By Katharine Webster
Ingrid Hess, an associate professor of art and design, is traveling to some of the world’s most beautiful places to create art that educates children about the natural world and environmental sustainability.
Bringing little more than the colored paper, scissors and paste that she uses to make posters and illustrate children’s books, Hess has visited national parks in the U.S. and Costa Rica as well as the campus of University College Cork in Ireland, internationally recognized for its commitment to sustainability. Her work in Ireland was funded by a Fulbright Specialist Award.
This spring, Hess will exhibit her work at the University of Minho in Portugal under a European Union Erasmus Grant, and over the summer, she will be artist in residence for a month at Wollemi National Park in Australia, one of a group of national parks in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.
Everywhere she goes, Hess says, she’s inspired by her UMass Lowell students and their commitment to the environment. The university is consistently ranked in the top 25 of the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” and is also the highest-rated campus in Massachusetts for sustainability, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
“Humanity is careening toward a climate catastrophe, and I think it’s really important that academia helps lead the way to more sustainable practices,” Hess says. “Our students are amazing in how forward-thinking they are, and I think faculty need to catch up with students, so I feel it’s important to focus my work on sustainability.”
Her work focuses on educating elementary schoolchildren, although her artwork and messages speak to all ages. “Ideally, my work lives in elementary school classrooms,” she says.
Hess is the author and illustrator of several children’s books, including “Mister Magnificent’s Magical Merrimack Adventure!” – a story about Lowell published in 2016 with support from Lowell National Historical Park. She says she began thinking about ways to help children understand the importance of environmental stewardship several years ago.
She undertook her first international project as an artist in residence in San Ramon, Costa Rica, in 2016. There, she visited national parks, gave a guest lecture at the University of Costa Rica-San Ramón and created 10 large posters about the importance of keeping water clean. The posters were displayed at the art museum in San Ramón and at the National Gallery of Costa Rica.
Each poster looked at the importance to local wildlife or humans of keeping a different water source clean, such as a river, lake, canal or the rainforest. One poster even focused on puddles.
“A reason it’s important to keep puddles clean is that pets – cats and dogs – drink out of puddles,” she says. “All my work is for children, so I have to think of reasons that would make sense to first-, second- and third-graders.”
She followed that up with an artist residency at Acadia National Park in Maine in summer 2019, where she created educational signage about wetlands, tide pools and forests, as well as a poster with facts about the park.
At University College Cork in Ireland, which partners with UMass Lowell’s Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy, Hess worked with faculty and staff to create a poster and a set of 100 cards with information about water, energy, biodiversity and food sustainability that touring school groups can take back to their classrooms for further educational activities.
“University College Cork is known for all the different kinds of trees that they plant on campus, and seeing this variety was amazing. Also, the university doesn’t mow their lawns, so I was able to see lots of pollinators,” she says. “It’s a beautiful campus. And working with them was wonderful; I feel so fortunate to partner with such a forward-thinking university.”
Her summer 2020 artist residency in Australia was postponed twice, due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions. However, working remotely, she completed her project: a series of posters comprising a “Blue Mountain Alphabet” for display at Wollemi and the other Blue Mountain national parks.
This summer, she will finally get to see the area’s unique wildlife and eucalyptus forests in person. And she will undertake a second project: a comic-book-style pamphlet with a story about children preventing wildfires that was inspired by the bushfires that raged across Australia two years ago.
“The park is pretty isolated, so I am going to be in the wilderness,” she says. “They have a park ranger who takes the residents on hikes every day so we can learn about the region, and I’ll get to visit all seven national parks.”
Hess has more projects in the offing, including a contract to illustrate five children’s books about the science behind the five senses. The books, to be published by World Scientific, will be written by Kennedy College of Sciences Dean Noureddine Melikechi.
She has also created eight works of art about engaging with the natural world that will be exhibited in Portugal and Ireland this spring and at University Crossing next fall. They were inspired by Portuguese mosaics and the words of poet and novelist Wendell Berry: “Earth is what we all have in common.”
“We’re so often told what not to do: ‘Don’t use plastic, don’t cut down trees, don’t pollute,’” Hess says. “I think it’s really important, especially when talking to children, to talk about the things that we can do. We can preserve, cherish, cultivate, conserve and explore the natural world.”
On campus, four large artworks that Hess created for exhibits in Ireland and at Northern Essex Community College – Consider Earth, Consider Air, Consider Water and Consider Trees – have a permanent home near the Rist Institute offices in University Crossing.