Two Polar Bears and a Dragon: How might art help build sustainable communities?

By Julia Denison

In my years as fine arts student at IU, my extracurricular attempts to merge sustainability and art often led me to create works that utilized recycled goods as a primary art material or directly illustrated sustainability topics. Recently, however, I have been learning about the role that art of any form can play in sustainability efforts.

innerdoorsPublic art, for instance, has the power to help people within any community develop a shared sense of identity, and this shared identity is a necessary element in the building of sustainable neighborhood or city. Regardless of economic or social barriers that may exist between groups, public art, or art that is specifically for and available to the public, offers itself up as something all community members can claim as their own. Over time, a large mural or sculpture can become part of what makes people proud of where they live. If people believe their community is unique in some way, they may be more likely to treat it with respect. This might inspire them to work towards improving overall quality of life, which could even mean supporting a new farmers market, expanding and protecting green space, or setting stricter standards for waste management.

Left SideMy personal attempt to contribute to such an effort came in January, when I painted a mural in an elementary school in Nashville, TN. Re-zoning had resulted in a new school population comprised of students from two adjacent, but different neighborhoods, and I was charged with the task of creating imagery that celebrated the uniqueness of each while reinforcing a oneness within the student body. The polar bears and the dragon seen here are pieces of sculptural art that have been objects of pride in the two neighborhoods for many years. The eagle is the school mascot and the flags acknowledge the many countries represented by the student body. The rest of the mural blends significant buildings and landmarks into an Right Wallimaginative map and skyline of the city of Nashville. By highlighting sculptural and architectural neighborhood icons within the context of the entire city, my hope is that the mural will inspire students to see the uniqueness of their community in a larger, more colorful way.

Julia Denison is a former IU student who served as a member of Volunteers in Sustainability and a representative to the Student Sustainability Council. She can be reached at


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