Graduate students are working on their art projects as part of the new EASP master's program.
Art by Ryan Tran.

The UC Santa Cruz art department announced a new Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree program in Environmental Art and Social Practice (EASP) last fall. The two-year program will begin in fall 2021 with eight graduate students, and will bring on another eight in fall 2022. 

The program plans to help students use their artwork as a catalyst for change in relation to contemporary, social, and environmental issues. UCSC art professor and director of graduate studies Laurie Palmer began her work with the program in fall 2016. 

“Environmental art, environmental activism, and concerns in general have been understood as separate from the world of social affairs,” Palmer said. “When we think about putting together a program on environmental art and social practice, we are insisting that these things can’t be separated from each other. ”

Elizabeth Stephens, a senior professor in the art department, defines environmental art as something that collaborates with, or benefits, the earth. 

Stephens founded the EARTH Lab at UCSC, where she has created events such as Seedbed: A Soil Symposium, an on-campus event in collaboration with the UCSC Farm and Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. The event combined art exhibitions, performances, and art installations throughout campus to explore how human industry and climate change threaten topsoil. 

She explained that visual arts provide individuals with the opportunity to connect the body with the earth. Pointing to the UCSC campus’s biological beauty and complexity along with the student body’s awareness of contemporary issues, Stephens sees it as a hotspot for cultivating these discussions. She introduces social justice issues like clean water and food insecurity to the discussion about environmental art and social practice.

Stephens has been waiting for a graduate program in her field since she arrived at UCSC in 1994 and expects the program to thrive at UCSC, generating important conversations and projects. 

“[Santa Cruz is] the perfect nexus of environmental awareness, justice, and concern as well as being a place where there is a lot of teaching, learning, knowledge, and production about social justice, so it seemed like the perfect place to do this,” Stephens said. “Our goal in bringing it to UCSC was trying to align this idea for a program with this place that has such a rich history and where people walk their talk about environmentalism and social practice.”

Stephens is one of nine EASP professors. This core faculty is a collection of UCSC professors who specialize in a multitude of mediums including digital arts, sculpture, and print media. 

EASP Core Faculty

  • Elliot W. Anderson (digital arts, arts and new media)
  • Dee Hibbert Jones (sculpture/public art, DANM, film and digital media, legal studies)
  • Karolina Karlic (photography, media, and film)
  • Enrique Leal (print media)
  • Jimin Lee (print media)
  • Jorgge Menna Barreto, Ph.D (environmental art)
  • Laurie Palmer (sculpture, installation, public art, contemporary theory, writing)
  • Jennifer Parker (digital arts/new media, sculpture)
  • Elizabeth Stephens, Ph.D. (environmental justice, performance art, documentary films, theoretician)

Professor Laurie Palmer explains how artists are constantly in collaboration with their surroundings, their materials, and themselves. 

“If you start from the idea that we are already always collaborating, you can start to see your situation in the world differently, and you can start to understand it as already connected,” Palmer said.  “Maybe some of those connections can increase the impact of your work, can increase your ability to understand the situation, or to see something differently, or to create a color differently.”

During their time in the program, graduate students can work with UCSC faculty outside of the art department. For example, those interested in prison abolition can connect with critical race and ethnic studies professor Savannah Shange. Students will take four cross-departmental electives in different disciplines and learn from different UCSC faculty in departments such as literature and anthropology, among others. Multiple off-campus organizations are available to collaborate with students, including the Seymour Marine Discovery Center and the UC Natural Reserve System.

Faculty welcomed prospective graduate students over Zoom in a program information session on Jan. 8. During the call, students raised concerns about COVID safety protocols and how the program plans to navigate the fluctuating conditions. EASP faculty acknowledged that conditions can change, but they feel optimistic about the program’s ability to adapt. 

“Artists are key elements in the debate to find ways to deal with the [pandemic],” said UCSC art Professor Jorgge Menna Barreto during the session. “[Art is] very permeable and responsive to the times we are living in.”

EASP faculty recognize that a new program is a complicated undertaking, but are confident in its success and positive impact on the community. 

“There is going to be a production of work that is going to have the ability to help change the direction we are going in,” Stephens said. “In terms of…trying to heal some of the environmental damage and trying to make people understand why these things are so important.” 

More information about program specifics and the application process can be found on the programs website. You can also contact with any questions or request additional information. EASP applications for fall 2021 enrollment are due Feb. 1.