Land and Environmental Art course seeks to build environmentally and globally conscious student artists

Each year, the Land and Environmental Art course (ART-130) at Lees-McRae seeks to address a global issue that becomes more and more pressing with each new cohort of students: climate change. In each class, Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Design Michael Iauch guides students through that year’s Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a lengthy annual report that, according to the report itself, “summarizes the state of knowledge of climate change, its widespread impacts and risks, and climate change mitigation and adaptation.”

After examining the 2022 report’s Summary for Policymakers, each class this semester was tasked with identifying a piece of data or information they found particularly salient, and proposing an art project that addresses that issue. The classes then worked as a team to bring their vision for the project to life.

“The focus of the class is the way that the landscape has been portrayed by artists over the last 100 years. It’s an important class to be taught right now because of all the climate issues that we’re facing globally,” Iauch said. “It’s also impactful for students to realize artists are capable of addressing these issues as well as scientists.”

During the Fall 2023 semester, Iauch taught two units of the course. The students in each class identified different details from the report that they found impactful. One group focused on coral gardening in their piece, while the other highlighted dam removal. As shown throughout this year’s IPCC Assessment Report, these are potential solutions to issues of dire importance to the current and future health of our planet.

Coral reefs, for instance, are one of the ecosystems the report says will suffer increased species extinction and loss of biodiversity as Earth continues to warm. Coral gardening, the focus of one of this semester’s projects, is a coral reef restoration strategy in which pieces of healthy coral are cut into much smaller segments and attached to material where they can grow in a controlled environment before being reintroduced to their natural habitat and becoming part of a larger reef.

“We decided to create an archway to allow for 360-degree interaction with our project,” the class’s artist statement writes. The archway was covered with handmade pieces of “coral” the students constructed out of paper, wire, and masking tape, and covered in plaster gauze. “As college students, we need to be informed about important environmental issues and take action. Our project accomplishes this through an eye-catching and engaging art installation.”

The second class sought to address the impacts dams have on rivers, watersheds, and the plants and animals that call those habitats home. The group collected single-use plastic and aluminum wasteincluding cans, bottles, and bottle capscut them into small pieces, and arranged them to create a mosaic depicting a dam surrounded by a raging forest fire.

“Dams disrupt ecosystems. Dams can trap sediment that covers rock beds where fish spawn. Dam removal restores healthy river ecosystems by improving water quality and allowing normal sediment flow,” the class wrote in their artist statement. “The yellow, red, and orange fire surrounding the water represents the complex interconnected issues that are bound up with climate change and also suggests the urgency with which we must act to address this global issue.”

By using discarded trash and recyclables as the primary material for both pieces, the students not only addressed the environmental issues at the heart of their work, but also repurposed single-use items, giving them a second life of educational importance and saving them from ending up in a landfill. Both art pieces were installed in The Summit, not only to show off the hard work of the students in the course, but also as inspiring pieces of art for the campus community to engage with and learn from.

“Turning waste into art, that’s what we were trying to do,” senior Sport Management major Kevan Wambugu, who worked on the dam mosaic, said. “The beauty about art is that you have a message, but you also have different ways that people perceive it. Whenever you show an art piece you can also take into consideration the critiques of others and how they perceive your art piece.”

Communication Arts and Design Tackles Climate Change
By Maya JarrellDecember 12, 2023