U-M’s sustainable material, color garden in bloom
ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design has taken another important step toward campuswide carbon neutrality with the opening of the Sustainable Materials & Color Garden on the grounds of the school.
The garden, conceived and built by Stamps faculty, staff and students, allows Stamps creatives to source plants for natural art practices creating accessible opportunities to cultivate plants used for materials, natural dyes, and papermaking.
When “a blank piece of paper” is a widely used metaphor for “nothing at all,” it can be a task—or a month-long course—to teach students that not only is paper a novel product, but one that requires the physical beating of fibers from nature into separation, and completion of the subsequent natural processes that allow for paper creation.
Nicholas Dowgwillo, Stamps 2D media studio coordinator and leader of this course, would know. Thankfully though, this month-long workshop with kozo—Japanese mulberry used to make paper—had the intended impact.
“There was a lot of student interest in looking into the natural origins of the plants that make the material we were working with,” Dowgwillo said.
Kit Parks, Stamps fiber and 2D foundations studio coordinator, found similar enthusiasm from students around natural dye materials.
“When the pandemic hit, a lot of students were creating their own dyes at home and were asking what it would take to start our own garden here. So we connected with the U-M campus farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, and in 2021, we planted a couple of beds out there,” Parks said.
Students led the research of plants they were interested in having access to, including how to plant and grow them and how to process them into usable materials and dyes.
Ultimately, without a bus route directly to the campus farm, it was difficult to access and maintain the gardens at Matthaei. Out of an abundance of student interest, a synthesis between Parks, Dowgwillo, and Stamps professor Joe Trumpey, and a successful Giving Blue Day fundraising campaign, the on-location garden could become a reality.
Now, just steps from the Stamps building, is a garden with muraski, hibiscus, flax, tango cosmos, marigold, Japanese indigo, chamomile and more.
A step toward carbon neutrality
“Getting students aware of where their stuff comes from is critical. Especially as makers, it is our responsibility to do right,” Trumpey said. “If we are using unsustainable materials that treat the earth, the water, the soil, the air, other flora and fauna badly, and especially if it treats humans badly, that is not a good part of someone’s practices. So, we have to teach the students how to source good materials and develop a rubric for ‘what is good.'”
The proximity of the garden to the studios at Stamps makes it easy for classes to step outside and visualize the processes of making their own materials.
Echoing U-M’s commitment to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions universitywide, Trumpey teaches his students to “see the carbon in everything.”
“If we had to compare a synthetic yellow dye that’s manufactured with some petro chemical, that comes from some distant place, that has a different kind of a carbon footprint than a few students going out to the campus farm and clipping goldenrod heads that have pollinator benefits, honeybee benefits and beauty benefits, and bringing those to the studio to boil in water to make a nice yellow dye out of it—that is a completely different kind of carbon story,” he said.
Since the pandemic, supply chain issues have been a persistent issue across industries, the arts notwithstanding; not being able to access the materials you need can completely halt the artistic process, Trumpet said. But by imparting a sense of resourcefulness, students can feel empowered to continue their practice even in unprecedented times, he said.
“Thinking around questions of sustainability in the sense of how we sustain an art practice in an era of climate change, and knowing that our resources and timelines, and costs of shipping and receiving materials from a global supply chain will be changing, and in some cases suddenly, is important,” Parks said.
A center of gravity
In addition to serving as an integral piece of the holistic artmaking puzzle, another important purpose of the garden is to create space for community.
“Good spaces encourage community—I call them ‘centers of gravity,'” Trumpey said. “We look at this dye garden space as a center of gravity where people could be seeing some beautiful things, thinking about their work, hanging out with friends, drinking a coffee … people gravitate towards beautiful things; having nature as part of that is important. And if it’s a didactic space where students can think, ‘these plants aren’t just pretty, they also have a purpose; I’m making beautiful things out of beautiful things,’ then they really understand the full story.”
Parks said they named the garden the Stamps Sustainable Materials & Color Garden because “it’s going to facilitate a lot of different projects.”
“You can use the plants for dye, for making pigment, watercolors, paints, food coloring, bio materials, making paper, making yarn, but it’s also a site that can be engaged with from the perspective of community development and design,” Parks said.
Dowgillo said that artmaking doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
“The materials that we use, the way we interact with others in the studio, the audiences for the work that we make, all those things are connected to each other,” he said. “Deepening your understanding of art is deepening your understanding of those connections, and to me that is really important.”
The space is furnished with benches, stools and a table that were built from the historic Tappan Oak. Students milled the oak and utilized indigo harvested from the garden itself to dye the stools blue.
In the future, responsibility of the garden will be taken over by an extracurricular student-based club. They will make planting and growing decisions; plan events, programs and community harvest days; and continue to increase community engagement with the space.
Stamps classes will engage with the garden on many levels and will have the opportunity to propose ways of using materials for their coursework, suggest workshops that can take place in the garden, and participate in the actual harvesting of materials.
“Being able to look around your local environment and know how you can connect things together, I think that helps all of us ground our practices—literally and figuratively,” Trumpey said.