Material Arts Design: An Exploration in Creativity, Ecology and Culture

Article excerpt

I remember my Grandmother making patch quilts from old clothing, braiding rugs from rags, scraps, and old nylon stockings, hooking rugs from burlap bags, and unraveling knitted garments to re-use the yarn. This kind of conservation existed out of necessity, in her case because of poverty. Although poverty was the initial catalyst for these kinds of activities, what lives on is far more enduring and significant. What a connection, appreciation, and intimate relationship she enjoyed with the stuff that made up her environment. When you cover yourself with a quilt that is made of pieces of material taken from clothing worn by family and friends, the quilt becomes so much more than just a source of physical warmth, it embodies the memories of those family and friends.

I see the fabric that used to be a dress that my mother made for me when I was a child. I see my grandfather's pajamas. I contribute to her story as I add patches over deteriorating areas. I can see inside where she put the fabrics that she didn't like. I trace her stitches and feel her hours of constant work.

The legacy of Sue Bartley's Grandmother is more than a collection of rugs and quilts. It has become a source of inspiration and motivation behind an innovative high school program that celebrates materials, creativity, and culture, while concurrently encouraging individual responsibility towards the environment The curriculum consists of activities that explore ecology in its fullest sense, human ecology, which is the study of interactions between people and their environment (Allen, 1991). This paper shares ideas about some of the associated virtues of art and ecology as students explore their cultural and material environments.


Material Arts Design is a threecredit course that may be taken as part of a high school student's regular secondary school program. It comprises three main areas of study: material arts, nontraditional media, and industrial design. During the semester, students explore important links between art and technology and develop a wide range of technical skills while addressing aesthetic and ecological issues through a series of broad-based projects.

This course is one of the Frontenac County Board of Education's many specialized county-wide programs created to complement regular course offerings. Many of these programs fill specific gaps in the curriculum, identified as areas of contemporary need and interest, and also train students in useful skills and concepts related to the world in which they live. Issues and skills related to employability, cultural identity, and environment constitute the drivers behind the various programs.

The students who participate in this program come from schools within the county to spend a concentrated semester in this area of study. This allows for intensive, uninterrupted involvement and increased teacher contact, giving students the opportunity to focus their learning in a specialized environment.


The activities in the course are designed to lead each student to explore and view materials, creation, and re-creation as part of an ongoing human ecosystem. The concept of art materials is pushed beyond the boundaries established by the retail art supply industry to a plateau where everything within the scope of our human context may be considered a viable material for artistic production.

Most of the materials and objects that are used have already outlived their original function, and have been designated as waste, destined either for landfill or some form of recycling program. These waste materials are gathered by the class from area recycling centers, from programs within the school, from the local community and business, and from the individual environments of the students.

The materials are not precious, in that they are plentiful and usually free of charge. The cost savings help declining school budgets, the re-using of waste supports ecological and environmental issues relating to pollution and a sustainable future, and the opportunity to make non-precious materials precious through creative activity is at the heart of what art is often about. …