Making an Impact on Sustainability through Art

Earth Day

Earth Day 2020. Whittle School & Studios, a global school with campuses in Washington, DC and Shenzhen, China, engaged students, 1st-5th grades, in an art challenge focused on sustainability. Led by the Creative Art & Design faculty during the global Covid-19 pandemic, students were operating from their at-home learning environments and teachers were navigating on-line digital learning space for this place-based activity. The art challenge was one of choice to encourage students to explore their home environments and personalize the context, and theme for their creative expressions in this sustainability art challenge. The choice of materials was open-ended, giving students a wider context for their expertise as creatives, igniting a sense of discovery by what they could forage from around their homes.


We started the challenge with design research; sharing and discussing a variety of contemporary and nontraditional artists whose work is inspired by the United Nationals 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs). Students had an opportunity to learn about several artists who channel their expertise as artists to promote social change. Providing this context for students to understand the power of art as a medium for public communication and engagement, set the tone for permission to explore meaningful, cultural themes for their own works. For example, Mary Mattingly’s Swale “…is a provocative public artwork and a floating edible landscape on a reclaimed barge” that provides “free food for harvest at the intersection of public art and service” (Mattingly, Swale) taking on both zero hunger and old public land laws that govern the city’s foragers. Maris Polanco’s Eternal is a 60-foot-long jellyfish made of plastic grocery bags floating above the National Academy of Science's West court. To draw awareness on living systems below water and the ocean garbage gyres, the sheer magnitude of the installation’s scale and location serve to make visible what is invisible to the everyday consumer. Another artist we studied was Mariah Reading, a landscape painter/eco-artist. "Throughout her travels to National Parks and protected landscapes, Reading creates traditional impressionist paintings on non-traditional surfaces (trash) in order to depict the harms of pollution and climate change." These contemporary artists, all of which used nontraditional media, expanded each student’s language for the expanded field of the arts as an activist re-frame of the impactful interactions between human and natural living systems. Such meaningful engagement with important societal issues through the storytelling of art, communicates a hope for behavior change to create a more sustainable future. Embarking on an art challenge focused on sustainability, provided students with an opportunity to make meaning from their lived experiences during a global pandemic.



First through fifth grade students chose a UNSDG they felt passionate about, on which to make an impact. They brainstormed and sketched their ideas. They uploaded their process work in our on-line learning platform and talked about them during our synchronous classes for biweekly feedback. Students generated many ideas that were based on the impact of Covid-19, such as no poverty, zero hunger, and finding a cure, and began to sketch, paint, sculpt and turn their visions into 2D and 3D forms. 



As a group coming together in each class period, students reflected on the iterations of their individual pieces in order to engage, persist, stretch, and explore their ideas further. With peer-to-peer feedback, each student refined their piece along with a written artist’s statement. Final submissions were uploaded to an online gallery (Padlet) to virtually exhibit their pieces and to continue engaging by sharing feedback in writing, which appealed to students who enjoy the quiet reflection of written narrative.

Exhibition (video)

Although we weren’t able to adorn the school walls with student artwork, which would have furthered student skillsets by designing an exhibit and the matting, framing, and hanging the artwork in our “piazza”, we did organize an online exhibition the last week of school. However, the online experience afforded new opportunities. The digital exhibit allowed us to invite a much broader audience including the early childhood through tenth grade community, all faculty, and families to participate in the conversation. The digital platform also allowed us to feature student presentations (third and fourth grade), to present the lesson, the artists we studied, their creative process, and purpose of their work. The larger learning community was able to ask questions and comment in real time, online. “A powerful metaphor. I keep thinking of different connections between the vaccine process and the game of darts—thought provoking.” commented Head of Lower School, Susanna Stossel. We also encouraged feedback from the community using the online Padlet gallery. Finally, they were given a moment to view the work from our sister school in Shenzhen. 



The Sustainability Art Challenge was a lesson on personal passion and choice on how to make the world a better place through art. This freedom gave students the power to make their own impact through choice in form, theme, and context. The student artists completed their inaugural year at Whittle School & Studios knowing they can make a global difference through their voice, their creative expression, through the expanded field of art. And it was a chance to share global perspectives from the students at both D.C. and Shenzhen campuses. Eli’s “Getting to Zero” is a visual metaphor using darts as the subject matter. His bold complementary colors emphasize the complexity of hitting the bullseye (Covid-19). “It’s really talking about the potential for vaccines that people talk about on the news,” says the rising 5th grader. Eli’s artwork exemplifies how students are visually processing the global pandemic and the power of art in depicting that message to others. This sustainability challenge created the right conditions for students to engage in meaningful expression of their values, ideas, and creations to have a place in our world of free expression.



Artwork 1: “Getting to Zero” by Eli, 4th grader
UNSDG: Good Health and Well-being
“This is my COVID-19 dartboard. When you get to zero in darts you win.
We need a vaccination to get to zero new cases for COVID-19.
The syringes are darts.“ --Eli
Artwork 2: Skylar's “Orange Fish from Deep Within”, 3rd Grader
UNSDG: Life Below Water
Artwork 3: Isa's process creating his ephemeral Upcycled Swordfish, 3rd Grader
UNSDG: Life Below Water & Responsible Consumption & Production
“This artwork is about the many fishing trips in Barbados I have taken with my Dad, when a pair of swordfish was swimming near me and all of their beautiful colors. In this artwork, I used trash to create something beautiful. My fish reminded me of mindful meditation [at school] and how it is calming. It reminds me, and hopefully you too, to recycle properly so that we can keep our oceans clean and always get to see the beautiful fish.” --Isa
Artwork 4: Nicky's Two Beaches, 3rd Grader
UNSDG: Life Below Water & Responsible Consumption & Production
“In my art there are two beaches, a clean one and a dirty one. The clean one represents the things you should be doing, and the dirty one shows you what not to do. For my art I wanted to show how much plastic people throw in the oceans and the beaches, demonstrate how bad it is for the earth and that it is not hard to recycle and not litter.” –Nicky
Artwork 5: Marley's “Earth 2.0”, 4th Grader
UNSDG: Climate Action
“I drew this world, because I wanted to show that if we don't stop hurting our Earth then the Earth is going to turn into an unhealthy environment where we cannot live.  It will lose it's clean beautiful blue water and plants.” --Marley





Artwork below, courtesy of Creative Art & Design Faculty, Yaan Gao, Whittle School & Studios, Shenzhen campus 1st-6th grade students:



Maria Cuzzocrea Burke is an Early Learning Center and Lower School Creative Arts & Design Faculty at Whittle School & Studios in Washington, D.C.