by Sue Ann Rybak
The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education (SCEE), 8480 Hagy’s Mill Road In Andorra, kicked off it 50th anniversary celebration at its annual Richard L. James Lecture held on Wednesday, Jan. 28, at the center. Artist Mary Mattingly presented this year’s lecture, “Environmental Art for a Changing Planet,” and discussed the relationship between art and climate change.
Anna Lehr Mueser, public relations manager at the Schuylkill Center, explained that “by its nature, environmental art is always changing – it’s art about place and time.
“And as places and moments change, so does art,” she said. “With the impacts of climate change increasingly visible, art is evolving.”
Mattingly told the audience that art can be powerful because often it is underestimated. She explained that art can offer radical new solutions that seem less threatening because they come in the form of art.
“You can do things under the art umbrella that you can’t other places – art can really change this world,” she said.
The annual Richard L. James Lecture was established in memory of the center’s founding executive director and features experts and advocates in the environmental movement.
Executive Director Mike Weilbacher said in a statement that James “had an uncanny knack for finding the cutting edge in both education and the environment.”
“If something new was happening, Dick would showcase it at the Schuylkill Center,” he said.
Mueser said. that you look at how the environmental movement has grown over the years, “the Schuylkill Center has always been on the cutting edge.”
Weilbacher said in 1965, when SCEE was first founded as the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center, there weren’t that many environmental groups around.
“Words like ‘pollution’ and ‘ecology’ were just catching on, when two longtime Roxborough-area families, the Meigs and Smiths, commissioned the National Audubon Society to study the possible use of a massive property off Hagy’s Mill Road as a nature center,” he said.
Weilbacher said they hired a young high school teacher, Richard L. James, to help make their dream come true. He added that James “set up in the 19th-century River House on the bluffs overlooking the Schuylkill” and began planning the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center, one of the first urban environmental education centers in the country.
SCEE built the area’s first wheelchair accessible nature trail, helped develop graduate classes in collaboration with Temple University and Penn State, and created an artist-in-residence program to engage youth through environmental art.
“In 1972, we began an urban and environmental education curriculum to get kids from the city exposed to nature,” he said.
Mueser said at the time environmental education was a new and emerging field. Today the center continues to be a pioneer in the field of environmental education.
In September of 2013, SCEE opened its nature preschool.
“We are one of the few nature-center-based preschools in Pennsylvania,” Weilbacher noted. “There is a smattering of them across the country.”
This year also marks the 15th anniversary of the Center’s environmental art program, founded by Mary Salvante in 2000.
“We have been a pioneer in environmental art,” Weilbacher said.
He said the center has a network of artists who use art to somehow improve, fix or bring awareness to an environmental issue.
“There is no other nature center in the country that dedicates this amount of resources to an art program or has an art program at this level,” he added.
The Schuylkill Center’s artist residency program entitled LandLab is a joint project with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists.
“The idea is that the land is a laboratory and artists are encouraged to use the land to work out some environmental issues,” Weilbacher said.
He explained that the goal of the program is for artists to create innovative, art-based installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage while raising public awareness about environmental issues in the community.
A few examples of works artists have created in the past include sculptures powered by wind, light and rain, living artworks, and photography exhibits.
A recent site-specific installation constructed from invasive vines by We The Weeds, a collaboration of Kaitlin Pomerantz and botanist Zya Levy, will simultaneously encourage dialog about the global movement of plants and removing hazardous invasive species from the forest.
Caring for wildlife
According to the Schuylkill Center’s website, since it was founded in 1987 the Wildlife Clinic has treated over 40,000 injured, sick and orphaned wildlife native to our region.
Mueser said the clinic serves about 3,000 wild animals every year.
“The Wildlife Clinic plays a really important role because it is the only one in Philadelphia and the surrounding area,” she said.
The clinic provides temporary sanctuary for injured wild animals including raccoons, foxes, skunks, cottontails, hawks, owls, geese and many others until they can be released into their natural habitat.
Rick Schubert, director of wildlife rehabilitation, who has spent more than 10 years working in the field, oversees the clinic.
Mueser said without the help of the clinic’s committed staff and volunteers, it couldn’t function. She added that their dedication pays a critical role in treating and rehabilitating its four-legged patients.
Weilbacher said as part of its Master Plan, the center recently commissioned a team of environmental artists to work with a landscape architect to create a walking trail along Hagy’s Mill Road, which will include an art installation.
“We are hoping to make our physical connection to the Schuylkill River Trail much more visible, add to our nature playscape, and improve several key trails,” he wrote in a statement.
SCEE will continue its 50th anniversary celebration throughout the year with special programs that include February’s Creature Comfort, May’s Enchanted Forest Party, and June’s 50th anniversary picnic.
The celebration will wrap-up in October with an environmental education symposium and the presentation of the 10th annual Henry Meigs Leadership Award.
For more information about the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education at www.schuylkillcenter.org or call 215-482-7300.