SchoolArts Room

Sustainability: The May 2019 SchoolArts

By Nancy Walkup , posted on Apr 5, 2019

Traditionally the Peruvian ch’ullu (hat) is a symbol of authority. Making the ch’ullu from recycled plastic represents the larger community leadership role of protecting the future.


Ch’ullu for a New Leader, Aymar Ccopacatty
Puno, Peru. plastic bags, caution tape, and fabric litter collected from around Lake Titicaca. Promised gift of Patricia M. Newman, Museum of International Folk Art IL.30.2017.1

It took me quite a while into adulthood to realize how frugal my grandmother was. She made most of her own clothes and then used the scraps to make us Raggedy Ann dolls, stick horses, other soft toys, and patchwork quilts. She made nylon knit bags to save slivers of soap, cultivated a garden, and cooked everything from scratch, in the process, teaching me how to drink tea the English way, and make homemade fig preserves, mint jelly, and mayonnaise. Living through the Depression and the deprivations of two World Wars affected everyone of her generation. Nothing was wasted and not much went to landfills (surely, they had those back then), unlike today.

In my first elementary art position, I inherited wallpaper books, glass baby food jars, stacks of newspapers, cardboard egg cartons, and not much else. Like most art teachers, I became an expert on searching out and repurposing any materials that could inventively be used by my students to make art. That situation hasn’t changed much over time but I believe that art teachers are the original (and best) recyclers. Using unexpected materials (often with humor) encourages students’ divergent thinking and problem solving.

But times have changed. In addition to recycling, we must now consider concepts of upcycling and sustainability. Our contemporary throw-away society has got to change before we destroy ourselves and the planet. Microplastics are now found in the human food chain. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located halfway between Hawaii and California, is the largest of the five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world’s oceans. It covers an area twice the size of Texas. Plastic has beenfound in the deepest reaches of the Mariana Trench, 36,000 feet below the surface. 

According to The Guardian, “Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilization.”

What does it mean to be sustainable? One of the best explanations I have found for sustainability focuses on “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Another that I believe speaks well to art teachers is from Learning for a Sustainable Future: “A sustainable future is one in which a healthy environment, economic prosperity, and social justice are pursued simultaneously to ensure the well-being and quality of life of present and future generation. Education is crucial to attaining that future.” 


How does all this translate for art teachers? Because of the engaging and universal nature of art, you are in the best position to bring awareness to your students of sustainability and environmental issues through big ideas and themes for artwork and for choosing materials to use with your students that do no harm or can be recycled, upcycled, or renewed.

My grandmother would not recognize today’s world, but I want my granddaughter to have a future in a world with clean air and water, birds and bees, and manatees and giraffes. Don’t we want that for all our students? How great would that be?

“If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned, or removed from production.”
If It Can’t Be Reduced, song by Pete Seeger