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Remy Barnes

Environmental Awareness and Action:
Critically Examining Water Issues in and Through Art Education

Colored pencil drawings, “My Water Story…Before and After Pollution”, by Joselyn Berios, a student at Amundsen high school.

          I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, a city surrounded by lush golf courses, gardens and water parks, where the average multiple faucet household consumes an average of 20 bathtubs of water a day. I was living with the illusion that water was in abundant supply until I read a disturbing study that cited both Phoenix and Lodwar, Kenya, as receiving the same meager 6 to 7 inches of precipitation a year. The difference was that people living in Phoenix had water, while the people in Lodwar had to walk several hours to collect humble amounts of contaminated water in buckets. It was then that my awareness awakened regarding the power of privilege and its affect on the distribution of natural resources.

            As an artist and teacher, I was changed by the knowledge that today there are over 2 billion people without access to drinkable water. It has become increasingly clear to me that art should be connected to basic life issues, including access to water. If I see art as a vehicle for perceiving, understanding, and communicating to others about the world, it is crucial to incorporate environmental awareness into K-12 art curricula, in ways that inspire students to become sensitive to critical current issues.

Exemplar for the “Water Treatment System for My Home” project

            The challenge of this particular thesis research project has been to develop an environmentally based high school art curriculum which focuses upon water, in a way that is engaging and personally relevant to students’ lives. In an effort to gain inspiration for the development of an art education curriculum that would introduce environmental issues and activism, I began an investigation of artists who consciously make art about the environment, or who perceive their actions to be interventions on behalf of the environment.

Amundsen high school student Abdul Samjo, working on his water system plan for the art room

            A component of the action research case study was conducted with freshmen at a Chicago public high school. During the four-week project, students engaged in art projects that critically examined water issues (i.e. pollution, conservation, and preservation) and students’ personal interconnectedness to water. The study began by focusing on students’ lives and developing projects that focused on what was important to them. The art-making component culminated with an environmentally active project based on natural water treatment systems. Students proposed imaginative systems for their homes and built models. Collaboratively, an actual working system was built for the art room, giving students the opportunity to directly impact their immediate surroundings.

Natural Water Treatment System Model based on drawing above, done by Amundsen high school student Cosmina Zdremtan

            The outcome of this study will be assessed to further art educators’ understanding of how to integrate environmental life issues into art curricula in a way that relevantly connects to students’ lives, illuminates the interdependency of biological systems, and empowers students to understand that collaborative actions can work toward local solutions.

Ulli Kulke, “Our Thirsty Planet,” New World Archive, January 1998.


           Remy Barnes received a BA in Art with a Minor in Spanish from the University of Oregon in 1999. Before coming to Chicago, she worked for AmeriCorps in Austin, Texas, teaching ESL and early literacy. With a BFA and an MAT degree from SAIC, she intends to pursue her interests in education, social change, and arts advocacy.


Thesis Advisor: Drea Howenstein Associate Professor, Art Education

Thesis Readers: Kevin Tavin Assistant Professor, Art Education; Director , MAT Program

Nadine Bopp Adjunct Assistant Professor, Liberal Arts

Doug Blandy Professor, Arts and Administration, University of Oregon

Peer Readers: Krista Robinson MAAE Candidate

Tamar Fidel MAT Candidate

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