When teacher and textile artist, Rebecca Burgess was 19, she was asked to teach a textile arts class to children. Having received some training in art and education before entering the UC Davis Research Arts Center, she confidently lead group activities in the textile arts — activities that happened to require a lot of synthetic dyes. At this time, Rebecca knew nothing about natural dyes. She did, though, think it was unfortunate that an Art History major with a minor in Art Studio had not been told where paint or color came from. She took it upon herself to investigate where color came from and posed the occasional question to Jeeves of Ask Jeeves. She collected color recipes and learned how to make color using turmeric, berries, beets and cabbage. When she brought her new knowledge into the classroom, her students devoured all she taught them. They loved learning about natural dyes! She continued to explore color on her own and continued to fuel her students’ passion for nature’s palette.
Back then (as now), Rebecca felt that art is about “moving culture in a new direction” and felt that art missed the boat when it came to ecological awareness. She began vocalizing her concerns while she was an undergraduate student at UC Davis in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, the work she created within an ecological arts model was not well-received. She found herself pushing her professor’s buttons without intending to do so.
Today, Rebecca’s work and viewpoints about art and ecology are more appreciated. After graduating with a major in Art History, a major in Nature & Culture and minors in Art Studio and Design, she left the art world for a while and focused on earning her Masters in place-based education. During this time, she studied how human brains work and how they retain information. She also trained with an ethnobotanist and studied native plant restoration. When she realigned herself with the art world around 2005, she formed a bridge between the arts, education, and native plant restoration using her knowledge of these subjects. She began building restoration gardens at the school where she taught. Students learned the common names and Latin names of plants and witnessed the return of frogs, reptiles and birds to the restored habitat they created. All the while, students harvested art materials, natural dyes and natural inks. Rebecca’s curriculum took off.
The ecological literacy program Rebecca created provides many opportunities for children to experience plants in new and practical ways. Throughout the program, students document and reinforce what they have learned through drawing activities. Rebecca created her program by responding to what she thought was the “most instructive and holistic way” to introduce kids to plants. Rebecca explains:
With the curriculum, I aim for relevance, authenticity and honesty. Merging personal history and experience. Merging place-based history and experience. Merging the collective histories of students to create a single woven piece.
When asked what she feels people need to know about plants, Rebecca replies:
(People need to know) they are carbon. They can make food from sunlight and have a remarkable advantage over humans. They are constantly keeping the planet in balance. They manage the health of the planet through photosynthesis. They have a functional foundational place in our world and we need to appreciate their service.
When designing her curriculum, Rebecca created several activities and taught each of them over a three-year period. The eight lessons she includes in her free packet for educators, were chosen because they are the lessons that best embody the message Rebecca wants to deliver.
Second-grade teachers, textile artists and mothers have taught Rebecca’s lessons. While she knows of people as far away as Mississippi who have taught her curriculum, she receives the most feedback from teachers who have incorporated her lessons into their California classrooms.
Of the eight lessons Rebecca includes in her packet, seven can be adapted to any location. Only one lesson needs to be customized and tied-in directly with a school’s local ecology. To prepare for this lesson, Rebecca recommends teachers speak with professors at local colleges, botanists at a local herbarium, or ecologists familiar with an area’s ecological history. She also suggests teachers contact the native tribes in their region. Native tribes are often involved in restoring the traditional ecology of an area and are a rich source of information. The names of federally-recognized tribes in any region can be obtained online from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Today Rebecca no longer builds restoration gardens herself. She consults with schools and works closely with them on their projects. The Fibershed Project she launched with the publication of her book, Harvesting Color, demands a lot of her time. What began as a project to see if she could live off the natural resources within a 150-mile radius of her northern California home (this includes materials for clothing), has become a movement that will soon benefit the local economy of her area. The focus of the Fibershed Project has moved away from how to keep Rebecca clothed, to how to create a sustainable system that will give artisans and cottage industries access to local farmers for linen, cotton, hemp and more. The health of this system will be monitored by the Fibershed Marketplace, an online store that brings with it a no-nonsense analysis of what artisans, local industry and farmers can and cannot do using local resources. When it launches, the Fibershed Marketplace will launch with an assortment of raw materials. Items available for purchase will include yarn, raw fleece, knitting patterns created for Rebecca’s 1-year wardrobe, jewelry made from scraps of fabric created for Rebecca’s 1-year wardrobe, and small hand knit pieces. A percentage of each sale will go back into the Project’s fund to buy equipment for farmers and to improve the supply chain of goods for the online marketplace.
Finished garments will not be available at launch because fabric will not be ready. Currently the Fibershed Project, now a 501(c)(3), is working on issues related to the milling process that will utilize natural instead of synthetic dyes.
The Fibershed Marketplace will open on November 1, 2011.
Teaching Ecological Literacy
The curriculum Rebecca developed around native plants, habitat restoration, and plant dyes is available to educators for free. Download Teaching Ecological Literacy to Grades 1-5: Restoration Dye Gardens in the Restoration Education section on her website. If you use Rebecca’s curriculum, please let her know how you used it, how students responded, and tell her your thoughts about the experience. She would love to hear from you!
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