Patterns and STEAM Learning for the October 18, 2019 NHAEA Conference – Examples Inspired by Andy Goldsworthy’s work (Part 2 of 4)

Andy Goldsworthy’s work is a beacon for art educators who truly care about STEAM exploration and collaborative art making in general. Actual interaction with the amazing materials of the natural world is central to projects inspired by Goldsworthy’s craft. In and of itself, this aspect of this style of art-making is such a valuable experience for young people.

We introduce students to Goldsworthy’s oeuvre by explaining that he is one of many recent artists whose work embodies new ways of understanding the meaning / significance of art and the role of the artist. These practitioners recognize that “art” is not something limited to collectible commodities that are bought and sold on the art market, painted on canvases, forged out of bronze, or displayed in museums. Instead, the everyday materials of the natural world (living, non-living, fluid, or concrete) can be coordinated by artists into profoundly expressive compositions and worthwhile experiences (not mere entertainments) for viewers interacting with the art directly or though photographs that document its form before it disappears. Goldsworthy’s art emerges from the environmental art movements of the second half of the twentieth century including land art and ‘arte povera.” It expands upon the idea of installations, performance art, and ‘social sculpture’ with a strong focus on human interaction with the abiding and yet transforming materials of the natural world.

When working with both children (and adults), I’ve found it most effective to begin the projects by allowing folks to first immerse themselves in the imagery of some ofthe marvelous books that showcase his art. The works literally speak for themselves in volumes such as Andy Goldsworthy : A Collaboration with Nature. New York, N.Y.: H. N. Abrams, 1990; Wood. London: Viking, 1996; or Time. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

As they turn the pages, I call people’s attention to Mr. Goldsworthy’s selection of materials, and to various aspects of texture, color, and design in the resulting works. I suggest that they study his arrangements and look for features that are linear, symmetrical, or random, for elements that are rhythmic, or that diminish or crescendo, for aggregations that are complex or simple, for the role of shadow, temperature, balance, or moving air, as well as their 3 dimensional versus 2 dimensional qualities. I ask them what they think and feel about the artwork; how the permanence or ephemeral quality of the work affects their impressions. I let them know that they will be making their own artworks in this style, in teams or independently. after we’ve finished studying the works a little more.

Following time for their comments and questions, I might emphasize that environmental art not only sensitizes us to the beauties and intricacies of the natural world, but also inclines us not to grow too attached to the persistence of the artwork itself. In harmony with reality itself, these artworks are constantly being transformed. Perhaps they’re blown by the wind, scattered by chipmunks, melted in sunlight, or replaced by the activities of a subsequent class of builders. These artworks whisper that things change. The art of Andy Goldsworthy alerts us to the fact that change is constant – a wonderful paradox not only in Art but in Life. Being conscious of this situation, I recommend to the students that when they work on this project, they direct their attention towards enjoying the process of making the construction, with a clear understanding that even though it may be beautiful when it’s completed, it won’t stay the same forever. I ask them to try to use their memories to preserve their impressions of what they’ve accomplished and what their friends have created. In their memories and in the memories of their classmates, the designs (and the activities of this day) will live on in a way. Because they’ve shared what they’ve done with others, their efforts will continue on as part of those other people’s memories too.

Additionally, it’s a happy thought to know that we will be able to capture a few electronic images. We can share these with others who couldn’t be present. Indeed, we might be able to view these little mementos / records / documentations of what was created many weeks and even years later – long after the leaves, sticks, and stones themselves have returned to the soil; long after they’ve been transformed into new plants and animals, etc.

With all this in mind, we also make it clear to the youngsters that at the end of the building period, there will be an art walk or tour of the various creations. They will have an opportunity to show the entire class what they’ve designed! They’ll also be expected to talk about what they’ve made, and they should be prepared to answer questions from their audience.

Usually, after the youngsters have looked through the pictures, listened to my explanations, and added their own remarks and questions, they’re all very eager to go outside and create!

Projects of this kind offer ample opportunities for individuals or groups to assemble original projects in congenial, independent or sociable ways. In my experience, there have been relatively few conflicts associated with these ‘Andy Goldsworthy’ projects, and most participants have been quickly absorbed and enchanted by the process. Perhaps the enjoyment is a function of being outside, and seeing , hearing, smelling, and touching so many interesting things, including once living beings (i.e. leaves and twigs) and living creatures like isopods, trees, and birds. (We do make it a rule that no living plants or animals can be damaged or broken to contribute to the formation of the sculptures.) The peaceful atmosphere could also be a byproduct of the fact that if disagreements do occur, youngsters can easily go to other groups or work on their own (unlike the options prevailing during some indoor group poster projects where conflicts can often be a distraction). Some youngsters enjoy collecting materials, others seemed more engaged in arranging them, and others take an almost managerial role. Some friends seem to be simply working together in a very serious and pleasant, egalitarian sort of way. The atmosphere is usually remarkably convivial, and the activity can be of help to some youngsters in the cultivation of their social graces. The children learn that they need to be responding and interacting with one another in a kindly and respectful way even as they engage with the materials and their personal visions for the work.

Here are a few samples from Andy Goldsworthy inspired art projects conducted by students aged 7 to 12 in a wooded portion of their school grounds.

This project cultivates an informed, thoughtful and appreciative attitude towards the material world. As children really interact in a creative way with nature, they begin to develop perspectives and capacities that will serve them well when they begin more formal, objectified studies of this complex planet which is our home.