The Greenest Art 

Sculptor's work confronts the quest for beauty in the struggle for survival.

Andrée Singer Thompson no longer sees a boundary between the personal, the political, and the environmental. The 72-year-old artist and teacher says that, after learning to love herself, she has the strength and courage to try to heal the world.

Toward that end, in 2005, she began teaching EcoArt Matters at Laney College. It's a workshop course that fuses art and environmental concerns with a focus on rethinking personal choices. "What I'm trying to do is to bring creative thinking to urgent environmental problems," Thompson said.

Singer lives in a small Berkeley Edwardian that's bursting with creativity and life, from the chickens out back to the ceramics workshop in the former garage. Singer has fine bones but womanly curves. Her skin is thin and fair, with rosy lips and cheeks and brown speckles from the sun — this is not a woman to hide in the shade. There are deep smile lines in her cheeks, but fifty years of clay and fire and earth have been kind to her hands: They are still soft and flexible. Despite her small size and delicate appearance, she is not birdlike. She is more like a porcelain vessel that's been fired at high temperatures to a lustrous strength.

The EcoArt class gathers in a large, bright studio in Laney College's new arts building. It's not an art class where students come into the studio to work on their projects with the instructor occasionally looking over their shoulders. Instead, the class is time for intense discussion and exploration of ideas and solutions. Most meetings begin with a guest speaker or film that explores environmental issues. For example, Oaklander K. Ruby talked about her shift from political puppet theater with Wise Fool to sustainable gardening at her Institute of Urban Homesteading.

Next, students discuss the lecture and present the results of their weekly research on a topic of their choice. Thompson also teaches them how to write proposals for public art grants. They may be working on an actual project outside of class. One student is building a sculptural game about globalization. Another plans to cover a vacant lot with wild poppy blooms. But it's not required that students show off a finished project by the end of the semester. This class is not about production; it's about personal and environmental transformation.

This idea that daily life is a part of artistic practice has been central to Thompson's work. She began drawing when she was a child. On trips to the zoo with her own children in the early 1960s, she became interested in why some species were on the verge of extinction.

"Ever since then, I've been conscious of the loss of habitat and the environment," she said. "In those days, if you talked about it seriously, you were an eco-kook."

Thompson came to Berkeley in 1961 to study ceramics with the legendary Peter Voulkos, and taught ceramics and sculpture to children in "at-risk" schools, places where poverty and violence upped the number of kids who wouldn't finish high school. In the late 1990s, she developed an ecology and art literacy program for a camp for inner-city girls in upstate New York. In a format she still uses, she read to the girls for a half-hour about the environment or social justice, and then they made ceramic planters, filled them with compost, and added plants that would bring oxygen and life to their urban apartments.

Two years ago, she started bringing environmental issues into her sculpture. "I decided, I'm 70, and I want to give all my remaining energy to this," she said.

The merging of life and art in service to the world is evident in the Eco-Art class. Each session is a potluck, which may feature organic doughnut holes from the health food store, fruit from someone's garden, and healthy salads. Class members bring their own plates and silverware, and wash their dishes afterward in the classroom's utility sink. In fact, some students say that the class has changed their shopping and eating habits, as well as their art.

Around her neck, Thompson wears the Hebrew letter chai, the character that signifies life. "That to me means hope," she said. Most of her father's family perished in the Holocaust; she has a cousin who survived after escaping three times from a camp. "I am amazed that my cousin can survive that kind of trauma and still be a compassionate, loving human being. That's the basis of everything I do now. We have to survive with love, with courage, and with compassion. It's the journey. Even if we don't get to the end and all perish together, it's the journey."

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