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Aaron Terry, left, and Amir Campbell sit with the art cart they created for public events and story gathering.
Aaron Terry, left, and Amir Campbell sit with the art cart they created for public events and story gathering.

Using art to save nature

Photo by Christopher Ginn

UD project incorporates art, storytelling and research to protect urban tree canopies

Aaron Terry, a University of Delaware assistant professor in the Department of Art and Design, and Amir Campbell, a recent UD graduate of the master of fine arts program, have been spending lots of time asking people in different Philadelphia neighborhoods about trees — what trees they like or dislike, what kind of trees grow near their homes, and what their relationship to trees and nature is. 

The duo has partnered on a project dubbed Seeding Newtopia. Funded by a multi-year grant from the Urban Field Station Collaborative Arts Program, the public arts wing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the project combines art, storytelling and research to understand the impact of trees on residents in urban areas. The goal is to use the stories to help save the trees. 

“Seeding Newtopia is all about collecting, recording and then sharing the stories of people living in urban environments and their relationships to nature and trees. These stories take many forms: memories, myths and even recipes,” said Terry, who grew up in Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood, across the street from the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. He spent long hours playing at the Schuylkill Center. 

“We are opening a dialogue to imagine new and inclusive means of protecting and promoting nature for the benefit of all city residents,” said Campbell, who grew up in West Philadelphia. 

“I found the concept of Seeding Newtopia intriguing,” said Tina Plokarz, who until recently was director for environmental art at the Schuylkill Center. “The project makes impactful suggestions for our urban forest out of recorded personal stories. Can our awareness of this living material around us change the way we behave and design our environments in the future?”

Collecting the stories is an art in itself. At a spring festival at Awbury Arboretum, in Philly’s Germantown section, the duo worked from a colorful cart that they designed and constructed. Once opened, the cart sports two small stools and a compact table where the researchers can record participants’ stories, including with video. A drumming troupe provided background music as children and adults placed paint-covered Kraft paper face-down on a tree stump, then walked, marched or stomped across the stump to create vibrant woodblock printings. A few dogs and even two goats contributed paws and hooves to the printmaking efforts. Volunteering that day were several of Terry’s undergraduate students.

Terry and Campbell use qualitative research software to code and analyze each story recording, in pursuit of common themes. They will create an online, interactive map of Philadelphia neighborhoods that shows the general location where each (anonymous) story originates and the opportunity to listen to these short story clips. 

Terry is eager to spread the word about how trees can positively impact mental and physical health. “The simple act of walking past a natural-feeling space — even if it’s not pristine — can lower heart rates and reduce stress,” said Terry. 

If this sounds more like a medical professional or natural scientist talking, rather than an artist, Terry noted that art has always had the power to change the world. “We are teaching our students to look at art broadly and think about how their art can impact the world around them,” Terry said.   

Terry and Campbell will be crisscrossing Philadelphia this summer with their Newtopia cart. Check out the Seeding Newtopia schedule of events at  https://www.aaroneliahterry.com/ or on Instagram at @urbanyetti.

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