Painting, Poetry, and the Heart of Conservation – Part 2

Phyllis Frazier - AFC
January 4, 2012 share
Artists for Conservation

Although my original intention with this second entry (of a two-part series) was to write about the history of wildlife artists who use poetry in their artworks, I was surprised to discover that, (with the exception of Rachel Dillon, a book by Carl Brenders, and an exhibition of children's art with poems sponsored by David Shepherd), there was not much of a history of this coupling.

What I did discover; however, was a powerful example of the positive impact poetry can have on increasing awareness of conservation issues.

The project of which I speak, was a collaboration between the Central Park Zoo (with the Wildlife Conservation Society) and Poets House, a 45,000 volume literary center based in New York City. This partnership produced a unique exhibition display whereby 41 poems and excerpts were placed throughout the zoo in a variety of places, such as along park benches, open rafters, stone steps, and banners, all displayed creatively alongside the animal exhibits.

The primary intended goal of the project was to support the Central Park Zoo's mission of communicating the complex idea of conservation quickly and effectively. Considering that visitors are often not willing to stop and read informational signage, as they are often "boring or too technical," the Zoo felt that poetry would best convey their message in a fun and expedient way.

According to the project's case overview, the desired result was that zoo "visitors will have both an intellectual and emotional reaction to the poetry that will foster an understanding of the importance of conservation."

Much to everyone's delight, the collaboration was an astounding success. The evaluation of the poetry installation at the CPZoo found three significant results.

First, the poetry installation was well-received by a clear majority of visitors, as poetry excerpts were read and liked by 70% of those interviewed by the study.

Second, the poetry installation increased awareness of conservation issues during zoo visits. Specifically, visitors talked about conservation issues more frequently during exit interviews and commented on these issues earlier. Those visiting the zoo after the poetry installation made 21% more comments during their interviews. In addition, many visitors reported that the poetry had served to foreground or to remind them of conservation ideas during their visit, with visitors commenting the poetry "brought it out", made them think, think differently, or see things from a different perspective," or "was humbling because it made them think about people's place in the world."

Thirdly, and most significantly, the greatest increases were in awareness that humans share habitats with and co-exist with animals in "globally-centered" conservation thinking rather than in "human-centered" conservation thinking.

Of the five categories of conservation thinking measured, those "globally-centered" categories were "Humans as Part of Ecosystems", "Human Impact on/Threats to Nature", and "Humans as Wildlife Custodians", with comments reflecting an awareness of humans as part of ecosystems increasing the most dramatically.

So successful was this initial collaboration between the CPZoo and Poets House (the installation launched in 2004, but is on permanent display at the zoo), that it has been used as a template to expand its impact on a more ambitious scale. In 2009, Poets House with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, announced the launch of "The Language of Conservation", partnering five zoos and four public libraries to create poetry installations and programs in Little Rock, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Chicago, and Milwaukee, with installations concluding in the fall of 2011.

Although these installations paired excerpts from the work of poets throughout many centuries with a live animal exhibit, I feel strongly that poetry is a powerful vehicle to convey a deeper conservation message with our art - one which resonates deep within the heart, and, as the above project demonstrates, can have a profound effect on furthering a much needed shift in human consciousness.

Perhaps it's a shift that can open a more profound insight into understanding our place on this miraculously beautiful planet, and redirect our activities toward a sensitive and informed reverence for its diminishing diversity.

Read Part 1 of Phyllis' blog article series "Painting, Poetry and the Heart of Conservation".

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