Environmental studies: It’s an art

Professor Abram Kaplan teaches environmental studies. He also makes some pretty stunning art. The most important thing to know is, these pursuits are not separate.

Kaplan joined Denison in 1993 as the founding director of the Environmental Studies Program. He teaches courses like Environmental Politics & Decision Making, Environmental Planning and Design, and Environmental Dispute Resolution. That’s all nice and straightforward, but this is where his journey takes a turn.

It began when he took his students to an Amish farm in Holmes County. The class had been studying agriculture, farm policy, agrarian economics, soil erosion and other aspects of the food system. But when they asked the farmer to describe his life and his work, he didn’t touch those topics. Instead, he talked about the birds (his family kept an annual list of all the species they saw), the pastoral landscape, and his joy in being surrounded by the sights and smells of the farm.

“I was struck at how constrained my view really was, how my training and my filters impaired my ability to be open, to feel, to experience the very environment I studied.” Kaplan says. “I realized that I saw, but I didn’t see.”

So Kaplan picked up a digital camera, and started taking photographs of the landscape he had been teaching about. Lots of them. And they were pretty good, actually better than pretty good. First his work was in the local coffee shop, then a gallery, and now it has been in more than 30 juried competitions across the country.

Kaplan’s latest art works have grown both in dimension and size. With a grant from the Great Lakes College Association, he has installed “Fine Grain,” which explores the topic of food and where it comes from.

Six components have been placed across the Denison campus. In the second floor of Slayter, Kaplan hung old windows that were salvaged from barns, and he superimposed photographs on them, manipulating the views. He also placed eight-foot tall triangular pylons in Huffman Dining Hall, which work together to create a panoramic view of a farmscape, but the columns can be rotated so the viewer can create their own landscape.

And in the atrium of the Burton D. Morgan Center is a 14-foot free-standing, three-dimensional silo – a replica of an actual silo found in this area, with the walls made of photographs mounted on metal tiles. The silo sits on a “corn-stubble field” created with photographs mounted on plywood. And above the silo is suspended a 16-foot ring with panoramic farm views mounted on both the interior and exterior of the ring.

Kaplan’s says of his work, “It spans a variety of areas that are all connected by the question, “How can we best relate to our environment?” That’s perfect, because now it’s not unusual to find students sitting under the ring, looking up. Or moving columns to create something new in the dining hall. Or reaching out to touch the silo. In other words, relating to their environment.

The Fine Grain exhibit is on display at Denison through Friday, Nov. 18, before it moves on to two other college campuses.

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6:33 PM February 24, 2014

Sally Bulford wrote:

Nice Abram. I’m sending my FYS 101 students (“Voices of the Earth”) out of the books and into service learning in local environmental projects. I tell them, as you do, “you see, but maybe you don’t see.” Let me know if I can help again.

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