An oracle is a person that shares advice, prophecy, or a story that comes from a “divine” source. Three aspiring ninth graders became just that last week as they spoke for the Live Oaks at the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center in Ocean Springs. The Ocean Springs Oracles project is a community-engaged art program that encouraged these students to imagine life from the perspective of the trees.
Inspired by Robin Whitfield, one of Mississippi’s premier nature-based artists, these young people undertook a journey of discovering the many aspects of the life of trees, based on science and cultural relationships that humans have with these important natural elements of our landscapes. For Southerners, Live Oaks hold a special place because of their unique way of growing and long lives.
Live Oaks have a distinctive “spreading” canopy that helps them resist the impacts of winds. They are prized as shade trees at homes and across community spaces. They are long-lived, some as old as five hundred years. They support a variety of epiphytic plants and a rich diversity of insects that feed birds and other animals year-round. Several species of birds, mammals, and reptiles live within their branches and crevices. As such, they are what scientists call a keystone species – having a disproportionately large effect on their natural environment.
And then there are the threats and impacts that humans have imposed on these iconic trees, both historical and ongoing. If these trees could talk, they would have lots to say – much of which would not be flattering to us, who think we are smarter than nature.
In these ways and more, they are perfect models (divine sources), for inspiring young oracles like Izzy Fillingim, Micah White, and Collin Schenkenberg. The results include names and fanciful faces placed on eight oaks across the site and stories created by these oracles, posted online (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1b-rxmtxz_bn-y0BWDkS7Wn5jWb_uDx6m/view?pli=1). Individual trees adopted by these young oracles include “Hampton” (Collin), Leavador (Micah), and Oakley (Lizzy).
The trees are adorned with painted critters who have associations with oak trees and coastal life, inspired by the works of Walter Anderson and John James Audubon, including Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Northern Parula, Boat-tailed Grackle, Bluejay, Imperial and Cecropia moths.
Time and weather will eventually take their toll on these ephemeral works of art, but that too is an underlying theme of using locally sourced natural materials, reclaimed paper and cardboard, and natural inks (created with oak galls!). Even the small wooden sign stands are made of reclaimed wood and screws.
As for what this project is meant to do, Julian Rankin (Executive Director of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art) said a key underlying theme is “Good scientific concepts connected to local places” and the goal is “Using art and storytelling to deepen connections between science and art.”
But what did the students get out of this? Asked this question, “Of all of the things you experienced this week, what inspired you the most?”, their responses say it best. “Everybody’s connections to nature, and observations of the creative output.” (Izzy Fillingim). For Micah White, “Collaboration is important.” Great answers!
As for the last answer to my question, Robin Whitfield said this: “What inspired me the most was the enthusiasm of the students and their willingness to dive into the project. We spent 6 hours a day learning about and interpreting Live oak trees from different perspectives. I brought tons of tools and art materials from my studio where they were also trying lots of new creative things for the first time. By the end of the week, we were in a beautiful collaborative rhythm – the kind of place you try to go as an artist. I loved seeing them work hard at the end, as the vision came together and they saw what needed to be done all on their own. They started coming early and leaving late. I think that says it all.”
This project is part of Wide Horizons: Place-based Education and the Future of the Gulf, an initiative of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, funded by the National Academy of Sciences. Wide Horizons is a partnership between WAMA, the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, and The University of Southern Mississippi through its Marine Education Center and Center for STEM Education.
Title photo courtesy of Jen Hudson, photos of oracles courtesy of Robin Whitfield.