Voices in Education

Art, Beauty, and the Natural World

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July 26, 2017

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.  For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the whole world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” -Albert Einstein 

We are connected to everything on our planet and beyond, most simply by the stuff we are made of. Children comprehend this implicitly. Adults can encourage this understanding in young people. Creative expression, with a focus on the natural world, is a great means of developing a young person’s sense of identity and belonging within the grand web of existence.

Collecting and assimilating knowledge about the natural world is crucial to our understanding of the interrelated systems that make up our planet. It is our imagination that drives our use of that knowledge: making connections between facts and possibilities, expressing the awe we feel at our growing knowledge, and creating space for empathy with our fellow creatures on this earth.

We spend our lives in human-centric environments, and so the experience of oneness with the other inhabitants of earth can feel so distant, so abstract. Yet the truth, confirmed by researchers, is that we are one planetary family despite all the ways we separate, categorize and emphasize differences. So, how can you connect to our natural environment? Of course, you can spend time outdoors, visit our national parks, go camping, hiking, canoeing, just be in nature in an unmediated way without technological gadgets, headphones, etc. But what about after you get home? What about the times you cannot get outside, for whatever reason? 

Nature programs such as Wild Alaska are wonderful for educating and connecting us with animals and landscapes to which we might not otherwise have access, but what about when the program is over? How can we internalize what we have seen or experienced in a way that is both highly personal and tangible? 

The Beauty of Art 

Making art, whether it be music, dance, writing, acting, drawing or sculpting – or any number of other forms – is one of the most powerful and personal ways to develop one’s understanding of existence and one’s connection to the world at large. It’s also a lot of fun. 

Below are a couple of activities (“rainy day projects” as my mom used to call them) that can effectively encourage:

  • focused attention
  • free and creative thought 
  • curiosity about and empathy with the natural world
  • self-expression and confidence
  • storytelling: verbal and visual

“A painter told me that nobody could draw a tree without in some sort becoming a tree.” -Essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson

No special supplies are required for these. Whatever you have on hand, and like to use, will work!

“WHALE SONG” 

One of the many types of whales we see in Kodiak is the humpback whale. Whales are amazingly intelligent, sing in their own language, and have rich social and emotional lives. We humans have the capacity to discern meaning from sounds and languages that we don’t understand by paying attention to what we hear and to our own responses to it. Basically, we read between the lines. Search “humpback whale song audio” on YouTube, and you’ll find dozens of quality recordings. Listen to a few, and pick the one that “speaks” best to you, and play it on repeat. This exercise has options, both involving listening closely to the sounds, and gauging your own emotional responses to them or pictures that come to your mind. A fun way to do this is with a friend, and see how similar or different your interpretations are. The great thing? There’s no one right way to do this.

Some options to explore: 

  1. Write a poem/song to the whale song. Basically, write the lyrics. What could this whale be going on about? Is she happy? Celebrating something? Or is she singing about lonesomeness and longing? Who is she singing to? Is it another whale close by, or maybe one very far away…maybe she’s giving directions, or announcing a feeding spot. Or, maybe the story is much more poignant. Listen without preconceived ideas, and just tell the story that comes to your imagination through the beautiful, strange and echoing language of the whale herself. Try and make your poem last the duration of the recording. When it’s finished, read it aloud to the accompanying recording. Or, if writing is not an option (or we are not old enough to write so much) then share the story out loud as the recording plays. Be the whale’s interpreter.
  2. Envision in your mind’s eye the sounds as colors, shapes, lines. Coordinate your hand with the cadence of the whale’s song. Don’t try and paint a “picture” but rather, create a field of visual sound on the paper (or whatever you’re drawing on). Is there emotional content to the sounds? If the song seems happy, what colors do you see? Is there drama to the song? How does that affect the kinds of marks you make? Do certain sounds seem to have a shape in your mind’s eye? How do the sounds make you feel? Do you get a sense of space from the song? Of light, of dark? Your art may look very strange to you, and that would be ok: wasn’t the whale song strange to you as well? From listening so closely and interpreting it through a different sense (from aural to visual), you will come to know it more richly than if you had passively listened.

“CHIMERA” 

(Pronounced “kai-MEER-uh”)  A chimera is a mythical/fictional creature comprised of characteristics/parts of various animals—-imaginative, often implausible. What are the three (or more?) animals you have seen on Wild Alaska that you like best? What if you picked your favorite characteristics of each, and made them all one animal? [I do this all the time in my own work, though I abstract the forms somewhat, plus I incorporate plants in my chimera.] For this project, you can draw or sculpt in clay or plasticine. You get to name your Alaskan super-creature, too. Imagination takes over. Maybe some of the characteristics are not even visible but you know they are there…for example, maybe your chimera is part sea otter, part Dall sheep AND has the ability to squeeze through an extremely tiny opening to escape capture just like the escape artist, the octopus! All animals have special talents, strengths and intelligence unique to them. How would you mix them up to create your own super animal? Maybe your chimera has some plant characteristics? This project may take some added research into your favorite animals. 

Alaska is home to some of the most amazing wildlife, so there are endless possibilities of interpretation for this activity. What is your chimera’s preferred environment? What does it eat? Is it herbivore or carnivore, or omnivore? Is it a social animal, or solitary? What’s its temperament like mellow, cheerful, wary, or aggressive? Does it hibernate like a bear? Is it stationary like a mollusk, does it build a nest or migrate? How many offspring does it have; just one, or whole litters? Or, does it lay eggs? How does it get through the long, dark Alaskan winter?  Think about all these things as you decide on the different parts/characteristics. 

We are connected to everything on our planet and beyond, most simply by the stuff we are made of. Children comprehend this implicitly. Adults can encourage this understanding in young people. Creative expression, with a focus on the natural world, is a great means of developing a young person’s sense of identity and belonging within the grand web of existence.

Eva Champagne Artist

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