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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. Continue reading

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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.   Continue reading

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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! Continue reading

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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.

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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.

A playground for artists, Part I

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.

Part of the Schuylkill Center’s mission is to use our forests and fields as a living laboratory; for the art program, that means that we provide opportunities for artists to use our site as an place for experimentation in their artistic practice – which can some times look and feel a lot like play.

In fall 2010, the Schuylkill Center presented an exhibition called Ground Play in partnership with the Nexus Foundation for Today’s Art.

In Ground Play, The Schuylkill Center asked six artists (Susan Abrams, Nick Cassway, Jebney Lewis, Michael McDermott, Leah Reynolds, and Jennie Thwing) from the former co-op to respond to the history and physical space of its Second Site (Brolo Hill Farm) in a show from September 19th – November 28th, 2010.

Second Site, known historically as Brolo Hill Farm, was at one time an active farmstead, and includes an 18th-century farm house, barn, and remnants of a plowed field once used to grow feed hay for livestock. For the show Ground Play, Nexus artists considered both the agricultural and cultural conditions that might have existed on the site when the farm was active, and examined through their installations the implications of those dynamics in today’s environmental climate.

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For Light & Paper, Susan Abrams installed large plant photographs in the windows of the abandoned farmhouse at Brolo Farm.  The fourteen photographs mounted in the boarded up farmhouse windows focused on small and often overlooked aspects of the Brolo Hill Farm site and play with scale by making the images much larger than life.  The photographs were in sharp relief to the more abstract pulp-painted handmade paper works she also installed, which not only interpreted the site but also incorporated materials gathered there.  

Abrams used natural materials found at Second Site as subjects in the photographs and as ingredients in her handmade paper.  The paper works will weathered and changed over the course of the exhibition adding nature as an ongoing component to the art. She approached this singular environment by examining many of the small details, often unnoticed, yet essential to the landscape, then enlarging them to a human scale, inhabiting the house, as they do the Schuylkill Center’s site.

Leah Reynolds presented The Combustibility of Hay and Farmer’s Lung, a large work hung on the side of the old barn at Brolo Farm. The title and imagery refered to the fungus “Aspergillus furnigatus” which grows in baled hay and may cause it to spontaneously ignite (the Brolo Farm chiefly produced hay).

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In general, fungi are crucial to the recycling of nutrients within ecosystems because they break down organic matter (they form networks connected by tubular branches called hyphae).  This particular fungus may also cause a disease known as “Farmer’s Lung” when the mold spores that it produces are inhaled in an enclosed area such as a barn.  Reynolds’ piece covered the face of the Second Site barn with acrylic-coated fabric, giving the impression that it has been inundated with a large and virulent fungus.  Reynolds playfully tackled this topic with bright colors, transforming the barn into a giant art object. Editor’s note: Reynolds’ work is also on view as part of our summer 2017 exhibition, Making in Place, on view through August 12!

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Nick Cassway’s In the Woods responded to Brolo Farm with a group portrait series created by computer cut reflective vinyl.  The title refers to being dislocated, either physically or psychologically; feeling out of your element, vulnerable, over your head.  The 36 drawings are separated into 3 “acts”: the enticement, the partaking, and the repercussion.  Collectively, these images were meant to form and emotional tapestry; there is no singular narrative thread.  The pieces used the language of road signage – the shapes, stature, and materials – to literally become “warning signs” scattered throughout the landscape.  The drawings were made using computer cut black reflective vinyl (traffic engineering film) mounted on matte black painted aluminum panels and for maximum effect were intended to be seen at night via flashlight.

Editor’s note: Images from Ground Play were also featured in our wall calendar for October – stay tuned for a blog post in early October covering the other three artists in this show!

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Naturaleza por dentro

Por: Eduardo Dueñas, Lead Environmental Educator | For an English version of this blog post, see here.

Siempre me encantaron los olores, colores y sabores de los dias. Yo era un nino inquieto que le gustaba levantar piedras en el patio de mi casa para ver que sorpresa me esperaba. Ese mismo nino que corria afuera cada vez que llovia para poder oler la tierra mojada.

Un nino que durante los partido de futbol le gustaba chupar pedazos de cesped y tirar piedras al rio.

Desde muy temprana edad me interesaron las plantas y los animales, gustos que me llevaron a explorar muchos lugares y conocer personas increibles.

Despues de estudiar sobre los procesos de la vida, no me quedaron dudas que la naturaleza hay que respetarla y llevarla por dentro.

Es imperativo para el bienestar de todos que los jovenes crezcan sin barreras fisicas o mentales sobre la naturaleza. Asi se convertiran en sus protectores para siempre.

Durante el transcurso de mi maestria pude estudiar a fondo las repercusiones de las acciones humanas sobre la naturaleza, dejando en claro que nuestro estilo de vida no solo destruye nuestra salud sino tambien todo lo importante que nos rodea.

Es por eso que en mi tesis final plasme la necesidad de replantear la forma de como aprendemos y de como percibimos nuetro entorno.

La educacion por ende sera la unica esperanza para cambiar el mundo y poder dejar un verdadero legado para las generaciones futuras.

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education es una organizacion pionera con mas de 50 años de experiencia en la porteccion y conservacion ambiental.

Me siento feliz de trabajar en un lugar como The Schuylkill Center donde se comparten y desarrollan muchas ideas sobre la comprencion y proteccion de nuestro medio ambiente. Los programas incluyen jovenes y adultos de diferentes edades, procedencias, razgos etnicos y niveles educativos.

Mi oficina es en el bosque con los ninos donde ellos juegan y exploran libremente. Durante algunas caminatas dibujamos, recolectamos plantas, hojas, semillas, raicez y hacemos te de algunas de ellas, otras veces arte o  escribimos  observaciones en su hojas de trabajo. Me gusta sentir que soy bienvenido en este lugar y ver en mis estudiantes el curioso niño que solia ser.

Eduardo DuenasEduardo Duenas es un Educador Ambiental que trabaja para la organizacion ambiental,The Schuylkill Center. Primero se involucró con el Centro como voluntario antes de trabajar a tiempo completo en programas educativos como; lecciones para grupos guiados en el SCEE, al igual que programas después de la escuela y programas comunitarios. Eduardo Tiene una formación en estudios ambientales, con un máster en Gestión Ambiental y Desarrollo Sostenible. También tiene experiencia como maestro de aula y le encanta trabajar con niños de todas las edades.