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The Exhibition: An Entry Point for Learning

Inside the Classroom: This series takes you inside Vassar's classes to reveal what students are studying today.  

Freshly felled trees, Nemah, Washington, 2007

Since the first sawmill in the Pacific Northwest was built at Fort Vancouver in 1828, the timber industry has been both an economic boon and an environmental blight to the region—creating jobs for tens of thousands of loggers, but also decimating 70 percent of the region’s old-growth forests.  The story of what happened to those forests and mill workers has been chronicled graphically by photographer Eirik Johnson, whose exhibition “Sawdust Mountain” is on display this fall at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.          

When Political Science Prof. Peter Stillman first saw Johnson’s photographs, he viewed them as a catalyst for a discussion of a variety of political and environmental issues. So he’s using them to spur that dialog in a new course he’s teaching this semester.

Roger Mosley counting Coho spawn nests along the upper Sol Duc River, 2006

Stillman says the photos make “a clear political statement” about the decline of a resource-based industry.

“The photos are about what has happened to the land and what has happened to its people,” he says.

Some of Johnson’s photographs show the scarred landscape caused by clear-cut logging. Others evoke the poverty of the region triggered by the loss of jobs in the logging industry.   

Stillman began the course by asking his students to view the exhibit, then pick one photo and write a short essay on what it conveys about how the logging industry has shaped the lives of those who live and work on the Washington coast. The students will expand on these insights in class discussions and longer papers and presentations.

Discussions of the photographs themselves will be augmented by assigned readings from political science and environmental texts and journals.

“I want the course to be interdisciplinary—to use the photographs, the environmental studies readings and the political science scholarship to explore the impact of the logging industry’s decline,” he says. “What are the environmental and social costs of that decline? How has the political power of those resource extractors helped shape the boom and now the bust? What can the photographs, environmental studies and politics suggest about what can be done to ameliorate the situation?”

The half-unit course began in mid-October but was already fully enrolled by early September. Stillman said he expected the questions raised in the course to stimulate lively discussions because the students who registered for the course have diverse backgrounds and interests.

Stacked logs in Weyerhaeuser sort yard, Cosmopolis, Washington, 2007

“The goal of the class is for us to learn from each other, to consider insights from students with different majors,” he says.

Stillman designed the new course in part because he believes the art gallery isn’t used enough as a teaching tool outside the Art Department.

“Its resources can and should enhance courses throughout the college curriculum,” he says.

Stillman describes “Sawdust Mountain” as an ideal example of how art can stimulate a discussion of environmental and political issues.

“Artists often have political motivations, to the extent that they want to change the way we understand things, change and enhance the way we look at things,” he says. “These photographs do that.”

Images © Eirik Johnson, from the book Sawdust Mountain (Aperture, 2009)