Exploring Biodiversity in Guyana
Seven students traveled to the steamy Caribbean nation of Guyana during Wintersession as part of RISD’s South American travel course Exploring the Art + Science of Biodiversity in Guyana. Working with Associate Professor Nicole Merola, head of Literary Arts + Studies (LAS), and Lucy Spelman, a lecturer in History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences (HPSS), students from a range of majors spent just under two weeks exploring the biologically diverse ecosystem of the North Rupununi region. While there they collaborated with local conservationists at Karanambu, an ecotourism destination managed by the Karanambu Trust, and created artists’ books to document the incredible experience.
Merola, an environmental humanities scholar who teaches classes on animal studies, climate change, green film and eco-fiction, proposed the course after traveling to Costa Rica with her family and getting inspired by how her two young nieces responded to the varied terrain and local wildlife guides. Spelman, who teaches biology and works as a zoo and wild animal veterinarian and conservationist, has been traveling to Guyana since 1996 and knows the Rupununi region well. The two began collaborating on the course a year ago with the goal of using the arts to communicate and interpret science – specifically, the biology behind saving endangered species.
The biodiversity course emphasizes the importance of connecting ideas, information and methodologies across the arts, humanities and sciences. Students spent 12 days in the field, which was just enough time to make them feel like “transient locals,” as Merola puts it, distinct from the tourists who visit Karanambu for one- and two-day adventures. Each student designed and conducted a field ecology project and did research for their studio practice.
Karanambu includes a wide range of micro-ecologies, from forest to river to savanna, and is home to a remarkable range of species, including giant river otters, giant anteaters, black caimans and jaguars. Students were free to focus on whatever aspect of the biological hotspot spoke to them. One student used GPS tracking to produce a detailed map of the region that will guide tourists to the sites where they’re most likely to see specific animals, and another compared the flight patterns of local birds like the flycatcher and the kingfisher. Graduate student Raina Belleau MFA 15 SC used plaster to make casts of animal tracks and correlated the tracks with camera trap images of the animals captured after dark.
In addition to building on the Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies program in Liberal Arts, the new course enhances the LAS department’s offerings in global literature, Merola explains. Students read books by Guyanese writers and were encouraged to study folktales of the indigenous Amerindians, which inspired Derek Miranda 16 IL/FAV to write and illustrate his own folktale – about a river otter that catches the moon.
“The work they did was amazing,” says Merola, “but the most rewarding part was seeing RISD students connect with our field guides and other community members at Karanambu. It was gratifying to see teaching and learning take place at multiple levels. Students learned to identify birds and other local species incredibly fast, while also sharing art techniques and supplies with our hosts.”
Belleau says she not only gained new insight about eco-issues but an amazing amount of inspiration in Guyana. “It was a phenomenal experience,” she says. “I started drawing while I was there – for the first time in ages – and have a number of ideas for sculptures in my travel journal. I want to start with the parrots that roosted near our tents every evening.”
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