Smith Students Connect People and Art to the Landscape

Smith students with landscape studies lecturer Carolina Aragon, outside the Holyoke Public Library where their work was exhibited. Photograph by Steven Coughlin.

A recent project led by visiting lecturer Carolina Aragon gave Smith students the opportunity to create compelling art while working to connect a local community with the local landscape.

In Parks to People, a community-based art project, students in Aragon’s Landscape Studies Studio: Art and Ecology class worked with an after-school group of sixth- to eighth-graders from the William R. Peck School in Holyoke. Their goal was to create art and inspire the public to visit the New England National Scenic Trail and local parks such as the Mount Tom State Reservation.

Holyoke students visited the landscape studies studio at Smith to create T-shirt designs and joined Smith students on a hiking trip to Mount Tom, accompanied by local geology and botany experts including Elaine Chittenden, manager of living collections at Smith’s botanic garden. Later, the group worked together at the Peck School on collages, watercolors, postcards and maps that were eventually exhibited at the Holyoke Public Library.

“It was wonderful to work with such an enthusiastic and hard-working group of Smith students. From the very beginning they were very interested in creating a tangible project for the public, while being mentors and teachers to the younger students,” Aragon said. “They taught students about art and composition and developed a great working relationship with the students.”

As the 2014 artist-in-residence for the National Park Service’s New England National Scenic Trail (NET), Aragon worked with Smith students in the Art and Ecology class to design, develop and exhibit the community-based art project in collaboration with the director, faculty and students from Holyoke Community College’s “Choices” after-school program at the Peck School in Holyoke.

“This community outreach project is one of the components of a larger body of artistic work,” she said. “The goal of these projects is to create a greater connection to the local landscape, especially for youth and recent immigrant groups.”

The New England National Scenic Trail is a 215-mile hiking trail that runs from the Long Island Sound in Connecticut north to the Massachusetts and New Hampshire border. Comprising historic trails that have existed for more than a half a century, the NET extends through many communities, including Holyoke, South Hadley and Amherst. The trail also cuts along the Mount Tom State Reservation, Skinner State Park and the Mount Holyoke Range State Park.

By taking the young students on field trips to the Mount Tom Reservation, Aragon hopes the program will enhance a sense of belonging and stewardship as well as an appreciation for the land. Additionally, she hopes to foster cooperation and collaboration in creating art.

The Smith students who participated were pleased with the results.

“Working on Parks to People gave our class the opportunity to experience the ups and downs of a real community-based project,” said Claire Adams ‘16. “From the very beginning we were given the space to generate ideas about how best to engage the students we were working with and the broader Holyoke community and then put those ideas into action. Seeing the tangible results at the final event was hugely gratifying because of all the time and energy that we put into this project.”

Among the works created during the project were a PVTA bus sign featuring a collage of printed photographs forming the outline of Mount Tom with a bilingual message inviting local residents to visit the New England Trail; a three-dimensional photo installation using student photographs and drawings relating to Mount Tom; maps showing how to get to the park and showcasing seasonal elements of interest; and student-written postcards addressed to Mount Tom, using “Dear Mount Tom…” as a writing prompt.

According to Charles Tracy, superintendent of NET and arts partner specialist for the National Park Service,”The project drew much interest and praise at a recent biennial gathering of national scenic trail managers and partner organizations, many of whom are actively looking for creative ways to engage trail communities.”