PULLMAN, Wash. – Walking along the soggy banks of the Palouse River near Pullman, Washington, Linda Russo listened to the squish of mud under her feet and felt the cool wetness seep into her shoes. As the water rose around her heels and toes, her mind was flooded with thoughts about the past, present and future of the riverfront and other “wild edge” spaces.
“Almost 11 years ago, I went down to the muddy Palouse riverbank and my feet sunk in, setting a course,” Russo said about the genesis of EcoArts on the Palouse, her newest community project which brings together environmental history, ecology and creative expression.
The Palouse in eastern Washington and western Idaho is a roughly 5,000-square-mile bioregion, once home to the Palus Band of Indians and the Nez Perce Tribe and now a landscape dominated by wheat, lentils and other large-scale agriculture. The map-based EcoArts on the Palouse is an expandable online platform for gathering and sharing information and artistic insights about the region’s remaining natural spaces.
The website launch was funded by an arts and humanities grant supported by the College of Arts and Sciences at Washington State University, where Russo is a clinical associate professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program.
Working with students and faculty from across the university and members of the wider community, Russo, who is also an accomplished poet, launched the innovative site to provide a public stage for interdisciplinary, place-based research, education and artistic reflection.
“EcoArts on the Palouse invites the community to engage in exploration, discussion and discovery of the Palouse’s wild edge spaces by calling out the details in the languages of environmental science and different creative and healing arts to see what image of the landscape emerges and what new connections might arise,” she said.
Web users can select from a growing number of public parks and natural spaces identified on a map of the Palouse to find text and images contributed by naturalists, creative writers and visual artists describing the specific place not only in terms of ecological relations and histories but through creative and imaginative processes as well.
Creative contributions – such as artist Annie Cunningham’s photograph of a beet-red swath lying atop a field of lush, green wheatgrass – help illustrate and expand understanding of historical and ecological facts – such as less than 1% of native Palouse Prairie remains intact.
Collaborating across disciplines
Combining experiential learning and community outreach goals, graduate and undergraduate students in the humanities and natural sciences worked together to conceive and design the site.
Kayla Wakulich, who is working toward her doctoral degree in environmental and natural resource sciences, teamed with students in English, digital technology and culture and other fields to write and edit content, conduct fieldwork, research the local ecology and contribute creativity.
“This tool has the possibility to bring science, conservation, environmentalism and biology to everyday objects, meanings and places,” Wakulich said.
“It helped me recognize the need to translate science in the form of art. I often felt I have neglected the artistic side of myself in order to pursue science, but I came to learn through this project that they are tightly interwoven instead of parallels,” she said.
The collaborative efforts of many community members, including ecologists, biologists, writers, artists and students, “helped create this new lens onto place, one that is accessible to anyone with internet access and that benefits the much wider community,” Russo said.
A similarly collaborative, cross-disciplinary current runs through Russo’s other teaching and outreach activities. The projects allow her to reach students inside and outside the humanities and to help them engage with complex, challenging ideas.
Sharing in a ‘judgment-free’ zone
Open Mic at Café Moro gives poets, actors, musicians and others in the community a welcoming stage for presenting to and connecting with the public. Since 2015, Russo has co-hosted the monthly event in downtown Pullman – now online to accommodate social distancing – encouraging her students and others “to step outside their comfort zone and share their creative work with an audience that includes community members and students of all ages, disciplines and backgrounds.”
Mo Gehrke, a junior in elementary education from Vancouver, Washington, and Aidan Barger, a freshman in English from East Wenatchee, Washington, were among several students, faculty and alumni who tapped their creativity recently before an appreciative Open Mic crowd.
“I really like reading at Open Mic because it is such a judgment-free space. Everybody encourages everybody,” Barger said. “It’s a great space to share poems I have mixed feelings about or that I’m working on – and to see my work in a new light.”
At the end of each Open Mic, Russo reads aloud an original, collaborative poem composed by the audience using lines derived from the evening’s presentations.
Linking literary and visual arts
In yet another of her interdisciplinary, community-minded projects, Russo recently collaborated with the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at WSU to give her poetry students a chance to gain literary insights to visual art and museum-goers a chance to experience visual art in a literary way.
In its fifth year, the project, titled “Ekphrasis: Image & Word,” challenges the students to choose a work of art displayed at the museum and to reimagine it through ekphrasis – a poetic or literary description of something visual.
This year, the museum printed copies of the students’ poems and essays for visitors to read while viewing the artwork. It also hosted the students for a public reading of their creativity beside the art they described.
“The ekphrasis project illuminated and deepened the experiences for the museum’s visitors and for the students involved,” said Ryan Hardesty, JSMOA curator of exhibitions and collection. “Our longstanding partnership with the Department of English is based in collective and interdisciplinary education. The museum is a place for expansive creativity, a place for many voices and perspectives to share and learn together,” he said.