The Community as the Canvas for Sustainability

Posted on by Dodge

Michelle Knapik, Program Director, Environment


Though our grantees welcome a visit from any Dodge Program Director, there are those moments when we can experience a disconnect – say, for example, when an Executive Director of an arts organization makes a cultural reference that “their” people get, and when the Dodge Environment Program Director’s face registers a blank, and she wishes someone would talk about conservation easements or something else she could understand (this would be me).

But there was something magical about my recent site visits to a theatre company, two visual arts organizations, and three community arts centers.   After the usual exchange about programming, organizational health, board governance issues and financial status, I whipped out the bright “Sustainable Jersey” certification program brochure  and our conversations quickly turned to the bridges between the arts community and the trend toward creating sustainable communities.


Almost everyone flipped open the brochure to see the community action areas, which included the usual suspects related to the three “Es” of economy, equity and environment: Energy Efficiency, Green Design, Land Use & Transportation, etc.   And the nearly unanimous response was, “There is no category for the arts & community.” “That’s where we need you,” I replied.

Of course, there have always been connections between the arts and communities, including public art and community arts education, but there has not been always been a conscious and deliberate connection between arts, the three Es and emerging work on regenerative community design.  For a more complete historical and scholarly paper on this subject go to the Community Arts Network reading room and read Converging Streams: The Community Arts and Sustainable Community Movements by Patricia A. Shifferd and Dorothy Lagerroos.

My site visit conversations brought in historical examples of how the arts have contributed to sustainable communities, as well as recent examples.  Take for example aboriginal theater, where nature provided the stage and scenery, and where community members used masks, song and dance (unscripted) to reflect their world view.  Or the The Living Theater Collective model from the ‘70’s, which is a community-based model for creating “transformative theater” – and might just be a business model worth returning to in these economic times.  Let’s not forget artists who use found and reclaimed materials, including the Philadelphia-based Dumpster Divers and individual artists like Eric Shultz, whose Whisper in the Woods sculpture (pictured above) speaks to all kinds of connections.  There are also artists who have associated themselves with building construction and deconstruction specialists.  This cadre of artists is creating value-added art from salvaged building materials.

One rather unique collaboration in New Jersey is Greening: Natural Connections, Growing Community, greening-buttonwhich links environmental groups to Passage Theatre.  This year Peter Donaldson performed, Salmonpeople, which is “the story of one man’s head-scratching, self-taught theories on the economics of Mother Nature and the universal question of sustainable living in America.”   The environmental groups, which included D&R Greenway, Isles, NJ Conservation Foundation, and Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, provided theatre goers with opportunities to engage in outdoor activities.  The idea is that when people experience New Jersey’s natural treasures, they will want to help protect them.

Hearing about all of these discrete efforts prompted me to think about a forum to bring artists and sustainable community advocates together.  To me, artists are key contributors to quality of life, which is a cornerstone of the sustainable community movement.  Artists also comprise a big part of the “creative class” whose members bring innovative thinking and solutions to the social, economic and environmental challenges at hand.  So, if you are associated with an arts group that would like to talk to the “Sustainable Jersey” team about “arts & sustainable community” actions and tool kits, please send me an email:  And if you would like to add your experience of the community as the canvas for sustainable development solutions, please post a comment and keep the conversation going.

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3 Responses to The Community as the Canvas for Sustainability

  1. David White says:

    David White from Passage Theatre, here.

    June Ballinger (our Producing Artistic Director) and Kacy O’Brien (Producer) are really the driving forces behind coordinating the Greening Initiative on behalf of Passage. This puts me in the enviable position of being wonderfully shocked every time I see the work of the artists we bring in. I had no idea what to expect from Peter Donaldson before he arrived, other than his one-man play had something to do with salmon, (and I must admit, when I think compelling theatre, “salmon” isn’t the first word that leaps to mind.)

    But as I watched Donaldson take a full ten minutes to draw a map of the Pacific Northwest watershed, with his *back to the audience* while he named every single river and stream, I realized just how compelling and audacious his work really was. His show did what every great piece of theatre does – it took apart the world we thought we knew, and dared to put it back together again in a different way. Really wonderful stuff.


  2. Thank you so much for this lively, challenging, opening response to the Greening community, and its second year of blending creativity and conservation in our region. As our new president is teaching us, cooperation is the new paradigm.

    I was privileged to see Peter Donaldson on a bare stage at a New Brunswick preservation rally, no props but his red fisherman’s cap in a room full of lunch tables> He stunned us all.

    The play was sold out the second night at Passage, probably because of letter Dodge Foundation sent, glowing with enthusiasm over previous night’s performance.

    Local media ‘ate this up’. They gave cover stories and full pages of text in honor Peter’s presence here in shad country. Yes, I agree with comment — , ‘salmon’ is not first word springing re compelling theatre.

    Preserving waterways, and the lives of the creatures and humans who depend upon them, now THAT’s drama!

    I have a dream – Salmonpeople on the McCarter stage.

    Meanwhile, do be aware that every art exhibition at D&R Greenway Land Trust in Princeton focuses on nature, to trigger its appreciation and preservation. Our current one features the human impact upon nature.

    As Arts and Education Associate, I cherish your concept of community and art. I’ll bring this post to our Director, Linda Mead’s attention.

    “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” This blog is that step.

    Carolyn Foote Edelmann
    Arts & Education Associate
    D&R Greenway Land Trust

  3. Thank you so much for this blog posting. I am particularly caught by your comment about “innovative thinking and solutions to the social, economic and environmental challenges at hand” and would like to pass on a link to a report called:”Tough Choices, or Tough Times” ( drafted by the NCEE – The National Center on Education and the Economy.

    The report makes the case that our current educational system, with its emphasis on rote learning and test-taking is educating our children out of their creative capacities. As more jobs involving routine work become automated or outsourced, a solid education in literature and the arts becomes just as important as math, technology and science. “It is essential that they (i.e. future workers) be critical thinkers, innovative and creative, comfortable with ideas and abstractions, self-disciplined, and team players.”

    Here at the Teaneck Creek Conservancy we have been transforming a 46-acre dumpsite and into a rehabilitated wetlands nature preserve and art and environment have be at the forefront of that intitative since our inception.

    While our currrent Eco-Art website page is being renovated, you can see some our most recent effort in this Picassa album for “Windows on the Park” here:

    Thank you to Dodge for recognizing how incredibly important it is to make the connections between arts, education, and the environment.

    Jonne McCarron
    Executive Director
    Teaneck Creek Conservancy

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