Observing, Planning, Creating: Learning About, and Through, the Art of Andy Goldsworthy

Martha Estroff, Elizabeth Markowitz, Laura Bercaw Petersen, Stephanie Sack, Chris O’Shea, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School

This series of articles first appeared as the thematic core of the spring 2012 edition of the St. Patrick’s Press. The four accounts by teachers—from the realms of science, art, and music—tell of their engagement with students around the work of British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy.  As you will read, these teachers’ collaboration with each other occurred organically, though facilitated by the physical proximity of classrooms, the presence of interdepartmental faculty, and a certain flexibility in student schedules. In reporting their collaboration here, these faculty members chose a framework that highlights the most important concepts their Goldsworthy-themed units imparted to students: Close observation; sorting and patterning; a focus on process; and transformation across time and physical space. The teachers found application for these concepts in a variety of subject areas, even though the study of Goldsworthy’s work is traditionally confined to the art studio.

We asked the authors, “How does your Goldsworthy-inspired unit focus on the themes of process rather than product and the value and beauty of transformation? What value (or, indeed, values) do you believe your students derive from this exercise? Why?” In their answers to these questions, these four faculty members highlight the benefits of interdisciplinary work in solidifying students’ understanding of complex concepts and the close but too-often ignored relationship between the arts and sciences. It is our hope that this work will inspire other collaborative efforts—not necessarily Goldsworthy-related—around topics of study that are traditionally confined to only one classroom, subject area, or grade level. 

Section 1: Meet Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy, a contemporary British sculptor born in 1956, is best known for his work with nature, striving to make his pieces in response to his location with only the elements around him. Goldsworthy’s art focuses on a sense of place and a personal connection with nature.  Often, his work is ephemeral, breaking down at almost the same pace it is built.  His work is known largely from his books of photographs and permanent installations at museums in the United Kingdom and United States.

I first began thinking about the artist Andy Goldsworthy in a course entitled “Site, Sight, and Insight” during my undergraduate years at Lake Forest College. The course was designed around looking at “earth artists” and the ways they manipulated and altered the land and our perception of it. “Earth art,” as the movement is known, is art not only created and shown at an outdoor site but also created with the materials found at that site—the art itself designed as a piece of the land.  The movement started in the 1960’s through a mostly-American response to changing times and changing attitudes toward the environment and a rejection of the gallery-centered art world.  Some earth art is permanent, such as the most famous example of the style, Spiral Jetty, created in the Great Salt Lake in Utah.  Other pieces are more ephemeral, existing for the viewer as either video or photograph.  While some consider the earth art movement to have ended in the 1970’s, Goldsworthy’s art continues to draw on the ideas set in place by his and others’ work in the 60’s and 70’s. 

Here in Washington, Goldsworthy has a permanent piece installed at the National Gallery of Art entitled Roof.  It is a series of stacked stone mounds with deep, dark holes in the center, reminiscent of many of the earth installations he made on a smaller scale by digging holes in the dirt. However, most of Goldsworthy’s most famous pieces are known to us only through photographs documenting the finished pieces and, often, their degradation. It is his smaller and more ephemeral pieces that are most appealing to me. His smaller works show the time Goldsworthy spent in nature, working through different seasons and spaces. He accomplishes these small pieces either by himself or with a small team as opposed to the many stone workers it took to complete his vision for Roof

Goldsworthy begins creating many of his pieces by traveling to a site.  He spends time making observations and looking for inspiration in the space around him. His process is oriented around experiencing the land and building his understanding of it as he works with it through its transformations. He will often select season-specific materials—fall-colored leaves, spring flowers, or winter ice and snow. He works with tools found in nature, such as thorns, grass, and even his own saliva as the adhesive to complete his pieces. Goldsworthy’s work shows his sense of play, exploration, and experimentation as well as his willingness to test, try, and test again.  Many of his narratives about his work recount the challenges of working in this way.  Goldsworthy has floated berries in the water while fish are eating them and carved snow sculptures designed to play with the light as the sun is melting the snow. When I look at Goldsworthy’s work, I enjoy thinking about the challenges he faced to create it and the clever solutions he designed to allow for its success.  

Students are immediately drawn to Goldworthy’s idea of looking at the world carefully and responding to what you see.  His process demonstrates many of the skills we ask our students to practice day-to-day. They can see the creativity he uses to find common, natural materials and use them in an artistic way and the patience required to execute this work without scissors, tape, or other traditional implements. Students are also drawn to the playful idea of getting down on the ground and exploring rocks, sticks, and dirt.  Studying his work allows students to practice these skills and apply them in a meaningful way.

It is important for students not only to learn about influential artists from the past, but also to connect with contemporary artists whose practice responds to the world of which our students are a part. In my experience, young students view artists foremost as either alive or dead.  (When teaching Vincent Van Gogh, I have had Grade 1 students ask me if he was alive with the dinosaurs.) Learning about the practice Goldsworthy is currently employing allows students to imagine themselves connecting with the artist as they work.

While Andy Goldsworthy creates many visually stunning pieces that captivate children, it is his process and execution that I and the other educators featured here consider most important. By studying Goldsworthy’s work, students begin to understand that process and experience can be equally as valuable as product. 

Section 2: Goldsworthy in the Art Studio

Students are excited, even enthralled, by the work of Andy Goldsworthy. They are amazed by his ability to make beautiful works of art from natural objects without the use of traditional art materials. They are impressed with his patience and complete focus on a goal.  At no other time have I seen a room full of Grade 4 students enthralled by a nearly silent film of something as simple as an artist working and talking about his process and thoughts. While my own love of Goldsworthy’s work probably influences this response, I am impressed by the strong connection nearly every student I have exposed to this artist makes to his work.

In the Art Studio, I use Goldsworthy for a variety of purposes. Through his work, I can expose Grade 4 students to thinking about art in a new way—by focusing on the process rather than just the final product.  We watch part of the video Rivers and Tides, which documents Goldsworthy creating several pieces with a narrative of his thoughts on his work and his approach to art.  Students can see, in a unique way, how this particular artist goes about making all sorts of decisions about his work—from the larger questions of where an artist gets the ideas for his images to the more mundane choices about which rock to include next in his piled-rock sculpture. Students get a clear understanding that art-making is an intentional process in all its aspects. When I then take students outside during a subsequent art class to create their own Goldsworthy-inspired sculptures, I can see this understanding in action. They carefully scour the ground for interesting objects to spark an idea. After collecting a pile of materials, a student begins a new hunt for the just-right-shaped twig. A student spends an amazingly long period of time to carefully balance a blade of grass just where she wants it in her piece, even though she knows it may blow away in the next gust of wind. 

The understanding that art does not need to be permanent is another new idea students are exposed to through learning about Goldsworthy, who documents his work through photography and video.  Many of his pieces do not survive through the end of the filming. In fact, the destruction by natural forces is often a part of the piece. I see students struggle with this idea while watching the video.  When they see his dome built of sticks float away, they find it sad that Goldsworthy’s hard work is undone, but they also see the beauty in how it moves down the river.  There is palpable tension in the room to see if his egg-shaped rock-pile sculpture will survive the incoming tide—and then excitement when they see the tip of it poke back out of the water. When students head outside to create their own sculptures, they do so with full knowledge of their ephemeral nature, yet they still put great care and effort into their construction. I believe this understanding may be freeing to students. Some Grade 4 students make an almost spiritual connection to the concepts of change and the passage of time as seen in these works.

After exposing students to Andy Goldsworthy and having them work with some of the ideas he explores, I try to have the students move beyond the “Wow, that’s amazing!  How did he do that?” stage of learning about his work and fully embrace some of the artistic concepts they have begun to use during this experience. Many of Goldsworthy’s pieces involve some form of repetition with a bit of variation running through it. Students emulate this characteristic without realizing it in their outdoor sculptures. As an additional exploration of Goldsworthy, students create non-representational clay sculptures that include something repeating as well as some variation within that theme. As students developed their ideas and worked with the clay, I saw the intentionality of their art-making process.  Ideas were carefully considered, sometimes rejected or revised.  Students shaped forms to fit the locations they had envisioned. The process of making these sculptures was honored in a more explicit way.

As students proceed with their artistic careers, I hope this involvement in the artistic process and understanding of its importance remain with them. I also hope that this initial contact with the ephemeral nature of the world leaves them with an appreciation for the possibility of beauty in all things—even endings.

Section 3: Goldsworthy in the Science Lab

“Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.”  Heraclitus, philosopher (ca. 500 BCE)

If we believe children should have love for and be comfortable in the natural world, we must ensure they have many playful experiences with nature in their early years. A comfort in the natural world makes possible the ability to know the wonder and beauty of what surrounds us and to cherish it fiercely.

I remember the day I met Andy Goldsworthy in the Art Studio while listening to fellow teachers Ms. Sack and Mrs. Markowitz talk about his work. “Who is he?” I asked. I wondered why I had never heard of him. Mrs. Markowitz invited me to look at her book of photographs of Goldsworthy’s work. As I slowly turned the pages of his book, I experienced a sense of absolute wonder deep inside me. His work was irresistible on every level I could imagine.  I saw a deep respect for nature and a playful spirit.  I tried to imagine the patience required to collect the materials to create each piece. I wondered whether he had made a plan and how detailed it was—and much, much more.

Two summers ago, while canoeing the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, my family and I found ourselves stuck at a campsite on a cold day with a strong wind howling across the lake and kicking up whitecap waves on the water. With no possibility of launching a canoe or even finding a place to cast a fishing line, it was going to be a long day. By chance, we were camping along a shoreline covered with unusual and colorful rocks. Bundled in every layer we had packed, I proposed a hunt for rocks we could use to make our own Goldsworthy-inspired art. As we photographed our work in the late afternoon’s lengthening shadows, my husband chose one rock to stick in his pocket to remember the moment.

I believe observation is at the core of early science learning—noticing details, looking for patterns, searching for order, and learning to draw what one sees. There are often moments in science exploration when children realize the skills they have been practicing in art come in handy. Good scientists are like artists because both know how important it is to look closely, question, and gain understanding from observation. If these skills are valued and encouraged, children will discover the excitement and joy of being a “science detective.”

Children hear over and over that in order to be a good scientist, they have to use their imagination and creativity. Insatiable curiosity may not have served the Elephant Child well on the banks of the Great Limpopo River in Kipling’s tale, but the greatest scientists—Galileo, da Vinci, Newton, and Einstein—were persons of “insatiable curiosity” whose contributions to our understanding of the nature of the world and universe were possible because they looked at their world in original and creative ways. 

Mrs. Markowitz taught both science and art when she began her tenure at St. Patrick’s. Because we shared a classroom, we talked often about her undergraduate work in both disciplines. I was curious to discover what connections she recognized and about her desire to share them with the children she taught. We shared common and complementary goals for children in science and art, grounded in observation and experimentation. We looked for ways to connect the work we were each doing with Kindergarten students in art and science. We thought of ways to construct bridges between art and science, especially because the Kindergarten schedule had students moving between art and science during a one-hour segment of instructional time.

Spring has a way of creeping under our skin and beckoning us outdoors. It was in that spirit one day last spring, as Mrs. Markowitz, Ms. Sack, and I talked, that we thought to merge art and science for Kindergarten students for the day. The work of Goldsworthy was a place where art and science intersected in the ways Mrs. Markowitz and I had discussed. Rather than splitting the hour between art and science, we would spend one whole hour, with the whole class, studying the art of Andy Goldsworthy and making our own art outside.

Class began in the Art Studio where the art teachers opened the Andy Goldsworthy book and slowly and deliberately shared some of their favorite works with the children. Engaged children leaned into the book, commenting easily and eagerly on all they observed.  How did he find those rocks that had stripes?  How did he balance the ice?  Look how the sun shines through it!  What happens when it melts?  Do fall leaves really come in so many colors?  Look how he put them in long skinny rows. There were gasps when children saw the serpentine leaves and the scorpion-like spiraling leaves arranged and secured with thorns.  How come those towers of rocks don’t fall down? 

Children love messing around in nature—digging holes in the dirt with a stick and arranging small pebbles around them, building sandcastles, making elaborate mudpies decorated with bits of bark or flowers, and dropping objects into water to see what happens. Young children are collectors. As they navigate their worlds, reaching down to pick up a small treasure comes naturally. Their eyes and hands are so close to their feet. Still, we wondered, what would children choose for their creations?

They found source material everywhere they looked. There were fallen petals from dogwoods and azaleas. Many children scooped up handfuls of the tiny pieces of gravel that lay between the slate stones of the sidewalk. Sticks, twigs, pebble-sized rocks, or broken pieces of slate looked just right for other children. A child discovered long dried grasses that served as thread to connect pieces of wood. Absorbed, engaged children played quietly and purposefully. Children could choose to work alone or to team and share with classmates. Some set to work immediately and created a piece seemingly without hesitation. Others observed classmates before tentatively picking a place and selecting materials to begin their art. Some were interested in the challenge of connecting twigs and sticks, lashing them with strands of grass as Goldsworthy might have done. Those who had been intrigued by the balancing rocks looked for ways to anchor their sculptures so they wouldn’t have to hold onto them and found they could wedge sticks into the cracks between the slate stones and get them to balance.  It was a magical hour—the children all found a path to creating a piece that reflected and honored Andy Goldsworthy.   

Section 4: Goldsworthy in the Music Classroom

My fascination with Andy Goldsworthy began during my first year at St. Patrick’s when I saw the artist’s photographs displayed outside the Lower School Science Lab. I was intrigued by how these works of art translated across the curriculum from art to science. Upon further investigation, I discovered that the beauty of Goldsworthy’s pieces lay not only in the final product but also—and, perhaps more important—in the process by which he created each piece of art. Being no stranger to incorporating art into the music classroom, I was left with a kernel of inspiration that popped around in my mind for several years.  I felt a pull to somehow use these intriguing pieces of art in my classroom—but how?

Fast-forward to the summer of 2011 when I had the opportunity to travel to the Orff-Institut in Salzburg, Austria through the Parents Association summer grant program.  During the ten-day summer course at the birthplace of the Orff-Schulwerk process, I sang, created, moved, and played with 150 participants from around the globe.  Imagine my surprise when, in one of the movement classes, the instructor displayed several photographs of Andy Goldsworthy’s art and asked us what movements we saw happening in the pieces. Afterward, we created “movement pieces” in small groups to accompany the photographs. It was a powerful exercise that transcended the need to communicate through words—difficult, as the participants spoke many different languages. Suddenly, I knew how to incorporate Andy Goldsworthy into my music classroom and couldn’t wait for the school year to begin so I could try this idea. 

Why incorporate movement into the music classroom? Children have a constant and innate desire to move their bodies—all one need do is observe the force with which students burst outside for recess, eager to explore their sense of play through running, jumping, chasing, and swinging. Incorporating movement into the music classroom gives children an opportunity to release their energy and helps them connect with, and recognize the importance of, their kinesthetic selves. Being in tune with how one’s body moves can help to create self-aware musicians who are technically accurate and are able to enrich their interpretation, knowledge, and understanding of music. Through guided lessons in the music room, children at St. Patrick’s learn how to move their bodies in a safe, creative, and expressive way.

In the fall of 2011, I presented the idea of a movement mini-study using the art of Andy Goldsworthy to Grade 6 students and was met with overwhelming enthusiasm. They were brimming with excitement to explore this artist—whose work they knew so well from art and science—in a new way. We discussed Goldsworthy’s art, reviewing what they learned in their Grade 4 art class. Using four of Goldsworthy’s photographs, students did a “gallery walk” around the room and selected the photograph to which they felt the most intense connection, thereby creating four groups. In these small groups, students brainstormed a list of movement vocabulary words for their chosen piece of art. They saw things like curvy pathways, unison and contrast, and angular shapes. They then worked together in their small groups to bring the piece of art to life through movement, with the following parameters:

  • Definite form (how the movement piece will be organized)
  • An opening shape
  • A closing shape
  • Incorporating unison/contrast
  • Use of self-space/general space

This mini-study took cooperation and patience while the students listened to their peers’ ideas. Once their ideas were solidified, the students started moving. I challenged them to push themselves further than their initial inclinations: Can you take the idea of moving in a curvy pathway and try it in a different way? Can you move in a curvy pathway going backwards or try a creating a curvy pathway that is closer to the ground?

The students spent several class periods creating, shaping, and putting the final touches on their movement pieces. They were energized and eager to share their creations. With a small audience of their classmates and teachers, each group performed its movement piece.

While from my point of view this project was a great success, I was curious what the students thought. For a written reflection, I asked, “What are your thoughts on this project?” One student responded, “I thought that it was really cool to do something that wasn’t actually music, but felt musical. That really just seemed beautiful to me.”

 This student perfectly captured the intent of this project and why it is important to give students the tools for movement. I was completely blown away by what they had created. At several points, I had tears in my eyes, watching how beautifully and thoughtfully the students moved—and with such comfort and ease. They were truly able to capture the essence of Andy Goldsworthy’s art and, more important, they experienced the process of creating this art together. 

Elizabeth Markowitz, author of Section 1, teaches Lower School art; Stephanie Sack, author of Section 2, teaches Upper School art; Martha Estroff, author of Section 3, teaches Nursery School science; and Laura Bercaw Petersen, author of Section 4, teaches Upper School music. The authors teach at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in Washington, DC. Chris O’Shea is the School’s Director of Communication.



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