One hundred and fifty students from South Medford High School and another 125 from Wilson and Orchard Hill Elementary schools converged on a grassy field next to Bear Creek at the U.S. Cellular Community Park Wednesday to create a piece of living art they couldn't even see — until it was all over.
"Art changes people, people change the world," said Daniel Dancer, an artist and photographer from Mosier who was commissioned by the Jefferson Nature Center to create a large-scale art and environmental education project focused on Bear Creek.
Dressed in red and black T-shirts, the students stood between lines of bark mulch and recycled rubber drawn on the grass to create the outline of a Pacific salamander.
"Space yourselves equally," Dancer shouted through a megaphone from atop a 100-foot crane. The students stood on the border and inside a square that measured 100 by 130 feet, becoming what Dancer calls "human drops of paint."
Dancer, the only one with the perspective to see the big picture of what was transpiring below, snapped pictures from his position high up in the crane. He later used the images to create a video shown to the students. The pictures allowed them to see this "Art for the Sky" from a new perspective, one they could not see when they were down on the ground immersed in the art.
Dancer has created large-scale art at dozens of schools across the United States, encouraging what he calls "sky sight," an attitude shift that helps students develop creative solutions to both individual and societal problems.
"I want them to experience the power of what happens when everyone collaborates, for everyone to have an experience of being the artwork, of becoming endangered, like the Pacific salamander.
More than 200 years ago, the philosopher Immanuel Kant said, 'For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first.' I'm trying to help develop this holistic point of view," Dancer explained.
Art for the Sky is part of a yearlong environmental education project created by the Jefferson Nature Center called "Finding Home."
"We chose to do a Pacific salamander because it's common in Bear Creek and it needs cold, clear water. We're hoping the students will think about this animal in addition to the (art) experience," said Susan Cross, executive director for the Jefferson Nature Center.
The Finding Home curriculum also includes units on salmon life cycles and on the red-tailed hawk. Art projects — including print-making and metalwork — are part of the learning process.
"Kids do journaling after each experience, then they use that to create art and writing based on their natural-history experience," Cross added.
Before creating the salamander art, Dancer gave a multimedia presentation to the students, combining art with environmental science.
This integrated approach is ideal for the South Medford High students, who are part of a "school within a school" known as Bridging the Arts, Communication and Humanities, or BACH, according to Leslie Ashpole, a biology teacher in the program.
"Some of the students have been doing water-quality testing on Bear Creek for two years. They also create poems, stories and artwork about their experience," Ashpole added.
Several organizations that promote the health of Bear Creek collaborated with the Jefferson Nature Center to create this big-picture project, including the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, Bear Creek Watershed Education Partners and the Bear Creek Watershed Council. Grant funding was provided by the Carpenter Foundation and the Gray Family Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation. Cook Crane donated the use of the crane.
When the students were all in place and the pictures taken, Dancer gave his final instructions to the students.
"Bow to the wild salamander. Everyone bow inward in honor of our rivers and watershed," Dancer called out through his megaphone. The students crowded into the center of the living sculpture and chanted "Get your sky-sight on" in unison. Then they dispersed, talking and laughing, and boarded their buses.
After the buses left, the sound of laughter was replaced by gusting wind and groaning traffic on Interstate 5. Bark dust in the grass of an empty field was the only trace of the giant living salamander.
The art lives on in pictures, in video and, most of all, in the minds of 275 Medford students, who for a short time were able to glimpse their lives from a larger perspective.
To see the giant salamander art, visit www.jeffersonnaturecenter.org.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.