A Natural Fit

Local artist/muscician Michael Bashaw joins UD’s sustainability experiment

By Arnecia Patterson

Photo: Paul Noah

In the eco-arts movement artists often use the environment as a springboard for art making and problem solving and turn to nature for materials, inspiration and solutions. Our natural environment frames a range of art-making practices that give us art, both ephemeral and fixed, and lends creative fixes and considerations to practical issues.

Back in 2007 the University of Dayton made its first foray into the world of eco-art by inviting to its campus pioneers in the field, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison; Betsy Damon followed in 2009, and in 2012, artist Basia Irland, and participants in UD’s Rivers Institute, launched her seed-embedded ice books down the Great Miami River. The interactions with visiting artists—experiencing their creative approaches to the environment—planted a seed in the UD community that has matured into the university’s first Sustainability Arts Residency, and Dayton resident/musician/sculptor, Michael Bashaw has been named as its Artist in Residence.

This Experiment Came Naturally

Prior experience with eco-artists makes UD fertile ground—a natural environment—for students and faculty to think creativity about sustainability matters. The Sustainability Arts Residency is a dedicated opportunity to build a community practice utilizing close observation of the environment followed by creative action. With the UD Rivers Institute already in place, the initial idea was to have Bashaw work on a project with the River Stewards, a program for students dedicated to learning about and serving the region’s natural water system and leading preservation efforts.

As Eileen Carr, coordinator of ArtsLIVE, and Leslie King, director of the Rivers Institute, discussed that project, two related ideas were announced: the university received a grant to establish the Hanley Sustainability Institute and Richard Chenoweth, the Graul Chair in Arts and Languages, chose “It’s Your Nature” as the theme for engagement during the current school year. More perspectives were convened to shape the residency’s concept. Along with Chenoweth, Robert Brecha, physicist and research director for the Hanley Sustainability Institute, and Don Pair, associate dean for Interdisciplinary Research and Experiential Initiatives, joined the conversation. Those voices turned a singular project into a cross-disciplinary, community experiment in which an artist would encourage creative engagement in sustainability. Bashaw remained the front-runner.

An Artist’s Sensory Facility

Michael Bashaw moves between natural and urban domains with fluidity and comfort; he is attuned to the stories each has to tell and punctuates them with his creative mark. A visit to his studio provides evidence of his deftness and how his experiences have placed him squarely in sustainability issues. Upon entering you are surrounded by clues: giant sound sculptures in the middle of a wide, open space populated with art, tools, plants, textiles, metal and wood. Many of the sculpted pieces appear decorative until someone picks up a mallet, hits one, and sends a musical run of chimes around the walls and out the windows. The sound is carried away by flocks of birds that fly by every half hour, or so—so close to the open windows you could pluck a tail feather if you’re willing to risk your life. The studio is three tall stories up from the concrete and asphalt that surrounds it below; yet you can hear the crickets chirping when the occasional roar of motorcycles is not drowning their sound. Art and nature inhabit every joist of the room and the atmosphere around the building.

Bashaw is well known as a sculptor and musician. Years ago a previous band, The Bridge, and now Puzzle of Light, the band he leads with his wife, Sandy, began taking an environmental approach to their music with compositions about animal extinction and climate change.

“When we were touring, we would do this performance called ‘Endangered,’” he recalls. “We did it on a number of campuses, and we’d get the campus choirs to participate. We would get a list of endangered species in whatever region we were in and have somebody read the list as the choir would sing, first in unison, then split into harmonies, ‘all gone, almost gone, all gone, forever gone.’ It became sort of a significant piece of music.”

That was back in 2000. As early as the 1990s The Bridge started playing a song called “The Last Rain Forest.”

The mixture of urban appreciation and regard for the environment that sustains us has always been present in Bashaw’s lifestyle. As a boy, one of his main forms of entertainment was fishing the Miami Valley’s rivers with his father, brother and uncle. He enjoys walking and bicycling around Dayton’s neighborhoods where he may stop and encourage the residents to work with the city to plant an open green space where a structure once stood. He and Sandy grow bamboo in their yard at home. He uses it in his sculpting, or he may decide to work the antique rebar salvaged from a demolition site decades ago. Sustainability blankets his work no matter what he is doing. Those methods captured the notice of UD.

“Michael is one of the most adaptable and responsive artists I know,” Carr says, “and we are really blessed to have him in Dayton. He has worked for years with students, engaging them in collaborative projects. Michael is someone who is avidly engaged in community and environmental issues.”

Naturally Thoughtful Placement

Ever aware of the conflicting viewpoints about environmental issues, Bashaw prefers to direct his passion toward nature and the reciprocity it takes to sustain it if it is to continue to sustain us. Even though he attended the People’s Climate March in New York last year, he steers clear of the current day politicizing of the term “environmental.” Now, his heartfelt concerns stem from questions about what will be left for his grandchildren. He believes that local action is a viable route.

“What’s most important to me is to find ways to address issues of the environment from a local point of view,” he says. “I think that’s how the change happens.”

His opinion coincides with the intent of the Sustainability Arts Residency. According to Carr, “we wanted a creative relationship with a regional artist to help move our students’ engagement with sustainability in new ways. We agreed that it was essential to provide a home base for the artist on our campus.”

That home base is the newly formed Hanley Sustainability Institute where he will have easy access to the UD local community from his office. Plans for a theatre production on climate change will see the light of stage in 2016, and conversations with professors from the philosophy and music departments are already underway. As Bashaw walks around his new campus neighborhood, he notices and envisions. The expanse of lawn between Kennedy Union and Marycrest Hall is just a stretch of grass to some; however, to Bashaw’s creative, working mind it is grounds for sustainable sculpture. He foresees the potential involvement of the biology department.

“There is tremendous power in the creative thought that artists can bring to the picture,” Carr says. “It’s so helpful for everyone in every discipline to step back from a problem and see it with fresh eyes.”

Paddle and Push

UD’s River Stewards were the starting point that gave way to the Sustainability Arts Residency, which, by all accounts, is flexible in how it transpires. There are many unknowns.

“I’m not aware of any other university experimenting with this type of long-term approach to sustainability engagement,” Carr muses. What she knows is that the residency was created to help students experience a connection between themselves and their world in new ways. “This is not a marketing project,” Carr says, “it’s a project of creative engagement.”

Back in August, the River Stewards got a chance to try their hands at creative approaches to nature. They kayaked the river with Bashaw then returned to its banks where he divided them into groups and supplied them with bamboo, tree baskets, cable ties and burlap then told them to build. Within two hours the groups had erected an original installation of structures. They solved the building problems they encountered, learned from each other, and supplemented their materials with what they found. Carr observed the students while they worked.

“There was no right or wrong, but they were learning from each other,” she remembers. “They independently generated these structures that I don’t think they had any idea they would have been able to create.”

After building, some students learned to play and create polyrhythm on rocks they had gathered; others used bamboo as rhythm sticks. After setting up some basic rhythm patterns, Bashaw showed students how to play variations yet still hold the music together. He added some voice and flute, encouraged the students to sing, introduced call and response and conducted the musical celebration as students played. Then he led a fade into silence accented by the cicadas and tree frogs naturally chirping and croaking their response.

Lessons have already been learned as a result of the UD Sustainability Arts Residency: variations on a theme teach us how to exist harmoniously, and a creative pact with our environment can be a thought informant, an extra hand and a unique voice with a call that warrants our response. Undoubtedly, Michael Bashaw will continue to glean ideas from his experiences with sculpting and music—he and Sandy recently formed a new musical venture, The Elements, with local musician and dancer, Rick Good and Sharon Leahy. Ultimately, all roads lead to community action right here where we exist.

“Look to the community,” Bashaw repeats, “we’re trying to do things from a local level that will make a difference. All I can do, as an artist, is that.”

For more information on Michael Bashaw and UD’s Hanley Sustainability Institute, visit udayton.edu.


Reach DCP freelance writer Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.


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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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