by Bill Batson
How did you become a nature and art educator?
When I first arrived in Rockland County in 1997 with my two small children, 5 and 7, I wanted to gather folks to spend time together outdoors. The Little Feet Hiking Club was started for children and parents. For two years, we went out for hikes every month of the year into Harriman State Park during the day, and also at night under the full moon. I saw how much it meant to the children to have creative exploration time in nature with community. And I saw their natural sense for artistry.
What was the first step?
My hiking club came to the attention of the Director of the Nature Place Day Camp in Chestnut Ridge, and I was invited to become the summer Art Director there. Over three years I developed the first Earth Art with Children programming with contributions from a talented staff. Based on the great success of the Earth Art program, and the camp leadership training I gained, I saw the need to take it further and turn it into a full summer program.
In 2002, I formed Strawtown Art & Garden Studio and held the first summer nature arts program on the grounds of the Marydell convent in Upper Nyack. We also held family workshops, and an after-school program there. The setting was a real marvel for us and really informed our work: Hook Mountain, woods, grassy meadows, wetland habitat, and the Hudson River and beach.
This is where I met Joanna Dickey. She first came on board as a summer staff artist, and now 11 years later we have spent thousands of hours outdoors together leading programs and developing Strawtown.
Joanna grew up in Upper Nyack within blocks of the river and she always says that she never knew the amazing things about the river before she came to Strawtown.
Why do you call your program Strawtown Art & Garden Studio?
I was living on Strawtown Road for many years. I liked the word Strawtown. Straw has since become symbolic for us. When you peel the dry outer layer off straw you find shining gold inside! Garden, this means for us that the whole world is a garden.
What life experiences informed your environmentalism?
When I was 7 we moved to a neighborhood in Endwell, NY on the edge of a meadow where a creek meandered below. The creek became my best friend.
A half-mile south there was a shale ravine with tons of fossils. I now have come to realize I grew up in the Marcellus Shale area.
When I was 10 bulldozers appeared one day and they engineered my creek to accommodate a big tunnel for a nearby road overpass. It was shocking. I don’t remember having anyone to talk to about it.
I have since learned a whole lot about creeks and waterways, and that straightening a stream is detrimental to the health of the stream. I advocate for two streams in Rockland in particular right now. The Sparkill Creek, with the Sparkill Creek Watershed Alliance, and the Minisceongo Creek, with the citizen science project in partnership with the Department of Environmental Conservation Eel Migration Monitoring program.
Recently you submitted comments challenging the re-licensing of Indian Point, issued warnings about the impact of desalination on the Haverstraw Bay and you successfully advocated against the introduction of fracking waste on our roads. How does your teaching impact your advocacy?
Spending so much time with children makes my feeling for the future heart centered. I feel a personal responsibility to be an awake adult to look out for the children and the next children. The native people call this the 7 generations we must look out for. That is a real core of life experience and decision making for me.
The New York State school curriculum mandates our young people, from 2nd to 12th grades learn about watersheds, sustainability, run off, aquatic insects and stream health. I see that some adults who are decision makers today know so little about all of this. When I see all of the degradation that is coming from lack of understanding, I think, Not on my watch!
I understand that you were in the art world before you became an educator?
I worked as a contemporary Art Dealer and Curator with my life long friend Wendy Cooper during the art boom in the 80’s and 90’s. Known as Cooper Seeman, we curated shows, and helped clients to build art collections. It was the greatest work in the world, but does not compare to working outdoors with children.
What kind of art do you make?
My own art comes from my touching the world around me. I create forms from plants, make pigments from rocks, and shape the outdoor studios that we spend time in. It is all about listening and responding to the world around me. I experience creating the programs we run also as my artwork.
Describe the work you are doing with children of the Ramapough nation?
We are in the very beginning of creating Strawtown programs in partnership with elders from the Ramapough Nation so that their children will discover the beauty and workings of the lands and waterways of their inheritance. We were invited by Chief Dwaine Perry to show their children and adults the “abundance” of nature.
What role will the tipi play in your workshop?
The tipi was a gift. It is 20 feet wide and has a firepit in the center. In the few weeks we have had it up it has already had a rich life with many visitors. The first day it was up it was blessed by a Lakota elder, Willie Black Cat, who held a pipe ceremony within.
We anticipate the tipi being a great gathering place for the children of our summer program, and also a place for community to circle up and talk and sit with each other and the fire. Our art studio is close by, so I can also see sitting in the tipi and making braided rope of dog bane, and beading, and painting.
What are your plans for this year’s Strawtown’s Earth Art Summer Waterways program?
The summer days at Strawtown are filled with playful exploration in the beautiful woods and waterways that surround us and this year we have a new large teaching garden. Through this fun-in-learning field experiences, children and young teens will:
- learn to read the landscape
- create art from natural materials
- practice wilderness skills
- hike and learn geography
- study the waterways and aquatic life
- learn more about amazing earth processes
- make new friends in a kind and supportive summer learning community
We truly believe that teaching young people leadership and problem solving skills for the future begins with understanding the natural world around them today.
Being surrounded by waterways and seeing the ruins from former times, the old mills and stonework, takes us back to the early days of the first settlers. The history in our waterways is amazing!
Space is still available for the Strawtown Earth Art Summer Waterways program for children ages 7 – 12 and young teens ages 12 -15. The program runs for four weeks from July 1 through July 25: Mon. – Thurs., 9:30a-4:30p. The young teens program runs July 29 to August 9: Mon. – Fri., 9:30a-4:30p
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: Kids Explore Art & Nature at Strawtown Studio” ©: 2013 Bill Batson.