Environmental Arts

Faculty and students at Mason Gross School of the Arts are engaged in work at the leading edge of the field of environmental arts. Our efforts in this area are now coalescing into major initiatives—many of them in collaboration with our colleagues at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences—in the areas of artistic research, curriculum, and public programming.

What are Environmental Arts?

How can we foster a sense of empathy and care for our world? How can we increase understanding of the environmental challenges facing our planet? What role can individuals and local communities play in restoring awareness of nature, stewarding it, and ensuring its long-term welfare? How can we expand access to the natural world among communities that have long been excluded from it? Can the habits of creativity and artistry aid us in envisioning a future of environmental sustainability and environmental justice?

Environmental arts is an emerging discipline that aims to answer these calls. Numerous faculty members in all the disciplines at Mason Gross use the arts to explore the environment and human connections it, to communicate and translate knowledge in the field of environmental science, to raise awareness, spark empathy, foster engagement, and inspire action. As with all artistic research, we view these arts practices as vehicles for the creation of knowledge—knowledge about ourselves and our world.

At Mason Gross, we define environmental arts broadly and recognize multiple avenues of inquiry as key components of this field. Among these many components, environmental arts encompass:

  • Art that addresses the environment, nature, and landscape—and humanity’s relationship with them.
  • Collaborative research in which artists and scientists work together to frame questions and methodologies that lead to new research on the environment.
  • Art that engages communities in exploring the natural world and (re-)claiming their place in it.
  • Art that develops, advances, and adopts sustainable materials and practices.
  • Art that probes the boundary between nature and technology.
  • Art that communicates and translates aspects of environmental science for the public.
  • Art that pursues creative placemaking and environmental justice.
  • Art that inspires reflection, empathy, and action around environmental issues.
Faculty Work in Environmental Arts

Mason Gross faculty members are actively engaged in environmental arts research. Examples include:

  • The Arts Integration Research Collaborative (AIR Collaborative), formerly co-directed by Julia Ritter (Dance) and now co-directed by Jacqueline Thaw (Art & Design), together with co-director Anette Freytag (Landscape Architecture, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences), focuses its work on landscape and spatial justice. In 2021, the March to Rutgers Gardens brought together Rutgers faculty, students, and staff with broad membership of the New Brunswick community in a publicly engaged, arts-integrated event to build awareness of the benefits of walking, nature, and community connectivity. The AIR Collaborative continues to build on the March in its advocacy and community-engaged programming.
  • John Evans (Dance) is part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers whose project, “Breaking the Surface,” received a Collaborative Multidisciplinary Award from the Rutgers Research Council to create a dance film on the theme of sea-level rise. Ani Javian (Dance) is a collaborator on the film.
  • Rita Leduc (Art & Design, Rutgers Arts Online) is the artist half of Ecology Extended, an experimental collaboration that “explores pathways by which the healing, ecological dynamics of nature can extend into culture through art.” Fieldwork for Ecology Extended takes place at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
  • Scott Ordway (Music) was commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music to compose The End of Rain, a 45-minute symphonic work for orchestra, voices, and landscape photography that addresses the wildfires and drought that have ravaged California in recent years. The text is drawn from crowd-sourced interviews and testimonies of residents of California who have been affected by these events.
  • Evelyn Wang (Dance) created the research/dance film Gaia’s Whispers to raise awareness of climate change. It was premiered at the Inhale on Camera series in June 2021 and was supported by grants from the Rutgers Research Council, Dance New Jersey, and Rutgers Gardens.
Environmental Arts in the Classroom and in Public Programming
  • Mason Gross School of the Arts, the School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences are now collaborating in the creation of a new minor titled Environment and Creative Expression—a multidisciplinary program in which students gain familiarity with fundamentals of environmental science and learn to respond to environmental issues through creative expression in a variety of disciplines and media in the arts and humanities.
  • The Documentary Film Lab, led by Thomas Lennon (Filmmaking), created the film UTUQAQ, which captures Rutgers scientists exploring the Arctic. The film “speaks in place of Nature, capturing an otherworldly landscape and that which is being lost.” The Documentary Film Lab is collaborating with Rutgers marine and climate scientists, including Robert Kopp, Oscar Schofield, and Thomas Grothues (all at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences), as they seek to better understand human decision-making in the face of climate change. This work is supported by the National Science Foundation; the Lab and its students are expected to produce three short films between 2023 and 2025.
  • Jody Sperling (Dance) teaches the course Performing Climate Change, in which students gain the tools to understand and create performance art that grapples with climate change. They explore ecological thought and movement as forms of resilience and activism, and they analyze the work of performing artists who have engaged with climate. They also consider the intersectionality of climate change and how it is entwined with issues of race, equity, justice, indigeneity, immigration, gender, and identity.
  • As part of the March to Rutgers Gardens, Brandon Williams (Music) directed the Voorhees Choir in a performance of Scott Ordway’s composition Watershed, with text by Lena Struwe (School of Environmental and Biological Sciences). The piece makes audible the names of organisms, many of which we never notice, that live near the Rutgers campus. In setting these names to music and performing them repeatedly, Watershed seeks to inspire empathy and care.