Creek College in Portland: art classes for environmental restoration

WCMT Fellowship 2016 research: innovation in participation in public urban green space.

Portland, Oregon, US.

Creek College is an experimental school in Portland, Oregon that takes place on environmental sites and combines art classes with environmental restoration.  Creek College sites shift for every session which allows the opportunity to engage with a diversity of waterways, artists and communities. It’s free for people to take classes and in return they do a form of restoration on the Creek.

I found out about the project while visiting the Art and Social Practice MFA at Portland State University, and was interested in the initiative because it’s such a good example of bringing art and nature together through an adventurous series of courses with both people and the river ecosystem as the focus.

Creek College is a collaboration between Kim Sutherland, a second year graduate student in the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, Adam Carlin, also a 2nd year in the program, and Kristina Dutton, an artist based in Oakland, California.

The Creek College is an experimental school that bridges art, education and conservation. We offer free art classes along creek restoration sites that are paid for through a barter system. The barters for the classes are activities that aid in the restoration of the creek.

The Creek College courses included Bookmaking and Nature Journaling, How To Play By The Creek, and Creative Mapping Soundscapes. What’s special about these events is the structure of barter and exchange that hooks into the practical need to restore and take care of the creek. This dual approach of creative and artistic interaction alongside a practical support to the ecosystem reminds me of Still Moon Arts Society‘s work in Vancouver.  It also enables people to connect and participate with the environment, to both give and receive, to be part of nature in its multiplicity – the rivers run through us.


The Creek College originated in the form of a question; how can we, as artists, make the broadest impact in aiding restoration efforts? We began to ask; can a poem benefit a creek? In what ways can sound, dance, sculpture, design, and other art practices bring attention to creek restoration? 

The current popularity and importance of the outdoor classroom is reflected in Creek Colleges mission:

The college acts as a terminal, allowing dozens of participatory, visual, and social projects related to the creek to flow through. The creek site will allow participants the opportunity to experience the natural setting as a classroom. They will naturally engage with the creek’s offerings, developing a relationship with an incredible environment that is even perhaps their own backyard. Our classes have been developed to be accessible to a wide range of participants of different backgrounds, ages, and interests—more than simply an art or restoration project, the college brings the community together on many levels. 

The Creek Team are also working on future iterations of Creek College. They’re very excited and grateful to have received support from the Precipice Fund for the second iteration in 2017 which will take place along the Columbia Slough in Portland. For this session Creek College will be collaborating with NAYA (the Native American Youth and Family Center) and the Columbia Slough Watershed Council to produce three, one-day symposiums along the Slough — in May, July and September 2017. For each symposium Creek College will have a series of classes and barters, along with a panel discussion in the afternoon that will vary in approach and location—the first a canoe conversation, the second a walking conversation, and the third a bike ride conversation—all taking place at different sites along the Slough. The panelists will range from a representative from NAYA and the Watershed Council, an artist, and an ecologist. There is also a publication component which will document and archive the diverse voices and experiences of the participants and panelists and include a score for future interaction with the site.

Here’s a film about their work:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s