I would like to nominate, Jane Baker, Falmouth High School Advanced Placement Studio Art Teacher for a 2017 Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education. A previous recipient of the award, she is an art teacher who continues to innovatively collaborate with scientists, government officials, environmental groups and educators in other disciplines to not only inspire her student’s art projects, but creatively expand their understanding of the environmental world they live in, locally and globally. While other art teachers may bring an expert or two into the classroom to inspire their students, Ms. Baker not only brings many experts across many diverse disciplines to help her students understand the ways that life and our surroundings can inspire art, she takes her students out of the classroom, into the environment for a full sensory immersion. This not only motivates their art, but their interest in the sciences, local history and community engagement. Once the projects are finished, there is a public outreach component, gallery exhibit and this time, a corresponding published book. In a write up of the project for an exhibit at the Falmouth Historical Society, Ms. Baker notes; “We go about our daily lives, without noticing the life cycles of creatures who truly own Cape Cod. Some stay here year round, while others migrate through the area in rhythms that supersede mortal plans. It is a delicate balance that can be drastically affected by changes in things such as air temperature, water quality or invasive species.”
The purpose of her project was to take group of local high school students out to the islands of Penikese and Cutty hunk to observe specific locations of the fall shorebird migration and to record these observations in poetry and art. The last two islands in the Elizabeth Chain, Cutty hunk and Penikese are a haven for birds in their travels and offer landscape opportunities that she hoped would inspire teenage minds. The islands are close to each other in proximity but very different, thus spending time in both places offered students a chance to stop and take in the view and their reflections in each location. Prior to the trip, students attended a lecture by ornithologist and Cape Cod Times birding journalist Phil Kyle to learn about the types of birds that they might see on the trip, and also read excerpts from Henry Beston’s Outermost House. On the morning of September 23rd, 2016, Ms. Baker and her colleague Lauren Kenny, an AP Literature teacher, took fifty-six of their students aboard the vessels, Patriot Islander and the Richard Edwards to the islands. The students were all directed to both draw and write in response to their experiences, writing specifically in Haibun form, a style that they learned in a lecture from writer and Brandeis University instructor, Elizabeth Bradfield. They were joined on this trip by several volunteers and experts, which included ornithologist Phil Kyle, Copley Society artist Hillary Osborn, and Jim Newman of the Penikese Island Trust. On Penikese they were joined by State Representative David Vieira as well as Coastal Bird Biologist Carolyn Mostello and Commissioner George Peterson of the Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game who gave the school permission to visit the islands. The experts gave students a brief tutorial on the 75 acre island’s history as a haven for naturalists, lepers, trouble youth and nesting terns; followed by the group ascent to the cisterns of Louis Agassiz. Agassiz – famous for his philosophy of “study nature, not books” – ran a school for naturalists on the island and has inspired decades of scientists and artists looking to understand the physical world through direct observation. When the students returned to Falmouth, they edited their haibun and created more landscape paintings and drawings. Students in the studio art classes also made portraits of migrating animals as well as etchings and reductive linocuts of island objects. Many students also worked in pairs to create an outdoor sculpture installation of staging terns. Most of these works were printed in a limited run book published and sold at cost in hopes of bringing attention to the beauty of the collective experience on Cape Cod and the preservation of open space and the birds that call these shores a temporary home. A copy of the book will be kept at the Woods Hole Library to thank them for their assistance in her research of the islands. A gallery reception of the students’ work will be held at the Falmouth Museums on the Green Cultural Center in March 2017. The project encouraged civic responsibility because it got the students to ask questions and get involved in conversations with community and government members outside of the school about what we are doing to our surroundings and the other ways our actions impact the lives of others. The migration patterns and the ecosystems that support Cape wildlife are undergoing changes due to mankind’s impact on our climate and the living spaces shared by all.
This project could be replicated in any high school art room that has access to a teacher with the energy, enthusiasm and imagination of Ms. Baker and the volunteer educators and community members who she finds to join her efforts. This particular project could be replicated on the Boston Harbor Islands, with naturalists and historians accompanying the students. In western MA, the same type of lessons could be learned at the Quabbin Reservoir. Students could observe the natural inhabitants, and receive a history lesson from experts about the former residents who moved out of their homes and surrounding towns to make room for the reservoir. Ms. Baker diligently continues to pursue grants every year from various sources to fund these efforts to enrich the artistic education and experience of her students. Most of the expenses of the project were covered under a grant from the Falmouth Education Foundation of Massachusetts. Receiving a 2017 Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education would enable her to keep inspiring her students in their artistic expression, and immersed and engaged in the environmental surroundings of their immediate home community and the world.