Taking a Journey to the Center of the Earth

By Eileen Carr

This year, students at the University of Dayton have been on a journey—without ever leaving Dayton. Although not exactly bound for the center of the earth, students led by artist Michael Bashaw have found themselves with an enhanced understanding of their place in the world and what it will take to sustain this vulnerable planet.

Bashaw, a noted local musician and sound sculptor, is working as the University’s first Visiting Artist for Sustainability Initiatives. Funded by the newly created Hanley Sustainability Institute, this position is a singularly innovative approach to raising awareness of environmental issues—a first on college campuses in the U.S.

The project is a wide-ranging one. In just five months, Bashaw has connected with hundreds of students from diverse majors and partnered with an interdisciplinary mix of programs, from The Rivers Institute to the University’s Theatre Program. While some of his activities are small scale (visits to classes in Philosophy, Music, Art and Design, Theatre, English and Religious Studies), others have been ambitious—if temporary—projects.

Notably, he accompanied student River Stewards on their August orientation, joining them for a trip down the Great Miami River and then guiding them in a creative response to the pre-history of the Miami Valley’s native cultures. In less than 90 minutes, a few dozen students constructed a “village” of bamboo poles, a few salvaged wire frames, and cloth. 

“Bashaw challenged us over the two-day, 18-mile paddle to think about our river, community and sustainability in new ways,” observed Julia Hall, River Steward ’18. The seeds planted in this first engagement continue to grow: Bashaw returned to work with the Stewards later in the semester to record a soundtrack for their Rivermobile.

The materials employed for this and other projects reflect a long tradition of creatively adapting cast-off materials. Like respectful campers, these installations “leave no trace” on the landscape except the memories (and photos) of those involved. As writer Arnecia Patterson has noted, “The mixture of urban appreciation and regard for the environment that sustains us has always been present in Bashaw’s lifestyle. . . Sustainability blankets his work no matter what he is doing.”

Currently, Bashaw is working with Dr. Michelle Hayford, Director of UD’s Theatre Program, to create sets for an interactive Black Box production slated for February 19-21. Entitled “Sustenance,” the work will challenge audience members to become participants who influence the outcome of each “performance.” Bashaw is also partnering with students enrolled in ArtStreet’s Institute for Arts Nexus (IAN). An immersive look at their local environment will be capped by an installation and performance on the evening of the campus-wide Stander Symposium on April 20.

It’s this local emphasis—encouraging students to attend to their immediate surroundings (not just a broad-brushed “world environment”)—that helps distinguish Bashaw’s approach. “What’s most important to me is to find ways to address issues of the environment from a local point of view,” says the artist. “I think that’s how change happens.”

Eileen Carr

Coordinator, ArtsLIVE at the University of Dayton

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