Jessica Houston is an multimedia artist and participatory arts facilitator. She facilitated two ELAN ACE Projects this year, the “Magical Garden Window” project at Sunnyside Elementary in Stanstead in the Fall of 2018, and the “Future Landscapes” mural at St. Mary’s school in Longueuil, Quebec, this Spring! Read on for her reflections on her most recent project, and her practice. 

ELAN ACE: What is your artistic practice?

Jessica: My multimedia projects examine questions related to our changing natural world, and our nature within it. I have traveled from pole to pole—using photography, painting, oral histories and objects—to evoke nature and culture entanglements. Through a variety of interventions, my works challenge the premise that we are separate from nature, looking at ‘it’ from a distance from a position of privilege. My projects often include site-specific oral histories that amplify the memory of a place and evoke land as a living process. I have worked on projects involving communities and their relationship to their environments in the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, and Italy.

ELAN ACE: How have you incorporated your practice into the ELAN ACE project you are currently involved in?

Jessica: In my current project “Future Landscapes” with the students at St. Mary’s school, we have been working on envisioning our future. Based on discussions around environmental issues, including climate change and sustainability, the students created a 15-foot long mural depicting what they would like to see in the future.

Teaching is very much an extension of my artistic practice. I have worked with communities around issues of sustainability and their relationship to place in the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, Iceland and Europe. In terms of thinking about the future, I recently deposited a time capsule in a glacier in Antarctica containing 22 handwritten letters to the future from contemporary thinkers across disciplines. No one from the present has read the letters.

Photo: Jessica Houston

ELAN ACE: Can you describe the project that you are working on?

Jessica: This collaborative piece at St. Mary’s School involved group discussions around ecology and sustainability, and thoughts about what present-day decisions will impact their future. As a group, students decided about what future they wanted and how to give their ideas vision. They delved into questions of color, scale and composition, as they painted a 5-meter-long mural of their future landscape. This work includes an Arctic with ice, biodiversity of animals, electric cars, wind and water energy, forests, mountains with minerals left in them and not extracted, and revolutionary zero energy architecture. This mural is an artwork onto itself, and it will be used as a setting for a film that the students are making that involves a robot in the future. It speaks to the way art engenders the capacity to envisioning things differently than they are. This four-day art marathon was invigorating for the students and teachers alike. The project will culminate in a school-wide event where the gymnasium will be transformed into a science museum.

ELAN ACE: How do you see the students and the teachers that you are working with growing through your project? 

Jessica: The teacher that I am working with said that he was able to see different aspects of his students emerge through artmaking that are not apparent to him during other school activities. In both school projects that I have carried out, the art experience engenders in children the capacity to imagine things differently than they are. It is this ability to envision that is so important to our democracies and societies. It is also crucial for our own path as human beings.

There isn’t a lack of data supporting the evidence of global warming, clearly, we need more than data to move forward into a sustainable future. The value of imagination is pivotal to our ability as humans to respond empathetically to our world. The process of making a collaborative mural required students to think about the entire composition, and how their piece fits within and contributes to the whole. Working together, students experienced ecological thinking through the artmaking process.

ELAN ACE: Can you think of an example of co-learning that you witnessed and participated in through this project?

Jessica: The students learned a lot from one another, and I surely learned a lot from the students. Mostly, I am heartened by their spontaneity, curiosity and ability to think freely without too many censors. Of their own accord, they come up with many viable solutions to environmental issues. They surprised their teachers, who had a different idea of the future. As a result, they changed their narrative for the film they will make with the robot moving through the future landscape.

ELAN ACE: What is your vision of the future relationship of the arts to education? What do you think is the value of integrating the arts into education?

Jessica: Students’ ability to be whole human beings is awakened in the practice of making art. They use empathy, imagination and agency when making things. These elements are essential to imagining our future – art should be a core requirement to any school curriculum.

Photo: Jessica Houston