On the south side of the Fairfax Campus, between the Art and Design and Nguyen Engineering Buildings, there is a space where wild things grow. This outdoor classroom/learning lab is called the Green Studio, and George Mason University just might be the only university with such a space.
Home to edible plants, medicinal herbs, and vegetation attractive bees and butterflies, the studio was started in 2010 when the Art and Design Building was completed.
“The building was new so there wasn’t much yet in terms of landscaping,’ says art professor Mark Cooley, director of the Green Studio.
Some School of Art students were interested in growing things and started planting sunflowers in containers. Soon the studio was started on a piece of land beside the building that is difficult to mow, almost like a hillside, beside a flight of stairs.
Cooley regularly uses the space to teach a class each semester called AVT 385 EcoArt, which is a university synthesis course that combines arts, sciences, progressive agriculture, and folk traditions. Students who sign up for the class are often looking for a break from what they are majoring in and care about the environment and sustainability.
“When I take students out there for the first time, they see a bunch of weeds,” he says. “Sometimes I have a hard time getting students off the sidewalk. I have to coax them to go into the space. It is gratifying that by the end of the semester they feel comfortable out there.”
Cooley believes the students’ discomfort emphasizes the need for such a class and such a space. “It shows that there is a disconnect. Many students feel very deeply about ‘the environment,’ but they have very little direct experience with the environment around them.”
During a recent class period, several students worked in the studio with visiting ecoartist Robert Kupczak. Others built objects such as birdhouses in the classroom or using tools in the Sculpture Studio.
Marketing major Juan Diego Bautista was working on his aquaponic plant aquarium design. He says he took the class because he wanted to learn more about sustainability for his future career. “All business corporations are expected to be responsible now and include sustainability in their practices.”
“EcoArt is by nature interdisciplinary,” says Cooley. “For a lot of the projects, they need to get educated in the science they are working with and work with [Mason] scientists.”
Astronomy major Willow Hasley used herbs from the studio to make homemade cough drops and teas for her EcoArt project. No weed killers or other chemicals are used in the Green Studio so the medicinal herbs and other edibles are safe to use.
Cooley says they use permaculture practices to take care of the land and that it took years to build up the soil as it was basically rock and clay after the building construction.
As a conceptual artist, Cooley sees the Green Studio as a participatory public art project and enjoys seeing people’s reactions to the space. “It generates a different kind of interest though. People want the landscape to be aesthetically pleasing. We’ve had complaints, but we’ve also had compliments.”
He also notes that there is a therapeutic aspect to working in the studio. “Being involved with living things is rewarding because you feel like you are being constructive.”