Students Take Art Lessons to Zena Forest

Willamette’s Zena Forest provides a laboratory for all the liberal arts, as a class of art students recently learned.

When Willamette purchased land last year at Zena Forest to create a research station, the benefits for the university's hard science programs were immediately obvious - sustainable agriculture, forestry and ecology were among the programs clamoring to work amid the property's forests, prairies and wetlands.

But from the beginning, Willamette faculty and administrators envisioned Zena as a learning laboratory for all the academic disciplines.

As a group of art students recently discovered, the possibilities extend far beyond environmental studies.

Landscape as Inspiration

When art Associate Professor Heidi Preuss Grew first looked out at the rural landscape and a 1905 farmhouse on the property, she saw a site teeming with artistic inspiration.

So she centered an assignment for her "Writing for Artists" class on the forest, specifically in the farmhouse, which will eventually be used as a meeting space.

"The property lends itself to the creative process," she says. "I imagine in the future we could have service learning projects where we clear plant debris from the fields, and then draw the fields. In the long term, I hope to see the arts have a niche here."

Practical Lessons for Artists

Grew's class teaches students the practical analytical and writing skills they would need to succeed as a working artist - like knowing how to successfully compose a grant, a project proposal or an artist statement.

She asked her students to consider the farmhouse as an art exhibition space, then write proposals for projects they would like to install in the home.

The students, all senior studio art majors, were not required to create the works they proposed because the class focused more on the writing process. However, after students pitched their plans to the forest's managers, four took their projects to the next level and installed their work.

"Strong writing skills are so important for an artist," says Lacy Gillham '10, who transformed the vibrant blue walls of one bedroom into a mural loosely based on the designs found on Wedgewood plates.

"Even if you're not going to work in art, this class will help you. You're writing cover letters, learning to be precise and to-the-point, convincing someone to pick your proposal. It's really applicable to the job world."

Disciplines Converge at Zena

In another bedroom, Claire Lindsay-McGinn '10 painted ghost-like outlines of a dresser, bed, desk and mirror on the walls - items she imagined previous inhabitants might have used.

"A lot of my friends are environmental science majors, and it's nice to know that we're working in the same space at Zena," she says. "I like the interdisciplinary nature of this place."

"Our original vision in acquiring Zena was to provide an enhanced academic environment that incorporates all the liberal arts," says environmental science Professor Karen Arabas, one of the managers of the research station. "Professor Grew's successful class project is an example of our how faculty and students have embraced this core concept."