Tim Prentice, Yellow Zinger 2-925x616

Elemental powers

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art and Liz Jelsomine, Exhibitions Coordinator

Editor’s note: The Schuylkill Center produced a wall calendar for 2017 in celebration of the environmental art program. Throughout the year, we’ll run a monthly post on our blog highlighting the art works featured in that month of the calendar.

Tim Prentice, Yellow Zinger 2-925x616“I imagine a line in space. I build it straight and true and offer it to the wind.

The wind plays with it like a cat with a length of yarn. The wind is the artist.”

Yellow Zinger, Tim Prentice

Tim Prentice’s Yellow Zinger was part of an outdoor exhibition at The Schuylkill Center in 2010 called Elemental Energy: Art Powered by Nature. 

Elemental Energy brought six artists/teams from around the country to present outdoor sculptural installations that engaged a natural element – wind, water, sun – to create a dynamic or kinetic artwork. Each piece created sound, movement, or both, using only the energy they harness from nature.  Continue reading

Susan Beard Photography

Roxborough’s Kay Sykora is the 2017 Meigs Leadership Awardee

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Thursday, November 16 at 7 pm, the Schuylkill Center presents our highest honor, the Henry Meigs Award for Environmental Leadership, to an old friend and Roxborough neighbor, Kay Sykora.

Susan Beard PhotographyFounder of the incredibly successful Manayunk Development Corporation in the early 1980s, Kay has over the last 30 years pioneered and tirelessly championed the Schuylkill River Trail through Manayunk and Roxborough, leading the effort to transform the canal towpath into the River Trail, now one of Manayunk’s most-loved amenities. She played a key role in the planning efforts that led to the Manayunk Bridge’s reinvention as a multi-modal trail beloved by thousands of bikers, runners, and walkers.

She also founded Destination Schuylkill River to re-connect Manayunk to its river, has been involved in restoring the canal, and is equally passionate about making the towpath a more vibrant and enticing community amenity. She has been a leader in the Central Roxborough Civic Association and co-founded Roxborough Green, a community tree planting and gardening project.

Susan Beard Photography“I am deeply honored by the recognition for the work we all have done,” Kay said.  “I say this because I feel that I am more a facilitator for the people who care about trails, nature, and greening.  If people didn’t care the work never would have succeeded.” Continue reading

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The Norristown Program: Mentoring the next generation of environmental leaders

By Damien Ruffner, School Programs Manager

In February of 2017 the Schuylkill Center entered a partnership with ESCC, or the Extended School Day Center. A vital program in Norristown, Pennsylvania that provides before-care and after-care for the youth in eight elementary schools in Norristown. Our partnership allows education staff to work with two of these schools to enrich their education while providing mentorship to students.

This Norristown mentorship program is something that is very near and dear to my heart. Not only is it one of the largest and most ambitious outreaches we have done, but the program brings environmental education to an underserved community and reaches a very diverse audience, especially Hispanic and African American students. In essence, the program is simple: during the school year we go twice a week  to Hancock Elementary and Marshall Street Elementary in Norristown, after school as part of the community’s extended school day program. That program, offers themed crafts and games as well as homework help to improve academic performance.

The program is arranged so that students can participate when they want to, choosing to join in. We didn’t want to take these young students away from precious game playing or lego building (this kind of play can be just as vital to their development as formal education is). Last year, every day more students chose to join us for environmental education activities. Continue reading

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At the Schuylkill Center, #NatureWelcomes everyone

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Across the country, debate is raging on a wide number of increasingly political issues: health care reform, immigration, foreign policy, nuclear deterrence, the role of social media in politics, energy policy, public lands, climate change, and endlessly on and on.  The stakes in these arguments only rise by the minute and by the tweet.

While these issues heat up, California is on fire, Houston (remember Houston?) still recovering from a flood, Florida coming back online after its hurricane, and Puerto Rico, well, Puerto Rico is a hellish nightmare of too many people having too little access to basics like water and electricity.  Puerto Rico looks to be a public health powder keg set to explode.

One thing is clear: we need nature. Now more than ever.

All of us need nature.  In these overstressed times, nature heals.  Literally.  Every day, new studies show that time spent in a forest walking, or even just even sitting, elevates our mood, calms our heart rate and breathing, and relaxes us.  Simply seeing green is restorative, but even better, trees release chemicals into the air that our brain is hardwired to respond to: a
Japanese researcher sprayed pine aerosols into a hospital nursery, and the blood pressure of newborn infants lowered immediately.  They’ve never even been in a forest before, and their bodies responded to pine scent.

Nature heals.

What is equally clear is that not all people have access to greenspaces like the Schuylkill Center.  Studies also show that parks are a public–health benefit to the neighborhoods near them—an entire neighborhood is healthier when a park is close by. No park nearby, and the community suffers. Continue reading

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LandLab: Introducing our artists in residence

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Even though I haven’t myself had a first day of school for a few years, in the fall, I still get a back-to-school-esque twinge of anticipation.  In this season, you can feel something new coming in the air – something to be learned, something to gear up for – and I find it to be the most exciting time of year. This year, one of the most exciting new things for the environmental art program is the beginning of the second offering of our LandLab residency at the Schuylkill Center.

LandLab is a unique artist residency program that integrates artistic creation, ecological restoration, and education.  A joint project of the Schuylkill Center and the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA), LandLab offers resources and space here at the Schuylkill Center, on our 340-acres of woods and meadows for visual artists to engage audiences in ecological stewardship through scientific investigation and artistic creation. LandLab residencies will create innovative installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage while raising public awareness about local ecology. It’s a way that we bring different parts of our mission work together – artists working with people to engage with our land in a meaningful and restorative way.

If you’ve been coming to the Schuylkill Center for the past few years, you might remember that we offered LandLab for the first time in 2014-2015, with major support from the Knight Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Three of the four LandLab 2014-2015 artist works are still on our site – Native Pollinator Garden, Future Non-Object #1, and Interwovenall continue to grow and evolve on our site, part of our commitment to invest in artistic experiments that require time to realize their fullest expression.

In a fairly fraught political year for the arts and the environment, we were able to once again secure support from the NEA to offer LandLab to a new crop of artists for 2017-2018. The selected artists will conduct their projects through yearlong residencies, where they will engage with the Schuylkill Center’s property, conducting research to develop and create installations which intervene with the land and demonstrate ecological solutions.  

This summer, the artists have made initial visits to our site to meet with staff, and as the fall goes on, they will be digging into their projects and questions, both learning with us and teaching us much. We selected three artists to participate in LandLab this season, and I’m thrilled to introduce them to you.

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First up, Dance Exchange is a non-profit dance organization based in Takoma Park, Maryland, known for innovative performance projects and creative practices that engage communities and partners across wide ranging disciplines. Dance Exchange creates performance engagements that speak to the issues of a place and the people that steward that place, collaborating to advance how individuals and communities come together to create change in the world.  Cassie Meador, Choreographer and Executive Artistic Director of Dance Exchange, will be leading the project.  She told me, “the LandLab residency offers an incredible space as a choreographer to build on and discover new interdisciplinary approaches that can expand public consciousness of the environmental challenges and opportunities we face today.”  We’re particularly excited to work with dance as a new discipline in our art program through this project.

During LandLab, Dance Exchange will explore Philadelphia’s waterways through movement exploration with visitors and local artists and scientists, culminating in installation and performance at the Schuylkill Center. Meador will collaborate with Dance Exchange (4)Jame McCray, an interdisciplinary ecologist, and Zeke Leonard, an artist who mobilizes community-based sustainability efforts through interactive musical objects and installations. The creative team will use interdisciplinary dancemaking to move community members from a place of observation to participation to active stewardship.  Meader continues, “With a creative team of artists, scientists, and designers from Dance Exchange, we are looking forward to the ways we can further mobilize and contribute to the community-based sustainability efforts the Center is leading through its residencies and programs.”

Kate Farquhar is our next LandLab artist.  This Philadelphia based artist and landscape architect in fact shares some history with the Schuylkill Center.  

“In 2009, I took a trip to Philly to consider moving here for graduate study. The first place I went was the Schuylkill Center! I chauffeured a graduate student to help out with her friend’s project. Working next to new friends, we talked about landscape, creative projects, and how to dig without damaging tree roots. Years later, I got to help with a landscape master plan for the Schuylkill Center. Numerous other times I’ve visited to enjoy the paths, nature sounds and patchworked landscape at the Schuylkill Center. As a city dweller, it’s rare I get to languish in a “forest bath” for very long – I hope to do much more of that this year by working on my project, and make some new friends while doing it.”

For LandLab, Farquhar conceives a collection of mythic micro-environments – called Synestates – to thoughtfully insert materials or elements from the cityscape into the Schuylkill Center’s wild and managed lands, speculating about future possibilities for contact between people and the environment.

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Synestates (rendered above) play on the concept of synesthesia, whereby the mind correlates one category of abstract information with another. These works will bring cognitive dissonance into the “forest bath” at the Schuylkill Center, reminding visitors that being outside immerses one in a world of cognitive differentiation. Projects will combine conventional hard urban materials and synthetic interfacing with living and/or decaying organisms. Farquhar notes with excitement, “Subsequent human contact is eagerly anticipated!”

Mun (1)Last, Jan Mun is a media artist that creates social sculptures working with digital and living media. The landscape has become her framework to unfold stories about others and herself by using a combination of artistic and scientific processes that manifest in the form of interactive installations, photography, performance, and bio-art. An artist who loves to do her own science, Mun has been involved in many exciting mycoremediation projects (click right for details)- using mushrooms to clean up soil in heavily polluted urban environments.

As a LandLab artist, Mun will be sharing her passion for mushrooms as “ecological instigators,” ultimately constructing
The Mushroom Vortex Maze (rendered below). The piece will be constructed using wooden logs inoculated with three types of edible mushrooms to create separate rows that each forms a logarithmic/golden ratio spiral.

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By entering the maze to forage for mushrooms, a visitor can easily be dislocated at the center and exit from a different path than where they entered, changing their trajectory.

These three projects will be ongoing through the summer of 2018. The final artworks will be on view at the Schuylkill Center, and an exhibition documenting the LandLab artists’ process will be on view in the gallery at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists in Center City in the fall of 2018.  

Opportunities to engage with the artists’ projects will be ongoing throughout the year, so stay tuned for how you can participate in the artists’ work. The first will be happening on October 14th, when LandLab artists Jan Mun and Kate Farquhar will be on site at the Schuylkill Center as part of the Philadelphia Open Studio Tours from noon to 5pm – details here.

An excerpt of this post was published in our fall 2017 issue of The Quill, our quarterly newsletter. 

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A playground for artists, Part II

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Editor’s note: The Schuylkill Center produced a wall calendar for 2017 in celebration of the environmental art program. Throughout the year, we’ll run a monthly post on our blog highlighting the art works featured in that month of the calendar. 

The Schuylkill Center asked six artists from the former co-op Nexus to respond to the history and physical space of Brolo Hill Farm site at the Schuylkill Center for the show Ground Play from September 19th – November 28th, 2010.  Read our August post for a profile on the other three artists from this show.

IMG_9230Jebney Lewis was among one of the artists that considered agricultural and cultural conditions that once existed at the farm at the time it was active.  Working with mathematician Todd Parsons and fiber artist K.R. Wood, Lewis explored concepts of environmental shift by repurposing readily found forms and objects in the natural landscape.  

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Gathering materials from the Schuylkill Center’s grounds, Lewis built a topography of the land that echoes its jeb2historic transitions from native forest, to farmland, and back again to forest.

This work focused on the ways environments can rapidly change without prior warning and our inability to anticipate how much longer it may take them to change back.

tents lit at night with puppets

Jennie Thwing presented The Brolo Hill Project, a performance, an installation, and a corresponding film. Thwing’s work was loosely based on the daily lives of the Lenni Lenape 1_BroloHill-1tribe and early pioneers that lived in today’s Upper Roxborough.  The film was shot on location at Second Site and then screened at Nexus Gallery.  Tents were lit from the inside for the opening event performance. The film depicts the “living forest,” an idea based off the Lenape Indian belief that all animals and plants have spirits.  The work combines historical reenactment and personal experiences to respond to the physicality and history of the land.

Watch Thwing’s video here: https://vimeo.com/14660961

When we explore a natural site like the Schuylkill Center we often focus on “natural beauty” as a purely visual experience.  

In Aeolus, Michael McDermott wanted to invite the viewer/listener to notice the audible beauty of nature.

By creating wind sculptures that gently make noise in the wind, the artist beckoned the listener to focus their sense of hearing to appreciate the overwhelming subtlety of music created in every instant of the natural world.  In the accompanying performance of Aeolus for the opening reception, four musicians echo the sounds of the sculptures.  Using guitar, violin, percussion, and flute, the work explores the tension between the chaotic and unpredictable sounds of nature and controlled calculated sounds of man.  The original music score hoped to blur the line between these two dichotomies and create musical balance between natural chaos and order.

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Playing with place: Looking back on Sau Pines

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by Aaron Asis, Making in Place artist

Back in May, Sau Pines was created to celebrate the spirit of the Pine Grove — as part of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education’s Making in Place exhibition — which featured the work of 14 different Art in the Open artists.  

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The installation itself consisted of a series of visual tree wraps to highlight some of the unique environmental characteristics of the Pine Grove.  A series of matching colored timbers were also distributed throughout the Pine Grove to activate visitor interaction within the context of the broader landscape of the Schuylkill Center throughout the season.  And the universal consensus is that the work was both well received and well used all summer!

During Olympics Week, the 6 & 7s and 8 & 9s had a fort building competition, using the art to create structures judged by the counselors on aspects such as durability and aesthetic. The pink pieces were useful and added color to the otherwise earth toned forts.” -Summer camp counselor

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However, it is important to note that Sau Pines was also created as a bit of an experiment, to explore considerations that reside somewhere between environmentalism and interactive installation.  In it’s conception the installation was designed to encourage interaction as a means of engagement, but it was always the hope that the installation might also inspire curiosity as a means of inquiry and (subsequent) increase in environmental awareness.  Four months later, it has been a delight to see, talk, and hear about the activity in the Pine Grove this summer and to witness our hopes, validated through testimonials from summer camp staff at the Center like these…

The kids absolutely loved using the [Sau Pines] sticks to build. They were continuously imaginative in their play…and would often ask what the pink bands around some of the trees meant.”

“The kids have been playing with the piece in Pine Grove all summer.  They sometimes ask about the art installations (the doorway, tent structure and decorative rocks under the trees), including the one in Pine Grove. We always tell them that the artist is trying to make them think about the way that we treat the Earth.”

07_ImageAs result of all this feel-good reading, I am extremely pleased to write that the Sau Pines numbers will remain in the beloved Pine Grove though the end of the year, to continue to inspire playful creation and ongoing inquiry and engagement!

A more personal note, this project resonated very closely with my own creative mission which tends to focus on creating work to facilitate access, increase awareness, and highlight lesser-appreciated environs — because at the end of the day, these characteristics are at the root of stewardship and these sensibilities are at the core of all things related to environmentalism and general environmental considerations.

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Thank you the Schuylkill Center and to everyone who worked to ensure Making in Place would be such a success. I am grateful for having had this opportunity to explore the potential of art to incite creative interest, inspire environmental inquiry, and increase general awareness in the Pine Grove.

About the author

Aaron Asis was born and raised in New York City and spent most of his childhood exploring its neighborhoods, its people, and its streets. Over the years, theAaron Asis_C1se explorations have escalated from an experiential curiosity in urban conditions to an intellectual fascination in promoting spatial awareness within them. This fundamental intrigue has become the foundation for his creative work, concentrated on the understated aspects of our built environment and using art to highlight various relationships, within an everyday urban context — at the intersection of city agency, community engagement, and public access.

Ghosts and Shadows

Shadows in the Forest

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Editor’s note: The Schuylkill Center produced a wall calendar for 2017 in celebration of the environmental art program. Throughout the year, we’ll run a monthly post on our blog highlighting the art works featured in that month of the calendar.

Marisha Simons attempted to catalog human impact upon the environment in her installation, Ghost Forest. Ghost Forest was part of the show Ghosts and Shadows from September 6th, 2008 – January 2nd, 2009 presented in partnership with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists and guest curated by Warren Angle.

Ghosts and Shadows

Simons was one of the artists selected to produce site specific installations because of their work’s poetic sense of place. Each artist set up a dialogue with the natural and human constructed landscape at the Schuylkill Center’s Second Site location, Brolo Hill Farm, a once working 18th century farm. Artists mined specific references to place and sensations of past and present. Simons’ resulting airy tapestries flowed in the wind, reminiscent of plants and animals that once thrived before human impact on the environment. Ghosts and Shadows was the first exhibition to be presented at the Schuylkill Center’s Brolo Hill location.

Of Ghost Forest, Simons wrote in the exhibition’s brochure:

“I have created a visual representation of a selection of endangered and extinct plants and trees, and I invite the viewer into a forest of ghost plants: translucent silk panels that move when the viewer walks past, delicate images floating above the ground, no longer planted in the earth with a subtle epitaph sharing the plant’s history.

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My hope is that the viewer will experience Ghost Forest by walking amongst the trees, spending time with the images in an imagined place where once they might have dwelled, and engaging emotionally with the idea that each of us have options about the impact that we make upon the environment with the daily choices that we make.”

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Plants and People Connect through Art

Photo courtesy of Vaughn Bell

Photo courtesy of Vaughn Bell

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Most people know that we rely on plants for the food we eat and the air we breathe, but the interconnections between plants and people actually go much deeper and are more nuanced. Scientists continue to discover the complexities of how plants take in and respond to information, even communicating with each other through underground networks and chemical signals.  Human systems powerfully influence plant communities, locations, and health – and they also exert a powerful influence over us.  

Yet, despite the intricacies of the plant-human relationship, plants are often overlooked, even compared to other aspects of the natural world. Studies have demonstrated and revealed the concept of “plant blindness,” in which many people literally don’t see plants at all, as they become the equivalent of ecological wallpaper.  We surround ourselves with representations of plants (they are all over our interior decorating, and certain kinds of plants are elevated in our traditions around holidays and significant milestones), yet we have little connection with the plants themselves, knowledge of their qualities, or their significance in our lives.

The Schuylkill Center’s fall gallery show features artists who explore the relationships between plants and people and the places they inhabit and move through – revealing and encouraging these oft overlooked anthro-botanical relationships.

Ellie Irons Invasive Pigments project investigates the origins and uses for plants that are often uncelebrated or even reviled – the plants we call weeds or invasive plants. Irons has been creating watercolor paint from the wild plants she finds near her studio in Brooklyn, and her watercolor maps help show the way these plants have moved globally in response to human systems.

Rachel Eng makes the connection of our reliance of plants not across space, but across geologic time. In unfired clay, Eng rendered plants from the Middle Devonian period in the Appalachian region that we know today as Marcellus Shale gas, then photographed them in Pennsylvania landscapes threatened by Marcellus Shale drilling. These foreign, extinct plants remain with us in the coveted form of natural gas, yet are rarely part of that highly politicized conversation.

Vaughn Bell’s Metropolis provides an immersive view of a representative sample of the Schuylkill Center forest, yet provides a wholly new perspective on these plant communities. Rather than looking down on the plants, or up to the tree tops, Metropolis puts the viewer at eye level with plants, equalizing this physical relationship. This shift in perspective allows for a more empathetic connection, seeing the world from a plant’s vantage point. The experience is multisensory, however – the dramatic smell and humidity change drives home just how much plants shape their own environments, and shape us.  Metropolis’ form alludes to a city skyline, further connecting the ecological and urban systems that tend to be considered as separate.

The Environmental Performance Agency (EPA) is a new artist collective named in response to the proposed defunding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Deploying yet subverting the trope of a government bureaucracy, the group engages in a variety of practices centered on plant/human relationships, with urban weeds as mentors, collaborators, and stewards.

The artists in Anthrobotanical help us to see plants more clearly, and more in connection with ourselves.  Scientists have discovered the mechanisms by which stands of trees merge their roots to share nutrients and resources,  to modulate and protect against extreme weather conditions –the community becomes the priority over individual competition.  We may do well to remember the extent to which our own roots are tied up with plants.

Please join us to celebrate the opening of Anthrobotanical with a reception on September 7th at 6 p.m. Enjoy light refreshments in the gallery and a guided tour of the exhibition. Anthrobotanical  will be on view through December 9th.

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Redefining School

by Nicole Brin, Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education

Preface: The past 7 years teaching young children have taught me more about myself, our education system, and human nature as a whole than I could ever have imagined when starting out. The most recent 4 years spent teaching with the Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool have broadened my views of what is possible in the world of education and led me to the next step in my professional journey. As I move out of the classroom and into the role of Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education, I hope to learn, share, and advocate as much as I can for progressive, “out of the box” education. Demonstrating that quality learning can happen in a variety of different ways.

As many have said before – in order to build a better future society that so many people desperately want, we must start with what we are teaching our children.

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I was good at school. In fact, I might even go as far as to say I was an ideal student. I sat quietly, paid attention, and spoke when I had the answer to the question being asked. I did my homework and tested pretty well. My grades showed that I was a hard worker who stayed out of trouble. It seems unlikely that many of my teachers would remember who I was, and I’m not sure I remember all of their names either.

Now let’s think about this in a slightly different way…

I was good at “school.” In fact, I might even go as far as to say I fit the mold perfectly. I understood that adults knew more than me, tried hard to comprehend everything, and didn’t mind keeping most of my thoughts in my head. I had limited free time and was able to memorize and repeat the information deemed important.  My personal identity was not yet developed. It seems that my teachers prepared me with the work ethic and compliance needed to succeed later in life.

This is not entirely a bad thing…

I learned to read quite well, write intelligently, and do enough math to get by day-to-day. I was aware of the many uneducated in our world and knew that I was fortunate to receive the education that I did. I was and continue to be, thankful.

However, shortly after finishing my 17th year of formal schooling, I was amidst a personal crisis. Feeling rather stagnant, I was lacking true passion. I was unsure how I fit into the adult world and was struggling to find a career that was a good match. I was educated by modern society’s standards, but I wasn’t truly happy.

Little by little change is coming. I work to understand more about who I am as a person and what parts of this incredible world interest me. This is still ongoing, but my overall happiness is a direct testament to its success. And so, I began thinking; What if we could get today’s children to this place a little quicker? How could this benefit the wellbeing of society?

What if today’s education looked a bit more like this…

discovery_nb_4-21-16I am good at learning. In fact, I might even go as far as to say it is an ongoing discovery process. I figure things out, consider many different perspectives, and question everything while looking deeply into why. I’m finding my passion and sharing it with others. I am going to make the world better because of it. It seems that embodying these qualities in pursuit of knowledge may be one of the truest keys to life.