Nearly obscured by trees and a sloping hill, a nature trail runs a snaky path through the prairie behind Honors College. The area, full of weeds and tall grass, runs along the university’s southern edge and on any given day, it’s a lonely space, unknown to much of the Northern Kentucky University community. But a recent mural inspired by the nature trail aims to bring this outside secret in—and give the unsung space prime real estate in NKU’s new, and very high-traffic, Health Innovation Center (HIC).
The connection this project embodies—between human-made objects and the natural world—is something Enrica Jackson has thought about since she took her first environmental science class. A creative writing major with a minor in environmental science, Jackson plans to combine writing skills with an understanding of environmental science to communicate the importance of nature to society. (She currently helps with non-profit organization Renaissance Covington, where she manages waste disposal at events called the Zero-Waste Way Initiative.)
Jackson and five other students—Jaeydah Edwards, Emily Jones, Jackson Shown, Matthew Winkler and Taylor Kopeschka—serve as undergraduate research scholars within NKU’s Ecological Stewardship Institute. The institute, led by program director Kirsten Schwartz, brings together multiple disciplines and diverse communities for projects, such as a recent strategic depaving project that transformed vacant lots into public greenspace, that promote environmental literacy and stewardship.
As research scholars, the students attend a number of workshops led by professionals in urban design and planning. One such workshop was taught by artist and Davidson College professor Katie St. Clair, who was commissioned to create a mural for the Health Innovation Center. (It’s one of two commissioned artworks for the building—the second is a forthcoming outdoor sculpture by North Carolina artist Thomas Sayre.) Titled “Root Culture,” the resulting mural is St. Clair’s attempt to connect the northern Kentucky community through a story of health and native landscape.
“Art is a healing practice,” St. Clair says. “It gives us the ability to tap into deeply suppressed wells, whether it’d be emotion or different ways of thinking.” More than just a student project, the workshop helped St. Clair and students alike find inspiration for her ambitious mural concept.
The workshop facilitated a connection with nature, and St. Clair even banned electronic devices to avoid the stressful influence of modern society as the group explored the nature trail behind the Honors College. “When you’re in the woods, you get this feeling of calmness, even if you have the pressures of everyday life on your mind,” says Jackson. “There’s this sense of calmness that overpowers you for a minute of two. You realize this is actually the world.”
On the second day of the workshop, students created rice-paper stencils using plants St. Clair found in the herbarium archive. They had the freedom to choose any paint color they wanted and submerged their stencils in a tub with just enough water to cover the bottom. The motion of the water acted like a paintbrush as the rice paper soaked up pigments, the same technique St. Clair used back in her studio to create the mural that now hangs in the HIC lobby.
Tracing over some milkweed, Jackson wondered how this work connected to her summer research in strategic depaving. She realized that bringing greenspace to empty lots creates an environment for native plant species like milkweed to bring beauty to desolate pieces of land.
“I remember the purpose of our research was to bring something beautiful to our environment,” says Jackson. “What St. Clair has done is brought something beautiful into NKU’s community to showcase how much nature plays into everything we do.” Jackson says it’s important to realize that even shiny new buildings like the HIC are deeply connected to the natural world, as they’re built from materials the Earth provides. And upon seeing the completed mural, which was on full display at the Oct. 17th HIC dedication, she was ecstatic to be part of an artwork that expresses this notion.
“It really opens your eyes to the fact that we don’t experience nature anymore,” says Jackson. “We experience things humans created rather than what nature has given us. You have to think about the process of experiencing nature. It’s important to take that aspect and combine it with art in order to reflect on the art you’re creating.”