Koli Environmental Art Workshop

My Finnish friend, Markku Hakuri, is writing a book about teaching environmental art titled Site or Place. He asked me to contribute to it by describing one of my experiences as a guest professor at the University of Art and Design, Helsinki (now, Aalto University).

The second time I was invited to teach in Finland, the environmental art class was part of a seminar in Koli National Park. The theme for the Sixth International Conference on Environmental Aesthetics was “Stone.” Presentations were made by a Swiss geologist, a Japanese dry-garden builder and a modern dance troupe that performed at a soapstone quarry. Besides presenting a slide talk at the conference I had a group of university students for the week to make environmental art in the Finnish countryside. My description (below) of one of their projects will be included in Site or Place.

Koli Environmental Art Workshop June 2007 The pasture hadn’t changed much since the forest was cut and the stones removed from the surface of the ground. Horses continued to feed on the grass that shot up every spring. The collection of stones in the middle of the field were said to have been the foundation of a smithy. No evidence remained of a wood structure or the working of iron on the site. There wasn’t even an outline of the foundation walls, the ruin had been so thoroughly trampled down by livestock over the years. The only hint that the stones were once arranged to form an enclosure was the birch tree growing at the center of the heap. It had escaped browse because of the topographical barrier posed by the tumbled stones. The tree’s thatch of leaves provided the only patch of shade on the pasture ground. The horses claimed it as their own on sunny summer days.

This was the scene that the ten students encountered when they arrived at the workshop site. They met the farmer and acquainted themselves with the land. Their assignment was to make an environmental art piece using stone from the old foundation. Discussions took place around the evening campfire. They decided that the tree needed better protection from the livestock. Their quest would be to save the tree.

The completed work was titled “Birch Fortress.” Once the shape of the work was determined, shifting, lifting and careful placement of stones defined the activities engaged in by the students over the course of four days. The students assembled the stones into a wall that ringed the tree. They practiced the handcraft of dry stone construction while experiencing a singular place in a variety of ways.

To the casual observer not much had changed from when the students arrived at the site to when they left the space. The horses were let back into the pasture and farm life went on as before. The environment was the same. What was different was the students. They now had intimate knowledge of a place on earth because they had briefly, but intently, made it their own through the making of art.