Students learn to observe nature, and then paint it

Local artist Cathy Liontas directs student Zoe Pringle as she paints during a school workshop on the Milford Green Monday.

Did you know that trees talk to each other?

That was one of the things students learned this week as they walked the downtown green with Milford’s Open Space Manager Steve Johnson, as part of a grant-funded program that united students for an outdoor lesson in art and science.

According to an article published in 2016 by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, “Two decades ago, while researching her doctoral thesis, ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered that trees communicate their needs and send each other nutrients via a network of latticed fungi buried in the soil — in other words, she found, they ‘talk’ to each other.”

Johnson explained these underground fungi networks to students as they looked at the trees Monday.

Students gather around Milford Open Space Manager Steve Johnson during a workshop Monday, where they explored nature and art.

“So you see, trees can share resources and talk to each other,” Johnson said.

He also told the students about the different kinds of trees that can be found on the green, including the elm, which city workers have to inoculate to keep safe from disease that kills elm trees.

The students observed the different shapes of trees, and learned that the oak tree supports 535 species of butterflies, and that the shade from trees around a house helps keep the house cool, therefore reducing energy costs inside the home.

They learned that Milford’s green has been designated as part of an arboretum, which is like a garden of various and healthy trees.

Johnson’s nature walk was part of an art and science program funded by the Milford Education Foundation. The grant paid for easels and other painting supplies, and a local artist to guide students in painting what they observed in nature.

Artist Cathy Liontas led the students in painting what they saw. A plein air artist, Liontas talked to the students about using color and how to start their paintings. She told them to start by painting the larger objects and then adding the smaller ones. She pointed to her own easel and indicated where an artist might add details later.

She told the students they could paint what they see outside, but they could also add details from their own imaginations.

Some students painted trees, others flowers. Student Katie Servas, who has been drawing and painting from a very young age, painted a small portion of the gazebo, where the class had gathered to paint.

Cynthia Dobie, art teacher at Harborside Middle School and head of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Club with math teacher Lisa Nori, applied for the grant to fund the outdoor workshop. They initially planned the plein air painting and science observation for Harborside students only. But when the event got rained out twice and pushed into the summer, they opened it up to students throughout Milford.

So 18 students in grades six through 12 took part in the program Monday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on the Milford Green.

“The whole connection is observation,” Dobie said as some students explored the green and others stood under the gazebo painting, “to get kids out in the world to observe.”

Dobie said she hopes to run the program again next year.

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