Home » Projects » Nature at the Confluence

Nature at the Confluence

Using the Lessons of Integral Ecology in the Creation and Implementation of a Student Final Project Assignment

Curricular materials created for the 2014 SAIL seminar:

Contested Spaces in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado

I developed “Nature at the Confluence” a final project assignment for a relatively new course I teach, “Contemporary Art in an Age of Global Warming.” The assignment asks students to work in teams to develop and present proposals for future environmental art initiatives for a 34-acre site, which city of Beloit planners hope eventually to turn into a “destination, nature-based, public open space.” The site, at the confluence of Turtle Creek and the Rock River in South Beloit, is currently bisected by active railroad lines, inhabited by a significant transient population, and contaminated with industrial waste. A series of in-class guest lectures help students gain familiarity with the site from multiple angles, while classes on the history of environmental art (c. 1960 to the present) help students imagine a range of “artistic” solutions and a rubric for assessing the success/failure of environmental art initiatives.

Nature at the Confluence

“Nature at the Confluence” is the culminating final project assignment for students enrolled in “Contemporary Art/Age of Global Warming” an intermediate-level course that asks what role art can play in solving current environmental challenges. In the course, we explore artist-based perspectives on building a more sustainable future – new and exciting territory where the very purpose and practice of art is being redefined. We examine many facets of contemporary art and environmental issues. Through historic and contemporary readings, field trips and hands-on labs and fieldwork, we consider artists’ initiatives within the context and history of environmental thought, and from the perspective of environmental politics. The course is an elective for art history and environmental studies majors. Enrolled students typically have taken at least one course in art, art history, or environmental studies.

In the spirit of integral ecology, I arrange and schedule a series of guest talks and field trips that “unfold” over the course of the entire semester. Designed to help students understand the site from a variety of angles (the four quadrants) and disciplinary perspectives, these include a slide talk by the program manager of the design firm working with the city of Beloit, and talks by historians, botanists and geologists familiar with the region who spoke about the physical and historical dimensions of the site and surrounding environs. The class also embarks on field trips: for example, we go with a renowned Wisconsin sculptor (and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation) to the site itself to consider the aesthetic and spatial “resonance” of the site. We visit the Beloit College Archives to study the history of the city’s founding, and we travel to Buffalo Rock State Park in LaSalle Country, Illinois, to view renowned artist Michael Heizer’s Effigy Tumuli, a series of earthworks commissioned in the 1980s for a contaminated site on the bluffs above the Illinois River. Currently owned and maintained by Illinois State Park system, Effigy Tumuli is widely considered a failed work of public and environmental art. Its troubled history and relationship to the local community inform students’ thinking for their own proposals for the Beloit site.


Content/Concepts Goals

  • Exploration of the concepts of “public art” and “environmental art.”
  • Exploration of the concepts of “brown fields,” “remediation,” and “open spaces.”

As evidence of learning, I use students’ final projects and their presentations; incorporation in their presentations of the works of public and environmental art that served as inspiration for their projects; and students’ ability to articulate the particular social and environmental challenges that the Beloit site presents. I also invited a professor of political science, the College’s Sustainability Coordinator, and former students in this class to serve as an external review board; their comments and questions to each team further enabled me to assess students’ learning.

Higher Order Thinking Goals

  • Reflection on the value (and obstacles) of inter- and multi-disciplinary collaboration for creative problem solving, particularly for environmental quagmires.
  • Reflection on the “real-world” physical, social and ethical challenges facing environmentalists and artists creating environmental and/or public art initiatives.
  • Reflection on the relationship between theory and praxis.
  • Reflection on best practices for the promotion and advancement of ideas in the public arena.

Again, evidence of learning is drawn from students’ final presentations and projects. For their final presentations, students are required to find effective means of visual and verbal communication, and to cultivate their powers of persuasion to make a compelling case to an audience comprised of both academics and non-academics.

Multidisciplinary Analysis

  • My primary goal is to encourage and develop a kind of “intuitive” integral ecology approach to environmental (and “artful”) problem-solving — to instill in students a sensitivity to and awareness of the four “quadrants” of integral ecology – without using confusing, distracting jargon.
  • Additionally, my goal is for students to connect theory (and history) with practice, through experiential – and localized – learning. The assignment ensures that the abstract ideas and environmental art initiatives we study in the classroom can be assessed, applied (or discarded) and considered in relation to a very immediate, real-life, real-time and local example.


Final Project Assignment – “Nature at the Confluence”

Develop and present a proposal for a future environmental art initiative for the Beloit “Nature at the Confluence” site. The initiative your team proposes may take any form. Guest lectures in class will help you gain familiarity with the site from multiple angles. Classes on the history of environmental art will help you imagine the range of “artistic” solutions, and develop a rubric for assessing the success/failure of environmental art initiatives.

How to begin? You might find you are inspired by something in/on the site itself. Or there may be an environmental concern in/on the site that warrants attention. Your team may decide to focus on the site’s rich natural and/or human history, or you may be excited by the possibilities the site holds for communities of potential users and/or for future generations.

As your team develops its ideas, you will consult with key faculty and others, to explore (and ensure) the suitability, feasibility and sustainability of your proposed art initiative. Your final proposal may take any form (e.g., drawing or three-dimensional model, powerpoint, photos, website). Ideally, your design will be constructible, but theoretical designs will also be accepted. (We will discuss as a class whether to impose budgetary constraints.)

Your team will present the final proposal to a panel of your peers and outside evaluators in a 15-minute oral in-class presentation during the week of Dec. 1. The goal is to entice your audience and help potential “clients” see the sustainability, feasibility, suitability, and desirability of your art initiative for “Nature at the Confluence.” In the oral presentation, you will describe your proposal in terms of 1.) what it is and where it is to be located; 2.) how it will be made and installed; 3.) its environmental objectives. You will also explain it in terms of 4.) who the potential “users” of your project will be, how your initiative will enable or enhance their experiences and how it will impact other non-targeted potential users of the Confluence site; 5.) how it links to the historical and/or cultural context of the site. 6.) You should also be prepared to explain the science behind your initiative, and/or the ways in which your project crosses disciplinary borders and fosters interdisciplinary approaches to environmental problem-solving. 7.) Finally, you will want to address the ethical implications (or ramifications) of your proposed environmental art initiative.

Resources & Materials


Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Michael E. Zimmerman, “An Overview of Integral Ecology: A Comprehensive Approach to Today’s Complex Planetary Issues,” Integral Institute, Resource Paper No. 2, March 2009, pp. 1-14.

Ann T. Rosenthal, “Teaching Systems Thinking and Practice through Environmental Art,” Ethics and the Environment, 8 (1), 2001, pp. 153-168.

Share this page