Aslan_Working - Patterns

Discovering the Ecological Self

Discovering the Ecological Self
is a Social Practice art project designed to foster environmental stewardship and create environmental leaders and Social Practice artists. Researching and creating art from personally and culturally significant nature-based symbols, patterns, and images, we re-awaken our deep relationship with nature. As we explore this relationship, we discover new understandings of ourselves and our place in the universe. This project was recently awarded a Pollination Project Grant.

Many of us are experiencing a great disconnect with nature coupled with feelings of alarm and helplessness over ongoing environmental destruction. In his book, The Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold calls for a Land Ethic, in which “the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.” Leopold argues that this cannot come about without a close personal connection to nature. And yet, the title alone of Richard Louv’s book, The Last Child in the Woods provides frightening reminder that our separation from nature is widening. This project is to help people re-discover an intimate relationship with nature in order to inspire and help empower sustainable action.

In response to 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq War, I moved with my family to Maine, determined to find ways to live sustainably and independent of foreign oil. In Maine my husband and I built an in-ground, off-the-grid home and co-founded a sustainability institute called Newforest. Newforest provided opportunities for research and education in sustainability to a broad range of the community, including school children, energy auditors and permaculture gardeners. We did so guided by  the belief that “to restore to the human community its ability to see itself as nature, embedded within the larger landscape, is a fundamental and indispensable act of environmental restoration.” Seeing ourselves as nature “allows us to act more often in concert with nature, creating in both the built environment and natural worlds systems that would allow the human community to meet its needs in ways that promote sustainable ecological health” (Read et al.).

Through my work in sustainability, I realized that it is our emotional attachments to nature, rather than data, that are the real motivators to change. In order to access these attachments, I used contemplative art-making practices and went in search of our ecological self: https://youtu.be/uKQsSMhaWgY.

Discovering the Ecological Self shares this transformative experience with others, exploring the ecological self across institutions to foster environmental stewardship and create environmental leaders.

The project is organized in afternoon workshops, field research as well as group and individual research projects and art making. The process is to:

  • Identify personal and culturally significant nature-based symbols, patterns and images through contemplative art making practices, on-site field exploration and scholarly research.
  • Once a subject is identified, we research its personal, scientific, cultural and historical background. For example, if the subject is a bee, we look at personal experiences with bees: what’s my relationship with the bee? Where does the bee live in my memory? Then we address the broader questions: what has the bee meant throughout history, to various cultures? How has it been used in art, literature, religion, politics,  and healing? And scientifically we ask: what is the bee’s life cycle? How is honey made? What environmental challenges are affecting the bee? What about its sting?
  • From our research, we create art works, eco-masks, and a narration that can be either scientific, poetic, mythical, mystical, or all of the above. We speak our narration through the masks and use them as statements with our artwork to give voice and vision to our ecological selves.
  • We then share our work through performance, video, art exhibits and environmental actions.

I invite you to join this project by filling out the introductory Discovering the Ecological Self form to find your own unique nature-based symbols and images. The survey results help us identify threads and patterns in our relationships to nature and inspires new imagery for the project. Contact information is optional.

This project is funded in part by The Pollination Project and a Urban Coast Institute Grant. It was recently featured in the Huffington Post.
Kimberly Callas is a Monmouth University Assistant Professor of Art and Design where she holds a Service Learning Faculty Fellowship for this project.


The Aldo Leopold Foundation. “The Land Ethic.” The Aldo Leopold Foundation, Aldo Leopold Foundation, www.aldoleopold.org/about/the-land-ethic/.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Workman Publishing Company, 2005.

Read, A., Callas, G., Maseychik, T., Callas, K., Kekacs, A., Read, R., Lilieholm, R. J.. “Newforest Institute: Restoring Habitat for Resilience and Vision in the Forested Landscape.” Ecosystems and Sustainable Development VII., WIT Press, 2009, pp. 427–428.

Kimberly Callas is a new media artist, sculptor, and the lead artist of the Social Practice project Discovering the Ecological Self. Callas received her MFA from the New York Academy of Art and her BFA from Stamps School of Art at the University of Michigan. She is currently the Artist-in-Residence for the Urban Coast Institute and an Assistant Professor of Art at Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, NJ. Her work has been exhibited internationally in galleries and museums and has received national and international grants and awards. Recent grants include a Pollination Project Grant, an Urban Coast Institute Grant, and a Monmouth University Summer Faculty Fellowship. Recent exhibits include the 2019 International New Media Exhibit at the CICA Museum in South Korea, Summer Exhibition at Flowers Gallery in New York City, 9×12 at Dual Galleria in Budapest, Hungary and Crossing Boundaries: Art and the Future of Energy at The Pensacola Museum of Art, Pensacola, FL. Her work has been published in Post Human, New Media Art 2020 by CICA Press and has appeared in various press including the Huffington Post and Art New England.