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Earth Is Taking Messages

Environmental art class marks Earth Week with exhibit on the Green

By Lee Griffin Article published April 9, 2007

Environmental Art
Cami Davis, lecturer in art, and her student, Audrey Rotax, prepare cloth strips that will hang from trees on the Green, April 14-20, as part of Davis' class in environmental art. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

Everyone’s talking about Earth — its vulnerabilities, its victimization at the hands of its most dangerous species and its future. Some among the species have been caretaking and interpreting Earth for the rest of us for a long time. Many believe the time has come for all of us to listen and to act more personally. Cami Davis, lecturer in art, is among them.

An artist whose avocations once included ski racing (until she “blew out” her knee), she was torn between majoring in environmental studies or art. Choosing the latter, Davis (a 1976 UVM graduate) never saw a division between her two passions. That insight has led to her teaching a variety of classes in environmental art for the Environmental Program through Continuing Education as well as painting courses in Arts and Sciences.

“Artists have always been inspired by nature,” Davis says. Her own work looks at her relationship to nature, and has shifted in recent years. Davis calls it “a whole-system aesthetic, seeing landscape as us, us embedded in the landscape.” She loves equally the collaborations that such thinking invites and which her classes reflect. Her current class, Environmental Art Lecture Series and Studio Seminar, ENVS 195, asks students to make art in answer to one question: “If Earth could hear you now, what would you say?”

The collaboration in the class goes beyond two academic disciplines, drawing on a partnership with Burlington City Arts and the Firehouse Gallery, where classes are held and guest artists lecture. And, beyond that, students engage members of the UVM and Burlington communities, seeking personal answers to that big question that will guide their art projects, one of which will be a large-scale, alfresco group project.

Davis conceived the course as a continuation of the “Human=Nature” summer 2006 exhibit at the Firehouse Gallery. That show, she says, “explored emerging areas within the environmental art movement,” including ecoventions (see Green Museum); sense of place; and “understanding human ventures within the larger living web of life.” From there, she and her students explored the sacred and secular uses of cloth among many cultures, as prelude to the group project.

“Participants will write messages on simple scraps of cloth (in answer to the ‘If Earth could hear you’ question),” Davis says. “The concept has roots in the many ancient and contemporary traditions of hanging strips of cloth as invocations or symbolic statements — from sacred wells throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom, to trees outside Japanese temples … to Tibetan prayer flags and the secular use of ribbons representing messages of solidarity,” she explains.

A few days before the exhibition (April 14-20), “hundreds of volunteers will hang the collected messages on the UVM Green, in honor of Earth Day and Week and the global climate change action begun by Bill McKibben, Step It Up 2007,” Davis says. The volunteers aren’t counted yet, but Davis is nothing if not confident about taking large leaps of faith and action. In one of her previous collaborations, with local artist Sally Linder, Davis co-created the community arts event "For Love of Earth, A Celebration of the Earth Charter" and the "Temenos Books Project," which continues to travel the world in the Ark of Hope

Students working on the current project are gathering the scraps (only used cloth is eligible), cutting them into lengths varying between two and four feet long and one to two inches wide and dyeing some. The class — about equally divided between art and environmental majors — will decide on a dominant color as well as the how, where and pattern of the installation. Their exhibit will be one of more than a thousand gatherings nationally for Step It Up’s global climate change action.

Anyone who would like to volunteer to help install or uninstall the exhibit should contact Davis at cdavis@uvm.edu. Volunteers will gather at the UVM fountain on Friday, April 13, at noon or anytime during the afternoon. Removal help will be needed on Friday, April 20. To contribute a message, contact Sumner Fletcher at Sumner.Fletcher@uvm.edu

This summer, Davis will teach Environmental Art: Transportation Responses. “We’ll explore transdisciplinary responses to the alternative transportation systems of the Burlington area,” she says. “The goal is that these aesthetic responses might inform the wider dialogue on transportation solutions.”