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Professor uses public art and service learning to improve Morris

This spring, students in Michael Eble’s painting class produced prairie grass paintings that will be used as educational tools at the Morris Wetland Management District office.

MORRIS – Artwork produced by University of Minnesota, Morris students can be found throughout the Morris community in places like the Morris Public Library, Someplace Safe, the Salvation Army, and Stevens Community Medical Center.

And paintings of local businesses and buildings in Morris have been displayed and sold as fundraisers for the Stevens County Youth Fund and the Prairie Renaissance Cultural Alliance as part of service learning projects organized by Michael Eble, UMM associate professor of studio art.

Last month, Eble received the Faculty Award for Service Learning from UMM's Office of Community Engagement for his work implementing service learning and engaging the community through public art.

When he started working at UMM 10 years ago, Eble said he watched other faculty members find their niche working with undergraduate research or partnering with different groups on or off campus.

His interest in public art let him to look at how he could use service learning to teach students about how to use public art to help improve the community.

For some projects, students make art and donate it to an organization to decorate their space. In other projects, students make art to sell and use the proceeds to help local organizations or causes.

“It's grown from there – I like the idea of utilizing paintings as a way to create positive change in a community or help out a group or nonprofit that's doing positive things,” said Eble.

This spring, Eble's class partnered with the Morris Wetland Management District to produce a series of paintings depicting prairie grasses that will be used as an educational tool out at the district office.

Students spent the last three weeks of the semester producing eight paintings on canvases as big as eight feet tall that show how tall each of the grasses grow and how deep their root systems dig into the ground.

Styron Bell, wildlife refuge specialist with the Morris Wetland Management District, gave a lecture to the students about the wetlands and environment of the prairie which helped the students learn more about the plants they would be painting.

“It's a different project than some of the previous ones – we filled a need, but we created an education component to the permanent exhibit,” said Eble. “I think my students felt pretty proud and had a sense of accomplishment. … People will be able to learn the different types of prairie grass from the paintings but also understand how far the root system goes down into the soil.”

There are some challenges to implementing service learning in a class and deciding what projects to work on.

Eble said he sometimes gets approached by groups that want to partner, but see it as a way to get nice paintings or have a building beautified – the best projects are those where a community partner wants to teach the students something about what they do in return.

In exchange, service learning projects help teach students professional skills like meeting deadlines and being responsible for the work they produce, Eble said.

Last fall, students produced paintings of buildings and businesses in the Morris area that were displayed at the PRCA for a gallery showing. The paintings were sold in an auction and the proceeds were donated to the PRCA.

“There's also a sense of excitement, especially for the students, to be able to exhibit work,” said Eble.