HAND IN HAND:
Collaborative Environmental Art and Community-building
By Alix W. Hopkins
The relationship between landscape and art, as defined through artistic interpretation or collaborative environmental art, is an emerging and significant aspect of community collaboration. Environmental art which can explore and strengthen the relationship between people, art and landscape, is emerging as an effective community-strengthening tool. Art creates a framework for interpreting this connection, using the cultural or environmental history of a particular piece of land as the catalyst. By building broad public support for a project and the landscape on which it sits, art can also play an important role in promoting the benefits of community living.
Collaborative environmental art helps build a sense of community through collective envisioning. Subsequently, people create tangible, if sometimes ephemeral, images through which they can relate their love of land and place. In turn, this process sparks them to act positively in any number of ways. Ultimately, art can inspire greater environmental awareness, leading to increasing levels of advocacy and encouraging a new ethic of stewardship for the land and for the community living on it.
Even further, as participants develop deeper connections with fellow residents who are kindred spirits, they consistently achieve results far beyond their original intentions. They also realize skills and attributes they never knew they possessed. And often they go on to other significant efforts, becoming civic leaders in the process.
Art can represent a holistic way of bringing community into projects through collaborative visioning, funding, siting and maintaining the installations. It calls for artists and communities to work together to implement a creative idea. Art offers itself as cultural memory to help remind people of their place in the community. Anyone, of any age or educational background, can express through art why he or she cares about a special place. This applies to people in communities both nationally and internationally. In Israel, for example, artists have collaborated with scientists and citizen activists on environmental art projects since the 1970s.
It is important to remember, however, that a fine line exists between making art and modifying or destroying natural landscapes to create it. The value and appreciation of artistic creations depends on the intention and the context in which they take place. For some, "fairy houses" (tiny dwellings built in the woods from small, natural objects found nearby) and cairns (piles of stones used as directional indicators along trails) are magical. Others perceive the disturbance of natural features for the sake of art as almost blasphemy. Because of our belief in freedom of expression, we Americans sometimes do not know when to stop! Perhaps we would do well to be more thoughtful about leaving things in their natural state in the wilderness, instead concentrating our art more in urban-oriented settings. Yet some feel just as strongly about not disturbing those areas, such as those who wanted to keep a Portland, Maine, rail yard along the Eastern Promenade in its raw, glass-strewn and derelict character, rather than to create a scenic harbor-front trail for many more people to access and enjoy. One thing is certain: people rarely agree what constitutes art. And artists often seek to provoke debate and reaction through their work.
In its most positive light, however, art is transformative, teaching new ways of looking at land, at the places we love and how to protect them. Whatever works for you, please think about how you might best use art to enhance your own causes and draw people to support them.
About the Author:
Alix W. Hopkins was founding executive director of Portland Trails in Maine. She is also co-president of the Pownal Land Trust and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, and author of the upcoming book, "Groundswell"/ Saving Places, Finding Community", which celebrates the role of land conservation in preserving community character, building individual character and connecting people.
Published in 2005 by the Trust For Public Land.
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