Environmental art combines traditional art theories and processes with resources and materials from nature, often in outdoor settings, integrating ecological methods.
The combination of art and environmentalism can produce powerful results. In this vein, an artistic partnership has been recently struck between the Shippensburg University art and design department and the Cumberland Valley Rails-to-Trails Council.
This fall, two basic sculpture classes at the university undertook the challenge of creating five temporary sculpture installations along a section of the 11-mile trail. Once a stretch of railroad tracks, the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail stretches from Shippensburg to Newville, on land that was donated to the council by Conrail in 1995.
These five sculptures have been constructed from elements found along the trail. Their construction was meant to have a low impact upon the environment, using raw materials such as vines, rocks, wood and discarded railroad ties.
Using such organic components, it is understood that these sculptures will be temporary, since they will decay and disintegrate back into nature. But this knowledge did not dissuade or discourage the art students; instead they not only used their creativity to design the structures but also in choosing their media, they integrated them into the landscape.
Concentrated along the portion of the trail between the university and Shippensburg Township Park, the walkable exhibit shows a variety of approaches.
Twisted vines between trees frame the view of the picturesque neighboring farmlands in one installation. Across the path, a concrete drainage structure is given an interesting treatment with railroad ties laid as a path leading toward the opening of the structure that has been covered in a woven vine gate.
Further down the trail, a semi-circular stone wall surrounds a grapevine laden pair of trees. The thick twisted wood leads downward as their curving pathway is continued by rocks that mimic the lines created by the light gray stems. All of these artists were able to identify and beautifully accentuate the curves and lines created by these natural elements.
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A group of students worked together on a mosaic construction, taking its shape from the larger rocks embedded in the hillside upon which they worked. The curving line of boulders leads to a spiral made of smaller stones, placed meticulously upon the cleared land. The multi-hued building blocks highlight the range in colors in the outdoors even within the starkness of late autumn.
Unexpectedly located in a cleared drainage ditch, an altar-like form is built of heavy rock—it features a jagged stump sprouting from its core. The mysterious structure, only hints to its meaning; perhaps it is paying tribute to its natural surroundings.
The 30 students involved in this inaugural project installed their sculptures two weeks ago, and they will remain on display as the environmental conditions allow.
Shippensburg sculpture Professor Steven Dolbin explained that, “This will be a project for fall sculpture classes with the hope that future resources will allow for permanent sculptures to be installed along the trail.
“Environmental sculptures can enhance the beauty of the CVRT as well as function as an attraction to bring the visitors to the area,” he added.
This partnership between Shippensburg University and the rail trail council creates a “natural” art corridor in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. The goal of permanent art along the trail is worthy of support, but in the meantime, engaging art students in service to the community through art is a wonderful way to make art approachable and accessible to everyone.
Joseph George holds a degree in history and art history from Dickinson College. He and his wife, Barrie Ann have spent much of their 25 years together traveling and visiting art galleries locally and throughout the world. They have been writing about the local art scene for five years. Their tastes range from fine art to street art.