Arts classes with a conscience Student projects explore environmental sustainability and human impact

How can art address sustainability and human impact on the environment? Photography Teacher Parrish Dobson and Arts Department Head Laura Tangusso integrated the question into their respective courses, Architecture and Design and Senior Photography Seminar.

Six out of the seven students in Ms. Dobson’s senior seminar explored humans’ detrimental effect on the environment with a series of symbolic photographs. Each student chose which current, “hot-button issues” mattered most to them, and all but one selected the environment.

This year, the six expressed their concerns by exploring topics such as trash, recycling, food production, and demolition debris. Some groups chose to include a written portion of their project in addition to their photographs. 

Partners Jossy Wang ’18 and Ben Morris ’18 concentrated on food packaging and consumers’ disconnection from the origins of their food. Ben photographed packaged food that he had staged in nature, with one of his pictures showing peppers in a plastic bag surrounded by sticks and dirt. 

“It’s jarring, and that is exactly what you are supposed to feel,” Ms. Dobson said. “To accentuate our disconnect from the natural sources of our food.”

Jossy took pictures of packaged food in grocery stores, such as a shelf full of packaged Oreos and Chips Ahoy. She staged such photos to capture the “overwhelming grid of shiny, colored plastic in the fluorescent grocery store light.” Through the photos, she hoped to teach people about how food packaging creates billions of tons of waste.

“I wanted to make people conscious of how their choices as consumers can make a difference and make a statement,” Jossy said. “I hope people will be more proactive in reducing their waste from food and more aware of how their individual decisions can impact the world.” 

Ms. Dobson expressed similar sentiments, saying she hoped her class would connect to important issues in the world that the students are about to step into.

“In general, I was thrilled with both the engagement of the students and the artistic choices they made to explore these issues they were passionate about. How do you take something you care about and make art out of it?” she said.

Ms. Tangusso’s Architecture and Design course addressed sustainability toward the beginning of the year with a month-long project that required students to build a “retreat” space. They made use of natural light in a way that reduced the need for indoor artificial light. Her students also undertook a month-long project building a model house that incorporated one element of sustainability, such as solar roofing, ample natural sunlight, and light-regulating landscaping. 

“Well-designed architecture can address a lot of the issues related to how we conserve our resources and still have comfortable living situations,” Ms. Tangusso said. 

Challenged to design a home that balanced comfort and functionality with the conservation of natural resources, Ms. Tangusso’s students learned how well-placed windows and trees can strategically save energy. For instance, a window facing the sun reduces the need for electricity by maximizing natural light and offsetting some of the power required to heat the home, she said. Similarly, trees planted in front of a window will reduce the need for electrical cooling or heating by shading the house during the summer and allowing more heat to enter the house in the winter when the leaves have fallen. 

This year, Ms. Tangusso has 20 architecture students, all sophomores, spread across two sections of the course. One of her students, Katie Stevo ’20, built a table-top house entirely from shipping containers, ensuring the 3D-model featured several large windows for natural light and strategically placed trees for shade cooling. She said the project taught students how to combat climate change effectively. 

“If we can do the little things to make sure our houses are more sustainable, it will help the world in a large way. Our ozone layer is quickly deteriorating, and we need to make changes to slow this process down,” Katie said.

Ms. Tangusso said she has been incorporating sustainability in Architecture and Design for three years in hopes of promoting it in a creative way that will raise awareness and encourage students to make environmentally friendly decisions.

“Our students are the current generation,” she said, “and, I hope, will be part of the solution.”

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