Thomas Moran: 'Under the trees'

In his essay entitled 'Art Education in a Critical Place-based Pedagogy' Mark A. Graham gave an example of how, on the north shore of Long Island, a group of high school art teachers experimented with the possibilities of a critical place-based art education designed to increase environmental awareness, connection to community, and social activism.

The aim was to dig deep into pictorial representation to reveal the metaphorical, cultural, and ecological richness of the place where they lived. These teachers and their students considered questions about the meaning of sacred in a world of commerce, fashion, and advertising.

They noticed that the history of art is filled with images of sacred places and that artists often attach themselves to places, carving out sacred spaces, and attending to the details of their specific location. The students responded by noticing and making images about the places which they considered special, including graffiti on the walls of the city, the aesthetic possibilities of Main Street, the shore of Manhasset Bay, and the artistic possibilities of their own yards. The students walked through the fields of the local nature preserve with a biologist who explained the role of indigenous and invasive species of plants and animals. They explored the same fields in pairs to observe and draw the landscape. Later, they visited museums where 19th-century paintings by Thomas Moran and Frederick Church evoke yet another view of nature in Long Island. They learned that some of the paintings they sketched in the museum were used to establish national parks and promote the idea of wilderness as a special place. Paradoxically, these images of wilderness paradise were also used to commercially develop these places, reflecting conflicts between nature and development that still exist and raising questions about power, privilege, culture, and nature (McCarron-Cates, 2006).

Nineteenth-century representations of nature were contrasted with their 20th- and 21st-century counterparts. For example, students examined the relationships among man, woman and nature in movie versions of King Kong (1933, 2005) and then compared both with Gorillas in the Mist (1998). Andy Goldsworthy's approach to working with nature was examined in Rivers and Tides (2001). How nature and indigenous people were represented in paintings and movies was explored in Dances with Wolves (1990) and Smokesignals (1998).

This led to questions about who gets to represent nature and culture in the popular media. Contrasting themes of domination and reverence emerged from their discussion.

One student remarked, "The most profound theme in these movies was man's attempt to control nature and its inevitable outcome. The outcome is negative for nature and positive for humans until we all die horribly." Another student observed that "King Kong's brutal capture and exploitation showed that man's relationship to nature has been desensitized by money and materialism." Another wondered "What impact does man really have on nature?" After his solitary sketching assignment, another noted "I felt safest and most peaceful when I saw the Osprey nest. In my sketch there is a tall nest for the Osprey that lives there, made by people. I felt a lingering sense of hope and peaceful coexistence when I was there." The class also discussed the peculiar cultural dispositions of nature photography, as exemplified in Sierra Club calendars (Solnit, 2001). The intentions of these photographs were compared with the more obvious purposes of the images of nature in advertising. These frays into visual culture revealed how romanticized nature can result in a tendency to dismiss local ecological responsibilities and ignore ordinary natural beauty (Cronon, 1996). In this example, traditional landscape painting was complicated and enriched by an approach that encouraged students to consider local ecology in the context of dominant culture's representations of nature. The aims were for students to become more appreciative of the natural world close to home, to become more criticall aware of the forces that influence the places they inhabit, and to create artwork that constructed personal meaning from the confluence of these experiences.