Integrating Art and Sustainability

Sustainability practices go beyond reusable bags or growing your own food. In this episode of Michigan Minds, U-M Stamps School of Art & Design associate professor Joseph Trumpey discusses how art and sustainability collide through the Excellence in Sustainability Honors Cord program and his students’ education.

“A lot of my teaching is studio based so getting students to be able to experience, visualize and actually see some of these green practices is really important. I have been working with the Campus Farm since its inception. My Sustainable Living Experience course has a lot of really hands-on components: having students track their weekly garbage output, their weekly food consumption, their weekly water consumption. All of those sorts of things that are really hands-on and that’s leading to thinking about how does local resilient maker culture overlap with our U-M sustainable culture.”

The Excellence in Sustainability Honors Cord program was created by Trumpey and Student Life Sustainability Manager Alex Bryan. The program allows students to accrue points over their years at U-M, which then provides them with a tangible item to wear at graduation that represents their efforts.

“I was one of the co-chairs for the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, on campus culture and communication. A big part of that report is really focusing on how carbon neutrality needs to be an educational and hands-on opportunity for all of our Michigan and U-M citizens,” he says, adding that he and Bryan wanted to build strong communities and create a system of honoring activities and also develops network opportunities.

The cord for the 2022 graduates were created from locally sourced wool purchased from Zeilinger Wool Mill in Frankenmuth, dyed with plants from Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the Campus Farm, and braided by students within the program. He describes the dye process: “We collected a bunch of Goldenrod out of botanical gardens and the Campus Farm. We dye a strand yellow and we have a project going on with the school of Art and Design and the Campus Farm to grow dye plants, we have a dye garden out at the campus farm. So one of the plants we grow is Indigo. We were able to use that Indigo dye a strand blue and then we used a third strand just leaving as the natural light white wool color.”

Trumpey explains how students have many opportunities to learn first-hand how sustainability efforts can better their lives and the community around them, providing details into projects like tracking their waste, water, and food consumption throughout a week.

“I have them working on a bunch of different exercises, really starting to pay attention to their own personal waste streams, collecting their garbage. So for example, on the first day of class I’ll give them a garbage bag and they have to collect all of their garbage for a week and carry it with them for the week. At the end of the week, we weigh it and sort it and then write a little reflection paper about what it’s like to think about if they had to be responsible for all of their waste. We do similar things about tracking their water use, electrical use, and their food consumption patterns. It’s a lot of really personal living sorts of discussions and the fact that they live together in a house they’re talking about it and working on that all together at the same time.”

He concludes by sharing insight into other educational opportunities he provides to his students through a Green Building course where students design and build a house out of straw bales, two of which are located at U-M’s Biological Station in Northern Michigan and on the Campus Farm. Another course allows students the opportunity to work with local climate activists in the metro-Detroit area.

Listen to the full episode