In the 1980s, Oregon artist Daniel Dancer came upon the Nazca Lines of Peru—giant sketches drawn in the desert by ancient peoples. With Kansas artist and friend, Stan Herd, Daniel created similar-scale images on a field by using a tractor as a paintbrush and crops for color. One day, Daniel invited an entire elementary school of students to be the beads on the headband of a 25-acre Indian head. The result was stunning and life changing. This is Daniel’s story.
“Dead” I said, as I pointed to the desiccated pelican sprawled on the beach. My daughter, Sierra Sky, was about 18 months old, and I made her repeat the word. “Dead, she said. It’s an easy word to say and I wondered if she made the connection to the real pelicans flying about, to the fragility of life...the impermanent nature of all things.
A few months ago, in the midst of facilitating the creation of a giant, living painting of a pelican in Florida—a painting made of 700 kids and teachers, sand, mulch, and thrift shop clothing—I recalled the long-ago event with my daughter on the beach. The students at Chaires Elementary School (near Tallahassee) wanted to make a statement about the Gulf oil spill, and they chose to celebrate the pelican. I’m pretty sure they understood what death was after seeing image after image of oil-soaked birds washed up on the beach. It’s the “we’re all connected part” that’s not so easy to teach in a society embedded in the illusion that we’re separate from nature.
Studies have shown that we remember 20 percent of what we read and 80 percent of what we experience. This fact was reflected in Johnny Malone’s experience. In 1980, Johnny, who was 8 years old at the time, was one of 600 elementary school kids brought out to a 25-acre field. On that field, Kansas crop artist and my good friend, Stan Herd, with a tractor and various implements, gracefully etched the image of an Indian head. The kids were dressed in red and blue, and they each became a bead in the Indian’s headband.
I ran into Johnny 20 years later while visiting my old Kansas stomping grounds. Johnny said that collaborating with his entire school on that project was the one thing he remembered from his school days. The profound experience helped him understand the importance of working together and holding a big picture view of life. His comment led to the birth of Art For the Sky. Since its inception in 2001, Art For the Sky, an aerial artist-in-residence program, has reached over 100,000 students and teachers in eight countries and 25 states.
No matter if I am in California or India, when I tell students in the audience that they are all going to die someday, they always look at each other a bit startled as if thinking, “No one ever told us that!” We all grow up with this denial in modern society, and it is mirrored in many ways—the most potent, perhaps, being our refusal to accept and do anything about the impending dangers of climate change. To combat this, every Sky Art image features, in some manner, the number “350.” It is the most important number in the world. Why? Leading climate scientists agree that 350 is the maximum allowable parts per million of carbon in our atmosphere if we want to continue life as we know it on this planet. It is now 390 and going up.
A project last year at the Maryland Green Schools Summit featured a polar bear standing on a melting iceberg made of bed sheets. As the lone human laying on the ice, the governor of Maryland represented humanity. When a team of helpers pulled away the sheets, the view from high atop a crane—where these images are always filmed—was of the polar bear made of kids falling into the ocean. Can the experience of becoming an endangered polar bear, crocodile, or woodpecker with your schoolmates arouse an awakening or sense of urgency? A willingness to want to do something about their plight? This is the hope. For as every ecologist knows, it is our plight too. Endangered animals are “canaries” warning us of our own potential demise.
It all comes down to awakening what I call our skysight —a way of seeing the world through the eyes of all beings, and through the eyes of future generations. Training our imaginations to rise above our world to see how everything fits together. Two hundred years ago, Immanuel Kant wrote: “For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first.” Evolving, as opposed to learning. Hmmm, that just might be the key as this badly needed change in perception seems so difficult for us humans to learn.
The quantum leaps in brain evolution that have occurred in human history have long puzzled scientists. It is the mission of Art For the Sky to somehow help evolve this new way of seeing the world. A way of perception where the long-term health of polar bears and pelicans—of all life on Earth—are automatically taken into account with every decision we make. This is the very best way to protect our own future as human animals on Earth. Every sky art creation concludes with everyone shouting, “Get Your Skysight On!”
We all long for tribe, for belonging and wholeness. This longing is at the heart of the human experience. It is this very longing that creates and recreates the universe every single day. This need to be complete—to be whole—lives in all things. It is the essence, I think, in the magic of these giant collaborative, living paintings for the sky.
As the tiger, seahorse, or eagle nears completion, there comes a moment when it becomes a metaphor for how change happens. For how wholeness manifests. For creation itself. Consider physics for a moment: a critical mass of electrons arise out of chaos, align, and bond together. And, voilà! An atom is born. Physicists call this moment, “phase transition.” On the ground, in the art, everyone can sense this sudden field of created energy. It is evident in the joy and magic on every face. “Phase transition”? I simply call it LOVE.
The Six Teachings of Art For the Sky
Sky Art has been around for 3,000 years. On the parched desert plains of Peru, giant birds, whales, gods, and geometric figures can still be seen etched upon the Earth. Art For the Sky is an application of teachings inspired by the ancients, that dissolve separation and help bring us back into right relationship with the Sky, the Earth, the Animals, and one another.
- Intention: Intention is the foundation of all creation. Each Sky Art creation begins with an intention to make the world a better place for the creature we embody on the field, to awaken our skysight, and to begin a new relationship with the sky.
- Skysight: The ability to see the whole first is what Art For the Sky seeks to awaken. I call it our skysight. Training our imaginations to see the elusive Giant Picture and how each part fits into the whole is a vital skill that can lead us to the most creative solutions. By embodying a bear, a salmon, an eagle, or other creature, we can begin to learn to see through the eyes of all beings and through the eyes of future generations.
- Collaboration: Giving all participants the opportunity to succeed together as ONE in the creation of something magnificent is a wonderful community strengthening experience. When we THINK BIG and collaborate with others we always make the greatest difference— a rare and special experience that can serve us our entire lives.
- Interconnection: There is only one cause of human problems, and that is a sense of separateness. The sense that the world can be divided into “me” and “not me.” Just as we need each individual for our design to work, in Nature we need ALL the myriad communities and species of nature intact to sustain a healthy planet. What we do to the Earth and Sky we do to ourselves.
- Gratitude: Participants are encouraged to view fleeting art in the indigenous tradition of “The Giveaway”—a gift of hundreds of hearts beating together, from Earth to Sky, honoring all the blessings of life on Earth. The experience of BEING the art, and then releasing it, is a model of gratitude that is everlasting.
- Impermanence: Art that leaves no trace is a lesson in impermanence, in understanding that nothing lasts. Everything is always changing, and we must appreciate each moment as precious. This is how nature works.
Daniel Dancer wrote this story for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Daniel is a part Mohawk, arts activist, educator, author, photographer, filmmaker, environmental community developer, and founder/manager of the only wilderness cemetery in America. He uses various media in an effort to break the culture-wide amnesia that endangers all life on Earth. Daniel's worldwide Art For the Sky residency programs, which inspire a new way of perceiving the world, along with his recent book, Desperate Prayers: A Quest for Sense in a Senseless Time, signify Dancer as a pioneer for the emerging new paradigm.
Visit Art For the Sky for photos, lessons, and more information on how to get your skysight on!