Reimagining sustainability as art.

Pangy Day mask decoration.

By Keely Savoie

Taking care of the world we live in takes a new kind of thinking, and a new kind of action.

That’s according to Jay Mead, an artist whose work directly engages nature and the concept of sustainability.

“The first thing is love,” Mead told a group of faculty, staff, and students at Mount Holyoke College. “You have to fight for something you love. You have to engage your heart.”

Mead’s visit to Mount Holyoke, designed to get students to think creatively about sustainability, spanned more than two weeks from April 9 to April 24, and included coteaching a class with Serin Houston, visiting assistant professor of geography. Mead also delivered the Miller Worley Environmental Leadership Lecture on art and sustainability.

On April 10, it was time to put theory into practice. The goal: to design larger-than-life masks that would embody the idea of sustainability through representations of community and nature.

The mask-making project began with an all-day, drop-in workshop in which students constructed clay molds that would serve as the base of enormous papier-mâché masks. Students lined tables, pushing their fingers into the wet clay to form gigantic faces festooned with fish, hands, and hearts.

“Sustainability is a lot about community,” said Victoria Dawes ’16, an environmental studies major from Corning, New York. “When the entire community is coming together and thinking about environmental things, it’s an interesting way of getting onto the same page.”

Mead, who also speaks and writes about sustainability, calls this a “right-brain dive”— using the creative process to open up new ways of thinking and interacting with the world.

“It’s getting people to look at things differently—to think about complex challenges in another way,” he said, noting that too much of our work toward sustainability relies on technological interventions and linear thought.

Hannah Falvey ’15, an international relations major from Minneapolis, Minnesota, noted the instant sense of community that the activity engendered.

“People would stop by and say they’re only there for five minutes—but they’d get really into it,” she observed.

Pangy Day decoration.

Students reconvened to complete the masks on April 24, during the celebration of Pangynaskeia or Pangy Day, Mount Holyoke’s annual celebration of “the world of women." Again, students lined the tables and decorated the masks—now dried and lifted off of the clay bases—with brightly colored paint, depicting birds, trees, and flowers.

Along with the lessons about art as a way to start conversations about sustainability, the project itself served as an example. The clay used to create the base of the masks came from Mead’s personal stock, which has been in use for more than 20 years to create countless masks and puppets all around the world. When the Mount Holyoke masks were removed, Mead reclaimed the clay for use in future projects.

This judicious use of materials—and the meaning it imbued them with—was what struck Elizabeth Babcock ’17, an environmental studies major from Sherwood, Oregon.

“Art has to have meaning, but we don’t necessarily think about it in a sustainable way,” she said. “We don’t think about how much energy and resources we are using in our lives.”

The many meanings behind the word sustainability were the ideas Mead most wanted to impart, he said. That—and the need to enjoy it.

“Sustainability shouldn’t be onerous,” he explained. “People should have fun with it, be creative with it."

“It is not just about caring for our world. It has another meaning as well,” Mead said. “It’s also what is going to sustain us. It’s not just about food and water. Happiness, dance, joy, humor—we have to have these things that sustain us. When I think of sustainability, I think of all these things together.”

Mead’s visit was sponsored by the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, with additional support from the departments of geology and geography, environmental studies, architectural studies, and art as well as the Office of Student Programs and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.


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