In this interview we speak with Daryl Stenvoll-Wells, BioMedia Project Manager at the Linnean Society of London about rethinking the idea of perpetuity in art and museums.
Tell us about yourself and how to came to work on researching the environmental impact of museums and related organisations?
I have a background in art and art education. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and after I graduated from art school in Rhode Island, I returned home and started working as a muralist for the Department of Cultural Affairs. Back then the city had a pretty robust public art programme, and I worked with secondary school dropouts to design murals. I really liked working with underserved young people and so I became an art teacher—I ended up working in schools in East L.A., Washington D.C., and New York. I went to London as a graduate student at the Slade, and wound up teaching art at the American School in London.
Over time, I became more interested in working in the heritage sector. In 2014 I started an organisation called ‘Art Responders’ which curates exhibitions and art events with a racial and restorative justice focus. Through this organisation I curated several exhibitions that had a learning/mentoring component, and this led me to become more interested in the idea of working in a cultural heritage setting.
Since much of the Linnean Society’s work has ecological themes, and we try hard to raise awareness of climate crisis, it seems hypocritical to perpetuate the use of such materials in our activities.
When I moved back to the UK in 2017 I was determined to make a shift into museum and heritage learning; I started off with some visiting artist and mentoring gigs (FirstSite Colchester, Barbican, and South London Gallery among them) but ended up taking a full time role at the Linnean Society in 2019. I run their flagship schools programme, BioMedia Meltdown, which is an interdisciplinary programme working with mainly Key Stage 3 pupils to teach about natural science through art.
Recently there was a lively discussion on the Group for Education in Museums mailing list about Plastazote and finding alternatives that are less injurious to the environment.
I have always disliked using expendable, non-biodegradable student art materials, but when I was installed in my own classroom as an art teacher I found I could control the amount of wastage better. When you’re going into schools for one-off projects, it’s a lot less practical to tote around (or organise) scraps for reuse, so I could see the accumulated toll of workshop materials could be even more damaging. Since much of the Linnean Society’s work has ecological themes, and we try hard to raise awareness of climate crisis, it seems hypocritical to perpetuate the use of such materials in our activities.
It becomes difficult for urban low-income artists, because the only people who can do ‘proper’ printmaking techniques either have access to well-ventilated space, or may take risks to their health and safety.
I majored in printmaking as an undergraduate, and I have always loved sharing printmaking with pupils; there is nothing that compares to that ‘Aha!’ moment you get when pupils realise they can make multiple prints from a handmade template. However, beyond plastazote and other foam-based student printing materials, many professional artists’ printmaking supplies are terrible for the environment, from the chemicals involved in etching and lithography to the solvent-based inks which emit VOCs into the air. I have asthma, and when I was learning etching, I used to start wheezing if I spent too much time in the poorly-ventilated printing studio. It becomes difficult for urban low-income artists, because the only people who can do ‘proper’ printmaking techniques either have access to well-ventilated space, or may take risks to their health and safety.
I have found passable methods, but still haven’t found the perfect solution for sustainable printmaking in classrooms with minimal environmental impact. I have found a few techniques that work on a smaller scale, but these materials require too much prep time to scale up for groups of 30 or more. For several years I have wanted to create a forum to gather and experiment with other art teachers and teaching artists to find a solution. The sum of knowledge out there is immense, but too often teachers are working in isolation in classrooms or as freelancers, and don’t have a chance to share what they know.
I hope to organise an event to gather art educators and experiment with the different techniques that are possible.
One of my main takeaways over decades of working in art education is that teachers in general are woefully underestimated and their experience and knowledge is underused. If there is one overarching theme of my work as a teacher, in addition to trying to create possibilities for my students, it’s to use and appreciate the wisdom and experience of other teachers more.
Whenever in-person events are possible again, I hope to organise an event to gather art educators and experiment with the different techniques that are possible. This shouldn’t be a proprietary issue, as we all have an interest in developing more environmentally sound methods as educators.
Some didn’t agree that all plastic is bad. What has your research into alternative materials found?
This part is an excerpt from the GEM list thread written by Daryl on alternatives to Plastazote.
A few years ago I inherited a school workshop project that involved the use of plastazote, and like you, I was very reluctant to keep it going with this material for the same reasons you listed. Suitable substitutes are out there, but all come at a cost in terms of weight, durability, cost or difficulty) and choosing a suitable one very much depends on the project.
For etching-style printmaking there are alternatives involving gelatine plates, clay, or even wax-coated cardboard, but they are work-intensive to make in the numbers required for school projects. For embossing or relief work, I find there are grades of cardboard that work fine from upper KS2, but younger kids will find it difficult to cut in any amount of detail; you can also use pre-cut shapes with younger kids, depending on the theme. Oak tag/ file folder paper is cheap and very easy to cut for kids of any age; you can build up layers for collagraphy projects or embossing.
Apart from plastics, in what other ways do you see museum materials or activities having a problematic environmental impact?
If we want to change this, we may have to alter a few fundamental presumptions about the creation of art.
There are very few areas of the arts that only use sustainable materials. Even in something as harmless-sounding as woodworking, you have varnishes that release damaging fumes into the air. Ironically, if we want to change this, we may have to alter a few fundamental presumptions about the creation of art.
If we think all art is meant to last forever, then we get into materials that are non-sustainable. Teaching that art is about process rather than product is more likely to produce environmentally friendly art. If we teach pupils how to document their process and make that document the final evidence of our work, only saving our most accomplished originals, we could reuse or repurpose more materials and prevent a lot of harm to the environment.
We also need to get materials manufacturers on board to produce more sustainable products. Like I said, it’s possible to do printmaking without so many non-biodegradable materials and harmful chemicals, but producers have cheaper ways of doing it at the moment—and there is still sufficient demand for those cheaper methods. Once schools and organisations demand more environmentally-friendly ways of doing things by refusing to use those products, I’m relatively certain that more ecological methods will fall into place, but it will take time—and we have to demand it.
Many museums are deciding to document and exhibit climate change and climate activism, how do you observe this effort? Are museums doing enough to confront their own environmental impacts first?
I currently work in a heritage organisation (not a museum) so I can’t really answer this question very well. I can say that previous organisations I’ve worked for have been trying to confront these issues, but it could be that the one-off workshop framework for heritage education needs a rethink.
I think there is a lot to be said for long-term projects that provide repeat engagements over time, especially for culturally underserved communities.
For a while we’ve been obsessed with increasing ‘engagements’ by creating these one-off experiences for members of the public, but the pandemic is really going to force those who work with large groups in schools and museums to consider whether this is the best and most effective way of reaching people. I think there is a lot to be said for long-term projects that provide repeat engagements over time, especially for culturally underserved communities. But maybe that’s a whole other conversation!
What else are you working on and what next for you?
In March of 2020 I had just completed my yearly workshop cycle of 92 workshops when the first lockdown was announced. By the time September rolled around it was clear to me there were likely to be further school closures, so I started developing a different type of project for this year’s workshop cycle. Knowing that I might not be able to go into schools because of class group bubbles and/or future lockdowns, I developed a project called BioMedia Book Arts where I would work with the same 420 students over a six month period.
By the end of the project these students should have a complete, hand-bound natural science art book that will be a record of all their hard work and learning this year.
I provided a kit of art materials (sketchbook and basic drawing and painting materials) to each participant and produced a series of 15-minute videos, each introducing a new theme within the areas of botany, mycology and zoology. In each video I speak with guest artists and scientists, then demonstrate a selection of creative art and science activities related to the theme, which the participants also try in their book. By the end of the project these students should have a complete, hand-bound natural science art book that will be a record of all their hard work and learning this year.
It’s definitely a move away from the types of workshops I gave in the past, where I always tried to bring in a material they wouldn’t have access to in their everyday class activities. Those types of projects were always going to lean towards the expendable/non-sustainable, as they rely on the element of surprise and novelty—even gimmickry. This project has been more of a slow build as the students deepen their interest and investment over time.
However, I’m starting to feel like I’m having a more profound impact on whether they perceive themselves as artists and scientists moving forward. So I’m hopeful for the future even though I know there’s a lot of change ahead.
Follow Daryl and BioMedia Meltdown on Instagram @biomediameltdown.
Contact Daryl at the Linnean Society: email@example.com.