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Ephemera: catching natures moments.

I was a senior in college the first time I heard the word "ephemera." A colleague of mine was referring to a pile of junk mail on his desk. I'll admit I had to ask him what it meant. He told me, "things that exist for only a short time." As a commercial-art teacher at a high school, I have come to realize that our lives are full of ephemera. Junk mail and text messages. Myriad visual images that come and go every day, never with the intent to stick around.

Students live in a transient world. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat--all of these different types of social media are good examples of ephemera. While it's possible for words and images on these sites to stick around, most are only seen once before being replaced by something new.

As students deal with their modern lifestyles, they get so caught up with the trivial and temporary, that they fail to find meaning in other important, fleeting aspects of their lives. Nature is a good example of this.

Think of sunsets, leaves changing and snow falling, these are all examples of natural beauty that doesn't stick around. Students need to understand how to find that beauty and capture those moments, instead of letting them pass by, unnoticed.

There are several artists who create art using the ephemeral materials of nature. Andy Goldsworthy takes rocks, sticks, dirt, etc., and turns them into art, knowing full well that it will not last. The movie Rivers and Tides (New Video Group; 2004) documents why Goldsworthy creates art that will knowingly be destroyed or fall apart. He uses anything from leaves and ice, to rain and sticks to create breathtaking designs, and then documents them with photography. This concept is fascinating to students.

After showing students the Andy Goldsworthy film, we have a good discussion about his art and how it is destroyed soon after it is made. Some questions we discuss are: How can ephemeral artists preserve their art? Why would they make something knowing that it won't last? What would be hard about making a work of art that you know won't last? Why?

When the discussion is over, students brainstorm how they can create a work of art using only ephemera found in nature. This is a good time to review color and balance, because of the many colors found in the outdoors.

Students tend to enjoy sketching in color. As they finish their sketches, talk to them individually about how they plan to create their projects. Because of the ephemeral nature of this project, they need to have solid plans in place so they can spend the next class assembling and photographing their sculpture.

As part of the preparation for their project have them discuss where they are going to obtain the materials for this assignment. If your school has an abundant amount of foliage, get permission for students to collect natural materials from around the grounds Not only are these easy to obtain, they are free.

One of the hardest parts of this project is getting the materials to stick together. Using only natural objects, it is best not to use adhesive. The students enjoy the challenge of trying to get objects to work together. They can use pine needles to stick leaves together or tall grass as string.

This whole process can be new and intimidating to some students. To help remedy any trepidation, they can work together in groups of two or three. Overall, you will find that students enjoy participating in this activity. Not only does this assignment help them understand balance and color, it also helps them understand the transient world in which we live and appreciate the natural ephemera all around them.


High-school students will ...

* discuss ephemera and what it means in their life.

* develop plans (brainstorm/sketch) for projects made of natural
ephemera (leaves, sticks, dirt, rocks).

* create projects using natural ephemera.

* photograph their projects.


* Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes

* Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols,
and ideas

* Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their
work and the work of others


* Natural ephemera (rocks, leaves, grass, sticks, dirt, etc.)

Shon S. Feller teaches commercial art at Woods Cross High School in Woods Cross, Utah. Photos by Nate Hillyard.
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Author:Feller, Shon S.
Publication:Arts & Activities
Article Type:Lesson plan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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