By Chelsea Clarke Sawyer, Communications Coordinator

Inspiration struck Brooke Piana and Katrina Jimerson on a hot July day last summer.

Here at NBNC for our week-long Vermont Biodiversity Educators Institute, the two art teachers were immediately drawn to Susan Bull Riley’s paintings of local plants and wildlife on display in our gallery. The Woodstock Union Middle School colleagues quickly put their coursework on nature-based learning to use and created a curriculum unit on drawing from observation while exploring local biodiversity. 


In the fall, Katrina and Brooke’s 7th and 8th grade students studied scientific field notes and naturalist art traditions, then used field journals to practice observational drawing and note-taking outdoors. Daily prompts helped them engage with the natural communities on their school campus, and the regular use of sit spots by the river and at the edge of a meadow encouraged them to explore their surroundings with all of their senses. Meanwhile they also practiced drawing skills like shading and composition. 


At Brooke and Katrina’s invitation, Susan met with the classes twice on Zoom to talk about her artistic processes, her deep connection with nature, and in her words, “how insanely happy” it makes her to create art by observing the natural world. She also gave them tips on how to select subjects for their final pieces, which the students created using their field notes, observations, and reflections from the past several weeks. One student said, “One of my favorite parts of this project was meeting with a famous local artist. She showed us how to pick out something to draw outside.” 


As the final part of their projects, the students wrote artist statements inspired by the way Susan uses captions to give viewers insight into her subjects and process. The statements show how much the students learned about both drawing from observation and the biodiversity of their school campus, and how much they enjoyed discovering new subjects to study and draw. One student wrote, “When I saw this plant I instantly imagined all the life that could live here and studied it and then put it on paper.” and another said, “I added veins to my leaves and blemishes and holes I had found in them. These observations came from me observing the plant and then the photo I had of it.” 


The project came full circle when Brooke and Katrina exhibited their students’ artwork at NBNC, on the same walls where they had first seen Susan’s paintings, and Susan visited the show and wrote personalized feedback for each student about their work. 

When I asked Susan about her role in the project, she said “What a privilege it was to work with them! Katrina and Brooke are phenomenal teachers. What they did was get the kids outside really looking at the natural world, and the proof is in the pudding — it’s clear from their work that they really looked! Engaging them in what’s out there is a gift of future happiness.


All of us at NBNC were thrilled to see such a rich teaching and learning opportunity evolve out of our programming. This collaboration connects so many parts of what we do here by bringing together schools, teachers, local artists of all ages, and the community around connecting with and appreciating nature!