Published in St. Lawrence University Magazine in 2019.
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“Our concept of now is clouding how we think about the future,” says Rachael Jones, visiting assistant professor of ceramics and drawing. “We need to think about our impact on future generations.”
It is this philosophy that informs the merger of Jones’ artistic practice with the environmental consciousness she brings to the classroom at St. Lawrence. Along with fostering a respect for the materials and resources in the ceramics studio, students are learning about the overlap of art and environmentalism through their participation in The Seed Bank Project, a multidimensional and multigenerational environmental art effort founded by Jones in 2017.
“A seed bank is a storage container (often made of clay) that is specially designed to create a controlled, interior climate so as to maximize the seed’s potential viability,” says Jones. She explains that although every seed’s ability to germinate is different depending on its DNA, one can encourage the maximum amount of time that a seed can genetically stay viable by storing it within a dark, dry, and cool place.
“There is a symbiotic sense of value to burying the seed banks, both to the local and global communities through the sharing of vital plant species information and the relationship they have with local cultures,” says Jones. “We begin to think about taking responsibility for the future of our food production locally and spark a dialogue of human stewardship towards the Earth and future generations of all species while learning about our local ecology.”
The first thing that Ceramics 1 students make in Jones’ course are little seed vessels based off of the ones made by the Pueblo and Hopi tribes of the Southwestern United States. “It’s a great introduction to the deep history between our species evolution and the use of clay,” says Jones. They then fired the vessel in a pit kiln in the ground.
In collaboration with an environmental studies course taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Katherine Cleary, Jones buried a seed bank at St. Lawrence’s Living Lab (formerly the Ecological Sustainability Landscape). Students from the course interviewed local farmers and collected seeds acclimated to the North Country’s growing season to put into the bank. There is a marker on the trail where the bank of seeds is buried.
“Although it is hard to have expectations with a project that could potentially exist beyond our generation,” says Jones, “the planting of the seed bank is an important aspect. The act is meant to focus on the local environments in the midst of an increasingly global outlook.” Even if a seed is found beyond its span of viability, Jones believes it can still provide important information about the location in which it was found. In addition to the students’ seed banks buried in Canton, the project has planted vessels on four continents, in seven countries, and in 25 states.
The learning outcomes that Jones hopes her students walk away with range widely from strictly academic to more personal. “Clay has taught me a lot about myself,” she says. “The material can and will teach patience and a deeper understanding of motivations. These are soft skills that can apply to more areas of their lives than just making artwork.
“Clay can be a recalcitrant material,” she continues, “and failure is eminent when working with it. I expect my students to fail, as long as they are failing forward. I hope that they can continue to cultivate a positive association with failure.”
As for more conceptually environmental explorations, Jones says, “I don’t put ideas in their heads, and I am open to whatever they are passionate about.” However, Jones is not surprised that many of her students use her course to explore environmental issues further: global warming, the plight of bee colonies, black market trading, and poaching for ivory. “The list goes on,” she says. “It is exciting to see them exploring these issues sculpturally.”
Deborah Dudley contributed to this article.