“Losing Eden?,” a student-curated exhibit at Niagara University’s Castellani Art Museum, highlights two dozen artworks from the museum’s collection that inspire reflection about our ever-shifting relationship with the natural world. It is also being used to inspire classroom discussion on environmental issues that are of particular concern to students.
The exhibition, which is on display Jan. 8-March 20, 2022, was the final student project in the Introduction to Museum Studies course, part of the Art History with Museum Studies program. Students were asked to select works that suggest a dialog on the relationship between people and the Earth, which they then installed in one of the museum’s galleries.
The challenge was to take art and use it as a springboard for how they think about the environment and then looking deeply, and the more deeply they look, the more details they see in the artworks that connect to a number of environmental concerns,” said Marian Granfield, faculty fellow in museum studies, who teaches the course. “So art is just a wonderful way to get you thinking about the world and a whole host of issues.”
Student curators Stephanie Chandler, Jordyn Fisher, Aubrey Halloran, Sean Hein, Derek Moran, Stephanie Toohey, and Tyler White chose artwork representing a mix of styles, periods, and mediums that they felt were symbolic of humanity’s sprawling colonization of natural world.
Featured artwork included “Wrapped Painting” by conceptual artist Christo, which Stephanie Chandler said reminded her of a garbage bag and got her thinking about how much plastic is thrown away every day. She noted that Christo and his wife, who were known for large-scale environmental works of art, would first clean the area where their artwork was to be installed.
Another work of art, an untitled sumi ink on paper by artist Keith Haring, was selected by Jordyn Fisher, who said that the figures in the center of the drawing, which appear to be in conflict, made her think about what would happen if Eden was actually lost.
“Waterfall Man,” an acrylic on wood by sculptor and printmaker John Buck, was “a very elegant expression of how connected we are to the world, and how we are essentially water,” said Derek Moran, who chose the piece, along with “Composition,” by Buffalo-born artist Allan D’Arcangleo. The serigraph, which shows bright yellow and red structures against a monochromatic background “raises the question of just how far humankind will turn from the natural world for the conveniences of modern life,” he said.
One of the smallest, simplest works of art was “Ducks,” a crayon drawing by early American modernist Arthur Dove. Sean Hein chose it “because it shows the importance that should be given to smaller animals, such as ducks, that are often overlooked when people look at environmental issues.”
Dr. Doug Tewksbury, associate professor in NU’s Department of Communication and Media Studies, is one of the professors taking advantage of the interdisciplinary opportunities offered by the exhibition. He notes that his Environmental Humanities course addresses how themes of the environment and climate change are represented in various media, such as film, literature, gaming, music, and art, so the exhibit fit perfectly into the curriculum.
“The students are going to be writing about how the environmental themes they encountered in the ‘Losing Eden?’ exhibit influence their own experience, and we'll be discussing these themes in class, together,” he said. “We've really got to get on board with the needs and perspectives of young people on all issues, but especially the environment. So having the exhibit be curated by current undergraduate students was really special, since my students could see work put together by other students who share their same concerns.”
Niagara’s Art History with Museum Studies program is both an academic and professional program that provides students with a scholarly study of art, culture, and museums, while focusing on the area of professional museum work such as curatorship, education, collections management, museum administration, and development. Internships and exhibition-based courses are offered in partnership with the Castellani Art Museum.