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

By Elliott, Steve; Bartley, Sue | Art Education, May 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

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


Elliott, Steve, Bartley, Sue, Art Education


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.

A HIGH SCHOOL PROGRAM

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.

MATERIALS, ECOLOGY, AND ART

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. In its purest sense, the thing that makes art, art, not only in our culture but in societies around the world, is the attitude and activity of making it special or precious (Dissanayake, 1988).

Through activities relating to material identification and collection, students have the opportunity to discover visually interesting objects in their environment and to see materials as the combined substance of function and expression. Every material is potentially expressive and may possess inherent meaning which can best be understood through physical exploration. In addition to this expressive potential, every object represents a relationship of materials and has its own story. During each activity students are directed to analyze the original function and physical characteristics of objects and materials, then to combine this information with an appraisal of inherent expressive qualities. …

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