, offers a space and structure to experience and create a deeper sense of the energies, material or otherwise, that animate this world.
In the opening keynote speech at the NAFSO annual conference at Skern Lodge in North Devon, Leszek Iwaskow (OFSTED inspector and HMI National Curriculum advisor for geography) stated how experiencing ‘a sense of place’ was possibly one of the most important motivations for contemporary education, especially in respect of the current trends towards the virtual classroom and shifts away from real and tactile engagement with the outdoor environment. This ‘sense of place’ based in personal experience and encouraged by geographical processes such as map reading and making, Leszek enthusiastically explained, is what allows us to connect to and make sense of our world, and our role within it. For me this all sounded very familiar!
While recently studying for an MA Art & Environment at Falmouth University, the phrase ‘a sense of place’ was associated with an American artist Lucy R Lippard whose book, LURE OF THE LOCAL senses of place in a multi-centered society, expounded ideas of the social, ecological and political importance of engagement with the local environment. The book combines artistic and geographic methods of research and presentation. Many contemporary artists have adopted this form of interdisciplinary practice. Indeed collaboration between artists and scientists, from whatever discipline, has increased as the inability of science to both communicate its findings and acknowledge the more than empirical nature of the world has become increasingly apparent. Until recently Art and Science have been inextricably linked, both utilizing observation as a means to learn about the world. Scientists throughout history have often employed and displayed excellent drawing skills to record and document their research.
Through personal involvement with an Australian Aboriginal Elder it also became apparent how this exploration of the local or ‘sense of place’ also resonates deeply with the indigenous processes of learning utilized by tribal people around the world, as children are encouraged to explore their own skills and aptitudes in relation to their environment and the materials it provides. Rather than dictating an outcome within a narrowly prescribed set of options, tribal education provides space for individuals to reach an understanding of their own creativity and purpose within society. Children are ideally allowed to grow into an intimate understanding of their aptitudes, limitations and possibilities. Such methods have more recently been adopted by exponents of experiential learning techniques, while the benefits of learning in the outdoors through more tactile and sensory participation has been championed by the likes of Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods) and the principles of Ecopsychology.
So how does Art differ from other methods of engagement with the world and why is it important that we consider its inclusion within outdoor education? Art provides a space and structure for learners (of all ages, abilities and experience) to participate within and creatively reflect upon actions and materials on a multitude of basic and complex sensory levels. It offers opportunity to explore the ways and means we may communicate our findings and, more simply, how we may express ourselves within a specific environment. Through its very nature, concerned as it is with the practical application of materials, composition, colour, light, juxtaposition, observation and relationship, Art explores an ecological and interrelated perception of the world and therefore encourages a sense of personal and social responsibility.
On another level funding for the Arts within the national curriculum has been drastically cut. This is maybe based on ignorance about the specific nature of learning and experience that it offers not only from curriculum advisors but also from practicing artists themselves. In recent history Art, like many other areas of study, has been conceptually detached from the world in which it exists, creating a seemingly vacuous and purposeless aura to its study – we are all familiar with the phrase ‘Art for art’s sake’ with its roots in the Modernist art movement. However, in a society suffering so drastically from such a lack of cohesion and respect for the world a return to the basics of study through first hand observation and manual dexterity are in my opinion essential. Art offers a space for this, leading to an understanding of the principles of technology as well as primal sensibilities.
My own work as an environmental artist, as some of you may have experienced at the NAFSO conference in North Devon in January, looks at our relationships with locally gathered materials, such as earth pigments, in a variety of ways including painting and paint-making workshops, walks, participatory art and art in the environment. For me an essential aspect of this work is creating a relaxed and open space for participants to explore and then reflect upon our actions. It is a place to play and to feel through the medium of our own sensory experience. However, while basic art activities are often utilized within outdoor education the implementation of more specific art methods by specialist artists may increase their impact. Whatever forms the art making takes, whether it is painting, drawing, sculpture, singing, dancing or writing, the process relies on intimate personal response to materials and place through the plethora of senses available to us but also the skills to facilitate a deep appreciation of those processes and the possibilities they may offer.
If we are to be open to a sense of place, as Leszek Iwaskow suggests, then the process of Art allows us to do just that – sense a place, to experience it with all our senses and thus to make those experiences more memorable, more pertinent and practicable and more enjoyable on a very personal level. But then surely this is the intention of good education from whatever discipline we come from?!
*In January 2014 I was invited to run a Painting with the Earth Workshop for the NAFSO (National Association of Field Studies Officers) Annual Conference just up the road from me in North Devon at Skern Lodge Outdoor Activity and Education Centre (www.skernlodge.co.uk). It was a refreshing and inspiring experience to work alongside other outdoor education specialists from a variety of different organisations, backgrounds and disciplines and to share ideas and approaches to a common goal – to provide memorable, meaningful and enjoyable outdoor experience for all. As the only practising artist present it became a good opportunity to impress the relevance and importance of art within this arena. I was subsequently invited to write a short piece for the NAFSO Journal to expand upon my ideas to a broader audience. Many thanks to Skern Lodge for inviting me along.
NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF FIELD STUDIES OFFICERS – http://www.nafso.org.uk/
RESEARCH IN ART-BASED ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION (www.naturearteducation.org)
RESEARCH IN ART, NATURE & ENVIRONMENT (www.rane.falmouth.ac.uk)
CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART & THE NATURAL WORLD (www.ccanw.co.uk)
© Peter Ward 2014