The Intersection of Ecology and Art

Written by Beth Heller
    Wednesday, 30 December 2015
"Iceland" by Ken Vonderberg "Iceland" by Ken Vonderberg

“I realized I truly wanted to study ecology – a seed that was planted during my time at [the Urban Ecology Center] but took a few years to sprout.”

This is the opening line of an email from a former High School Outdoor Leader, Robby Friedlen, to Riverside Park Branch Manager, Jamie Ferschinger. He was eager to share the reason behind his decision to shift his research studies to “the intersection of ecology – through the lens of permaculture – and the arts.” As a High School Outdoor Leader in 2009, Robby spent a portion of his summer working with internationally known artist Roy Staab.

With the assistance of Robby and his high school colleagues, Staab used nettles growing along the river to create 100 foot-long natural cables that were draped over branches of tall trees to create a massive, suspended, swaying sculpture.

“The experience of working with [Staab] has stuck with me through all these years ... I just wanted to let you know that my experience working at the UEC in high school has turned out to be more formative than I could have possibly imagined at the time, and has truly set me on my current course through life,” wrote Robby.

Painters, sculptors, printers, photographers, graphic designers and many more visual artists are an important part of our mission. Their works help deepen our understanding of nature and the world around us. Science and art together can tell the story of an ecosystem, which is why we incorporate art into some of our Neighborhood Environmental Education Project classes and Summer Camps. In addition, each branch displays art that was an integral part of its opening — a giant mural in Washington Park’s classroom by Eriks Johnson, a series of murals at Riverside in the slide, camouflage room and room dividers by Kitty Dyble Thompson and a large mosaic by Leann Wooten and community members at the Menomonee Valley. Robby’s story reminded me how important all of those works are.

While the experience of working with Staab was a unique one, the opportunity to learn through art continues at the Center. As our current Art Committee Chair, Nancy Aten, shared, “It has been my hope to have the art program be more than just ‘art on the wall’ — yes, art for appreciating nature and giving insight — but also art as a tool for teaching ecology, a conduit for understanding ecology, and a collaborator in studying ecology.”

The Art Committee strives to not only provide venues for artists, but opportunities for community participation in the creation process. For example, last summer Plein Air artists painted in the Menomonee Valley, encouraged onlookers to ask questions about Plein Air techniques and showed their work in our Menomonee Valley branch gallery. We thank Nancy and the members of the Committee — Sally Dubackm Barbara Manger, Juan Lopez, Kristin Gjerdset and Jamie Bruchman for their dedication to the Center.

This winter as snow brightens our short days, tree trunks show off their reds, browns, greys and greens, I encourage you to explore outdoors and then stop in to each of our Centers for to warm up in the presence of this amazing art. On January 14th, an art opening for Cynthia Brinich-Langlois and Ken Vonderberg will be in the Riverside Park community room gallery and on February 11th the Menomonee Valley’s gallery will highlight a collection of local artists’ work.

Perhaps an experience with ecology and art at the Center could change your life, too. Why not come see for yourself? Visit urbanecologycenter.org/art.

Beth Heller

Beth Heller

Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning, Beth received her Masters in Business Administration from UW-Milwaukee in 2005, where she received the Outstanding Business Plan award for a plan to launch a branch of the Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park. She graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI in 1994 with a B.A. degree in Biology and Education. Beth began working at the Urban Ecology Center in 2000 to combine her love of the city with her appreciation of nature. Beth loves to sail, bike, sing and hike.

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