Connecting Kids, Art, and Nature
The prairies, woods and bluffs of the lower St. Croix River are rich with life. Birds and bugs, turtles and trees, squirrels and snails all play a part in the ecosystem.
The Junior Girl Scouts who worked on the Art Bench at Carpenter Nature Center near Afton discovered a lot about the many creatures who call the area home, and were inspired to represent the complex web of life in the bench they made with artist Estela de Paola de Lerma.
“It was a challenge for us to represent everything about the nature, the wildlife, the place, and have that represented in the bench,” says Kirsten Dutton of Hudson, one of the Junior Girl Scout troop’s leaders.
The group learned how much there was to learn by taking part in classes and activities at Carpenter over a period of several months. Owls flew over their heads, they participated in bird banding, and tapped maple trees for syrup.
Adding community service to the creativity, and mixing environmental stewardship with celebration, the Girl Scouts also volunteered at Carpenter during their spring Apple Blossom Races. Their task was sorting all the recycling, helping reduce the event’s impact on the environment they had learned so much about.
They also visited Haas Manufacturing, where metal can be shaped into many forms, including functional art – like a bench decorated with birds and animals.
But before any metal could be cut or folded, the group needed to design it. To do that, De Paola de Lerma led a session of creating small models, or maquettes, out of cardboard, styrofoam, and duct tape. Those models were then displayed at Carpenter throughout the summer, and visitors were invited to weigh in. Giving visitors a voice was all part of making community art.
“The girls had so many and such a variety of ideas that to the world they might look crazy, but to the artist, they are innovative. They came up with tons of ideas about the fauna, insects and birds, and the flora, the different flowers and trees, plants and grasses,” says De Paola de Lerma. “It was really inspiring to see how these girls’ minds were creative, but at the same time their ideas were connected to the setting where it would be located.”
The fact that the Girl Scouts were making something that wouldn’t hang on a wall was paramount for the project. The entire bench was conceived of based on its functional role as a place to sit and rest while exploring the 10 miles of trails and other attractions at the nature center, which is open to the public every day.
“It is hard to stop for a second and look at a piece of art nowadays,” says De Paola de Lerma.
“There is a very limited audience who will go to a museum and look at a Matisse painting, but functional art is for everybody. It’s a way to reach a larger community with your art.”
Nestled in trees near the nature center’s herb garden (a functional, beautiful creation itself), the bench reaches a large community of people as they arrive back at the Visitor Center after exploring the grounds. On fresh spring mornings and crisp fall afternoons, in steamy summer and silent winter, it conveys its quiet message of appreciation for the beautiful and complex web of life along the St. Croix River.