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Environment As Art
by Jeremy Stoller
Boise State University

Grade: 11-12
Time Allotment: 5 to 7 periods
Subject Matter:

  • Visual Arts
  • Language Arts
  • Earth Science

Overview:
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's, Robert Smithson's, and James Turrell's art all have one thing in common - the environment. All of the above have primarily devoted their life's work to the making of art that somehow engages the environment, known as environmental art. It is through environmental art (also known as earthworks) that these great artists have reacquainted the viewer to land, water, atmosphere, and light. They have focused their environmental art on getting viewers to interact with the environment in new or unusual ways and in doing so, have made an expression or statement.

This lesson takes the students through the proposal processes involved with making environmental art by briefly studying the above artists via video and Web activities. Each student will create an idea for an environmental artwork for installation somewhere on school property. The student will develop and examine their idea through research, sketches, diagrams, drawings, and models. Finally, each student will compose a proposal package for their environmental artwork idea that is constructed of a written description of the artwork, including his/her intentions of expression, how the artwork engages the environment, and the research results, along with the sketches, diagrams, drawings, and models of his/her conceptualized artwork.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  • Examine and explain the theoretical context for the environmental artwork of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Robert Smithson, and James Turrell.
  • Create an idea of an environmental artwork to be installed on school property that somehow engages the environment and the viewer with the environment.
  • Research the environmental impact of the installation, presentation, and removal of the artwork.
  • Diagram the viewers' interaction with the environmental artwork and circulation around it using markers on a self-generated map-view or blueprint of the installation.
  • Sketch, draw, and build models of the environmental artwork using pencils, colored pencils, 12"x18" drawing paper, and model building material.
  • Write a two page proposal for the environmental artwork that includes a description of the artwork, his/her intentions of expression with the artwork, how the artwork engages the environment, and how the viewer will approach, interact, and circulate about the artwork.
  • Construct a proposal package that contains the written proposal paper and the sketches, diagrams, drawings, and models needed to support the paper.

Standards:
National Visual Arts Standard:
Students will be able to:

  • Content Standard #3: Choose and evaluate a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas.
  • Content Standard #5: Reflect upon and assess the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others.

Idaho Visual Arts Standard:
The student will be able to:

  • Conduct structural analysis, engage in reasoned dialogue, and demonstrate informed judgment about philosophical, aesthetical, or ethical art issues.
  • Communicate in the humanities disciples through application and creative expression.

Media Components :
Video:
American Visions: The Age of Anxiety. Volume 8 AMVI108
PBS Video 1997.

Websites:
Robert Smithson
http://www.robertsmithson.com/
Click on the picture of Spiral Jetty to enter site. This site provides links to Smithson's earthworks, sculpture, photography, drawings, bibliography, biography, and essays.

Spiral Jetty
http://www.nps.gov/gosp/tour/jetty.html
This site provides information on the elevation of the Great Salt Lake and links to find out if Spiral Jetty is visible now.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude
http://www.christojeanneclaude.net/
This site provides links to artworks in progress, past artworks, bibliographies, biographies and interviews with the artists.

PBS -Art: 21 - James Turrell
http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/turrell/
This site provides links to Turrell's work. There are also flashcards, movie clips, and transcripts about Turrell and his work.

James Turrell: The Roden Crater Project, 1989
http://home.sprynet.com/~mindweb/page38.htm
This site provides some technical information about the Roden Crater Project.

Materials:
Per class:

  • VCR and television

Per cooperative group of students (3-4 students):

  • Access to the Internet via computer
  • Access to word processor

Per student:

Prep For Teachers
Inform science teachers of the lesson, so that they will be prepared if students approach them with questions.

  • Prior to teaching the lesson, bookmark all Web sites mentioned previously for the students' use.
  • Preview and cue the videotape to the proper viewing segment.
  • Photocopy the Internet Activity handouts (A and B).
  • Please read through the activities and assignments and review the student handouts as a student would to familiarize yourself with the information prior to class use.
    Note:
    When using media, provide students with a Focus for Media Interaction - To provide students with a specific task to complete while viewing activity, such as a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing of video segments, Web sites or other multimedia elements.

Introductory Activities

In art, artists sometime use the elements of nature as their medium. Science defines the element of nature as Earth, water, fire (light), and wind (atmosphere).

  1. Place the tape American Visions: The Age of Anxiety in your VCR and reset the counter, if it doesn't automatically.
  2. Cue the film to immediately after the narrator says, "A gallery full of earth," as this is said the scene on the screen will be of a gallery with soil completely covering the floor (18m 05s on the VCR counter).
  3. To provide students with a specific task to complete while viewing ask them to write down on a piece of paper what elements of nature Robert Smithson used as his medium to create Spiral Jetty and how he used them. Also, ask the students to imagine why Smithson made Spiral Jetty and what was he expressing to his viewers.
  4. Play the tape, the narrator will say, "In the 1970s, some artists wanted . . ."
  5. Stop the tape when scene changes to a man rubbing paint on his chest (19m 18s on VCR counter).
  6. Check for comprehension. Smithson was using the elements of Earth and water. Each student's interpretation of what they felt Smithson was expressing with Spiral Jetty is correct. Have some student volunteers answer out loud.
  7. Rewind the segment to original Cue (18m 05s).
  8. To provide students with a specific task to complete while viewing students are to envisage themselves on the shore of the Great Salt Lake or floating in the air above it and imagine what they would feel physically and emotionally as an eyewitness to Spiral Jetty; also, why would Robert Smithson make this, what is he trying to express?
  9. Replay the segment.
  10. Stop the tape in the same spot as last time (19m 18s).
  11. Check for student comprehension. Have some student volunteers describe what they felt and thought being there. Have some other student volunteers speculate why Robert Smithson would make this and what is his expression.

    Now that the students have been introduced to environmental art and have imaginarily witnessed the piece, they will be ready to start interpreting other environmental pieces. The questions that the students should continually ask themselves are: why is the artist making this, how does the viewer interact with the artwork, and what does the artwork express to its viewers?

Learning Activities
Step 1:
.Give students background information:

  • An environmental artist does a tremendous amount of behind the scenes work to get his/her environmental artwork made. Because environmental artwork is often done in public spaces, the artist needs to develop a proposal to show the proper authorities. The proposal often contains, but is not limited to, a written description of the artwork, the artist's expressive intentions, and the results from the environmental impact research. The proposal is also supplemented with sketches of the artwork, diagrams illustrating the viewers approach, interaction, and circulation around the artwork, drawings of the artwork in context with the environment, and scale models of the artwork.
  • The environmental impact research the artist does includes answering the questions: how will this artwork impact the environment during its installation, its presentation, and after its removal, and also, how will the viewers approach, interaction, and circulation around an artwork impact the environment.
  • An environmental artist also has material, permit, and construction costs. Other research questions the artist must answer are: who owns the land where the artwork is being proposed for; if public, then who has authority over it and what professionals (Geologists, Botanists, Zoologists, ect.) should be involved in the project to protect the environment? Finally, the environmental artist is liable for the safety of any workers, viewers, or by-passers, so these issues must also be investigated. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were concerned with all these issues and there is some good information at their website (http://www.christojeanneclaude.net/) (click on the interview link).
  • The artist's sketches, diagrams, and drawings of the artwork must express the essence of the artwork. The sketches and drawings show the artwork both in the environment and interacting with it. They also show how viewers approach, interact, and circulate about the piece. They are to help other people, the authorities, landowners, mayors, and so on, visualize the artwork and want to see it in real life. Artists spend a great deal of time and energy on the sketches and drawings for just this reason. Great examples are found on the Christo and Jeanne-Claude (http://www.christojeanneclaude.net/) and Robert Smithson (http://www.robertsmithson.com/) websites.
  • Artists build models to aid in the installation of the artwork (often many people are involved with the construction), help solve structural problems, and for observing light, shadow, and wind affects on the artwork. An excellent model example is on the James Turrell website, The Roden Crater Project, 1989 http://home.sprynet.com/~mindweb/page38.htm.

Step 2:

  1. Cue the video to immediately following the narrator saying, "He or she gets total latitude often at great expense," as an older woman is shown stuffing clothes (46m 30s on VCR counter).
  2. To provide students with a specific task to complete while viewing ask the students to write down on a piece of paper what environmental elements James Turrell is using as his medium and how does the viewer interact with the artwork. Also, what are the physical and emotional feelings the students would have as eyewitness viewers to the artwork title Second Meeting?
  3. Play the video, the narrator will start by saying, "This pavilion . . ." as it shows him walking up a path to a pavilion.
  4. Stop the video after the narrator says, "Turrell's art doesn't happen in front of the eyes, it happens behind them" and the scene will change to show a ranch (47m 55s on VCR counter)
  5. Check for understanding. The element that Turrell is using as his medium is light. The viewer is to enter the pavilion and sit down on the bench against the wall. Call on student volunteers to describe how and what they would feel witnessing Second Meeting.
  6. Rewind video to beginning Cue (46m 30s on VCR counter) and turn off the television volume.
  7. To provide students with a specific task to complete while viewing ask the students to think about what Turrell meant that as a viewer, you are able to have a "self-reflective act of looking at your looking."
  8. Play the video (sound off).
  9. Stop the video at the same place as before (47m 55s on VCR counter).
  10. You may need to Replay this segment a couple of times for student understanding.
  11. Check for understanding. Have some student volunteers explain what they think Turrell meant by his statement about the "self-reflective act of looking at your looking."

Step 3:

  1. Cue the video to where it was stopped in step two, narrator says, "Turrell's art doesn't happen in front of the eyes, it happens behind them" and the scene will change to show a ranch (47m 55s on VCR counter). Return volume to original level.
  2. To provide students with a specific task to complete while viewing ask the students to write down on a piece of paper what environmental elements James Turrell is using as his medium in the artwork Roden Crater, how the viewer interacts with the artwork, what their physical and emotional feelings if they were an eyewitness to this artwork, and why is Turrell making this artwork?
  3. Play the video.
  4. Stop the video when the scene changes to show a close-up of a painting containing a waterfall (52m 07s).
  5. Check for understanding. Turrell is using earth and light (sky) as his medium. The viewer is supposed to lie on their back to view Roden Crater. Call on a couple of student volunteers to describe how and what they would feel as an eyewitness in Roden Crater. Call on some other student volunteers to state why they feel Turrell is making this artwork.

Step 4:
At this point, distribute the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Internet Activity (handout B). If you are short of Internet access, then have the students work in cooperative groups. Each student will need to fill out his/her own handout.

Culminating Activity
In this activity students will develop a proposal for an environmental artwork in the same manner as renowned environmental artists Robert Smithson, James Turrell, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude would.

Each student will:

  • Create an idea that uses environmental elements as its medium and that is to be installed somewhere on school property.
  • Support the idea with an artist statement of intended expression.
  • Sketch the idea with pencils on drawing paper and make models of it using model material (cardboard, balsa wood, fabric, etc.).
  • Research the environmental impact of the installation, presentation, and removal of the artwork (students may need access to some science teachers).
  • Analyze and diagram how viewers will approach, interact, and circulate about the artwork using markers to indicate on a student generated blueprint or map-view of the artwork in its environmental setting (12"x18" drawing paper).
  • Draw the artwork in its environmental setting using colored pencils on drawing paper (at least 2, 12"x18" drawings).
  • Write a two page proposal for the environmental artwork that includes a description of the artwork, his/her intentions of expression with the artwork, how the artwork engages the environment, and how the viewer will approach, interact, and circulate about the artwork.
  • Assemble an environmental artwork proposal; included in the proposal: the written paper, sketches, diagrams, drawings, and models.

Extensions

Science:
Have the students include in their proposal the sun angle, wind velocity and direction, and precipitation common or average for the proposed time period and setting for the artwork. They should then incorporate this information into their sketches, drawings, models, and writings to demonstrate how their environmental artwork will interact with these forces.

Music
Have students select music that they feel reflects the intended experience of their environmental artwork idea. They should then incorporate the music into the proposal package as an aid for describing their idea.

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS:

  • Have the students speak to environmental authorities in the community for information regarding their environmental artwork.
  • Invite an environmental artist into the class for a short discussion and/or presentation of his/her work.
  • Take a field trip to an environmental artwork.
  • Have the students collaborate and develop a proposal for an environmental artwork to be displayed on public property. Then have the students determine who the proper authorities are and submit the proposal to them.

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