Nov. 8, 2019

Printmaking students discover the intersection of sustainability, art and social change

Campus as Learning Lab exhibition showcases art that mobilizes sustainability knowledge

Typically, people think that to be involved in sustainability, you need to work in an environment-related field, or be enrolled in education focused on sustainability. However, there are many inventive ways to build awareness. Heather Leier, assistant professor in UCalgary’s Department of Art, is a perfect example.

Leier is currently teaching ART 271 Introduction to Printmaking, an art class comprised of students from all areas of campus. For many students in this class, this is their first time taking a university-level art class the perfect time for a sustainability introduction.

“I’ve always had an interest in sustainability, and when I started teaching at UCalgary, I connected with the Sustainable Resource Centre through a new faculty orientation and was very inspired by the work they are doing across campus,” says Leier.

“This year, I was creating a thematic project that would ideally help guide students in developing the conceptual side of their art practices. A theme that I thought everyone could relate to was sustainability, so I got in touch with Amanda Mosca, sustainability engagement co-ordinator for student programs, to see how I could embed this as a theme into a class project.”

Collaboration with the Sustainable Resource Centre determined that Leier’s idea for her class's project would align with UCalgary Sustainability’s Campus as a Learning Lab Program (CLL), an innovative initiative with a focus on experiential learning and applied research projects that advance sustainability on our campus.

As part of the CLL project, students were asked to bring in real-life objects that, to them, represented sustainability or the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. They then took photos of those objects, transferred them onto linoleum blocks, carved the images, and printed relief prints from those blocks. Together, the student projects contributed to the Sustain exhibition, which was displayed at the SDG Summit Oct. 5 and at UCalgary Sustainability’s Progress Report event Oct. 22.

“My goal was to get students to see sustainability in everyday life or to recognize sustainability challenges,” says Leier. “I also wanted to connect the Department of Art to the university in a broader sense.

"Sustainability is accessible to everyone, and we all think about it. This CLL project allowed us to build a greater connection with the university outside of the Department of Art, and students had the opportunity to see and think about how art can exist outside the studio, and contribute to the world and social change.”

Image in studio

Heather Leier, assistant professor in the Department of Art, embedded sustainability in her class.

Heather Leier

In terms of sustainable social change, a key part of this project involved students learning techniques and using materials that limit the environmental impact of their art. As makers of things, sometimes artists can produce waste or use materials that are not great for the environment.

“One important part of me coming to UCalgary was to make sustainable change in the classroom,” says Leier. “I wanted to teach my students how to make sustainable shifts and draw attention to social change through project content. This not only makes me accountable to my students through my own commitment to sustainable practice, but they learn about sustainability, and we mobilize knowledge through the art we produce. Students realize that their art can contribute to the world and make a difference.”

Leier encourages every department on campus to get involved in a CLL project. “At the end of the day, sustainability is all of our responsibility, and we can contribute in a way that resonates with us. Doing a CLL project lets you make connections across campus, plus the time commitment is minimal.”

For more information about how to take part in a CLL project, visit our website or email To learn more about Leier’s artwork in sustainability and social change, check out her website or contact her via email.

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to become a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability.