The Project
Discovering the Ecological Self is a socially engaged art project that is centered on the environment and taking steps to care for it. It is a collaboration of several different efforts, including artist Kimberly Callas, the Aslan Youth Ministry, science faculty and students at Monmouth University, Callas’ AR 218 Sculpture II class, and several other incredibly helpful volunteers. These groups of people came together to create beautiful art and to help make Discovering the Ecological Self a successful project. The artist of the project, Kimberly Callas, discovered through her work in sustainability that emotional attachments to nature are what motivates people to protect it. Discovering the Ecological Self is about creating art from those attachments and connections, to inspire participants and even outsiders to take sustainable action and make a change in the world around them. Exploring the relationship between an individual and a personally/culturally significant symbol from nature creates new understandings of oneself and one’s place in the universe. Through the project, it is the hope that this new discovery will lead people to care for the environment.

Many of us are experiencing a great disconnect with nature coupled with feelings of alarm and helplessness over ongoing environmental destruction. In his book, The Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold calls for a “Land Ethic,” in which “the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.” Leopold argues that land ethic cannot occur without a close personal connection to the environment. However, the relationship between humans and nature is weakening, creating a wide gap between the two, as stated in Richard Louv’s book, The Last Child in the Woods. In order to spark true environmental change, rekindling that relationship is a vital piece.

The project is organized through afternoon workshops, field research, group and individual research projects, and art making. Through this, participants of the project identify a nature-based symbol that is either or both culturally/personally significant to them. This is done through contemplative art-making, on-site field explanation, and scholarly research. After identifying a symbol or subject, further research is done to learn about its personal, scientific, cultural, and historical background. From this research, art works, eco-masks, and narrations are created, which are then shared through performance, video, art exhibits, and environmental actions to demonstrate each individual’s connection to nature. Doing research, creating artwork, and sharing it is all a part of understanding and discovering one’s ecological self. It is through this discovery that people find how they are connected to nature and art motivated to act sustainably. Those connections are vital in fostering sustainable action to protect and care for the environment.

We invite you to join Discovering the Ecological Self by filling out the introductory survey to find your own unique nature-based symbols and images. The survey results help us identify threads and patterns in our relationships to nature and inspires new imagery for the project. Contact information is optional.

This project is funded in part by The Pollination Project and an Urban Coast Institute Grant. The Pollination Project gives a thousand dollars in seed grants to projects that benefit people, the planet, and animals in areas like environmental sustainability, social justice, community health and wellness, arts, and education. These individual change-makers and activists are people who are working to make the world, or their own community, a better, more peaceful and sustainable, better, and just place. The Urban Coast Institute serves Monmouth University and the general public as a forum for research, education, and collaboration. It sponsors student-faculty research projects, lectures by distinguished scholars and professionals, and an annual symposium and awards event.

The Artist
Kimberly Callas, the artist of the project, originally began her work in sustainability by moving to Maine with her family, determined to find ways to live sustainably and independent of foreign oil. Together, she and her husband built an in-ground, off-the-grid home and co-founded a sustainability institute called Newforest. This institute provided opportunities for research and education in sustainability to a broad range of the community, including school children, energy auditors, and permaculture gardeners. Callas and her husband were guided by the belief that “to restore to the human community its ability to see itself as nature, embedded within the larger landscape, is a fundamental and indispensable act of environmental restoration.” In other words, the recognition of how intertwined our existence as humans is with nature is a vital part of allowing us to live with nature, rather than from it. Seeing ourselves as nature “allows us to act more often in concert with nature, creating in both the built environment and natural worlds systems that would allow the human community to meet its needs in ways that promote sustainable ecological health” (Read et al.).

Through her work with sustainability, Callas realized that it is our emotional attachments to nature, rather than data, that are the real motivators to change. This is why she developed Discovering the Ecological Self, to re-attach people to nature and inspire sustainable action and environmental champions.

Socially Engaged Art
Social practice, or socially engaged art, is any art form that engages people or a community, and addresses a cultural or social issue. Social practice artists usually pick an issue, topic, or population of people to focus their projects on. Sometimes, artists can begin with a very broad and vague plan, and allow the project to develop itself, while others have a specific method. This open interpretation, along with the actual works that are created, is what allows social practice to be considered an art form. The overall aim of socially engaged art is to make a real impact on the world around us, rather than a symbolic one.

To understand socially engaged art a little better, you can read about some notable social practice artists: they include Rick Lowe, Pablo Helguera, and Mel Chin. Rick Lowe created Project Row Houses, which was built in Houston, Texas’ Third Ward – one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the city. It serves as a base for a community of art programs and initiatives meant to bring people together. Librería Donceles is a secondhand bookstore that started in New York City, founded by Pablo Helguera. It is a Spanish-language bookstore that Helguera installed after seeing a lack of outlets for the growing Hispanic and Latino population in America. Those who drop books off to the library have the option to take a picture with their books, telling the story of not only the books, but the people. Lastly, Mel Chin founded Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Project, through which children create hand-drawn interpretations of one-hundred dollar bills. These hundred dollar bills are meant to represent the voices of children who look forward to a childhood without lead-poisoning. These projects are just a few among many and help create the bigger picture of what social practice is.

The Aldo Leopold Foundation. “The Land Ethic.” The Aldo Leopold Foundation, www.aldoleopold.org/about/the-land-ethic/.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Workman Publishing Company, 2005.

Read, A., Callas, G., Maseychik, T., Callas, K., Kekacs, A., Read, R., Lilieholm, R. J.. “Newforest Institute: Restoring Habitat for Resilience and Vision in the Forested Landscape.” Ecosystems and Sustainable Development VII., WIT Press, 2009, pp. 427–428.

by Lia Stiles, Summer Research Fellow