- Art in Nature and Schools:Nils-Udo
The arts are an integral part of our culture, and they invite us to investigate, express ideas, and create aesthetically pleasing works. Of interest to educators is clear scholarship that links the arts to cognitive and intellectual development. The processes of creating art and viewing and interpreting art promote cognitive and skill development.1 Elliot Eisner, who has written extensively on this topic, argues that "Artistic activity is a form of inquiry that depends on qualitative forms of intelligence."2 Eisner suggests that children can use art to question and reflect on sensory information from their daily lives, and from this reflection develop insight, awareness, and critical thinking skills.3 Expanding on this idea, many scholars suggest that sensory perceptions promote learning through reflection, thus affirming the link between sensory perception and cognitive processing.4 Greene also posits that the arts provide a reflective type of learning, in which students learn "new ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and moving."5 This expressiveness develops from the creative nature of art and its ability to encourage students to "[learn] to learn."6
This article focuses on how the arts heighten cognitive experience through the use of natural materials and sites and the engagement with the natural world. The arts expose viewers to new ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking about nature; this can lead to greater awareness of and motivation to act on behalf of nature. Arts-based experiences "encourage contemplative, reflective thought, which can extend environmental awareness, an essential basis for environmental understanding."7 Sharpening sensory and perceptive [End Page 96] skills through observation and creation can offer children insights into the mystery and metaphor of nature.8 Such a powerful experience often fosters aesthetic sensitivity and can also motivate students to act. To assist in this process, teachers can offer a context of factual information, creative idea exploration, interdisciplinary tools, and a sense of social awareness.9
Eisner notes that simple natural components, such as those encountered in viewing or creating ecological art, can be enormously powerful when considered from an aesthetic perspective.10 He writes,
A tree, for example, can be viewed as an investment in the value of one's property, as a species of flora, as a source of shade, or an expressive form that provides a certain quality of experience when one looks through its leaves just before sunset. The tree's aesthetic features become salient when we choose to perceive the expressive features of the tree.11
Greene reinforces the idea that aesthetic understanding can be deeply engaging to learners and can highlight things that had previously gone unnoticed, thus providing new insights in the life of the viewer.12 Viewers experience new connections, identify new patterns, and think in entirely different ways that break from a more constricted viewpoint. It is this kind of fresh thinking that is needed in the field of environmental education, and which ecological art may in fact provide.
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In light of these ideas about aesthetics, ecology, and education, several questions are raised. How can an aesthetic experience with the works of an environmental artist lead children to take in more through their senses and to apply such radical openness in any subject that comes up for them? What really makes ecological artworks unique, not only as aesthetic experiences but as learning experiences? How can ecological art in educational settings inform, inspire, and engage students around environmental issues? In this article, I examine the artworks of Nils-Udo, a German artist, by looking at his art-making processes, intentions, and themes. Using illustrations of several of his major works situated in various natural environments, I consider how these artworks could initiate discussions and foster connections to classrooms while providing elementary and middle school students with the opportunities to view and ponder existing artworks, create their own natural artworks, and heighten their ecological awareness.
In order to more deeply understand Nils-Udo's life and work, I interviewed...