Meredith College

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Meredith College Students Get Outside to Make Art

This fall, Meredith College, a women’s liberal arts college in Raleigh, N.C., is offering a course called “Get Outside” that gives students a chance to do just that. On the first day of the semester, after priming them with open-ended questions about their relationship to nature, Prof. Warner Hyde sends his students out into the woods on Meredith’s campus.

“I ask them to identify things in nature, and at first their awareness is a bit pedestrian or dulled,” Hyde admits. “But later, when I ask them to make a work of art using only found, organic materials, suddenly they notice everything.”

“Get Outside” was originally offered as an honors course known as “Environmental Art, Ethics and Spirituality,” a title that alludes to the rich intersections Hyde wants to explore. Hyde sees the natural world as a space with the potential to impart self-knowledge.

“When you’re in nature, you’re not in control,” he says. “What do you do? Who are you really? Social status disappears.”

Hyde, whose area of expertise is ceramics, revels in “Get Outside” as a chance for his students and him to step out of their creative and philosophical comfort zones. “Students don’t need an art background for this class,” he explains, “and I think that takes away a lot of the intimidation some feel before endeavoring on a creative task. Everyone has the potential to be creative.”

Students embark on a series of art projects throughout the semester. The first has them create something from whatever natural material they find most compelling. Later, students document their experience in nature using clay, a material in which Hyde finds an almost primal resonance.

Meredith Students Get Outside to Make Art“Clay is the oldest material people use,” he says. “It actually is the earth. Get a shovel—it’s right there.”

Hyde observes the class as they grapple with different methodologies for using clay. “Some students try to replicate something, such as a pinecone,” he says. “Others use the clay to absorb elements of nature, such as twigs or bark imprints.”

But it’s the creative process, not the final product, that’s most important in the end. “The purpose of creating is attaining spiritual understanding,” Hyde says. “Art is and always has been ritualistic. It goes back to Stonehenge.”

Unlike Stonehenge, however, the class’s artwork is not likely to be for thousands of years. That’s because Hyde has his students abandon their creations, which he says helps foster an egoless approach to art. “I have them make something and leave it in the woods, and that’s very difficult for a lot of them,” he explains. “They have to confront these issues of loss and control that are very much a part of living in harmony with nature.”

Hyde does throw the ego (and art world) a consolation prize, however: students preserve their work in photo or video form before letting go. “I approach a doctrine of ‘ephemeral eco-art,’” he says. “You document what you do, but you don’t leave anything behind.”

The cumulative project of the course is a class-wide collaboration. Students spend the final month of the semester honing a concept and determining the most effect way to communicate it. A past project, called “Transfusion,” was inspired by a legacy of Meredith’s new athletic track.

Meredith Students Get Outside to Make Art“With the new track they constructed this big mud hole, right by this old pond that’s been there forever,” says Hyde. “‘Transfusion’ consisted of a bridge between the two, symbolically drawing life from one to support the other.” True to Hyde’s manifesto of impermanence, the bridge is now gone.

While students stand to gain a greater spiritual connection to nature through creating art, Hyde also believes this process has ethical (and therefore practical) implications.

“When someone sees themselves as a part of nature, their capacity for ethical action and empathy increases,” he explains. “At the same time, nature also exists as a resource. Our obligation is to be conscious about our interactions with nature and strike a balance.”

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