Consider the Source: Humanity, Habitat, and Creativity

Consider the Source: Humanity, Habitat, and Creativity

Artists across all times and places take advantage of local materials and resources to craft their work. At the same time, the local habitat influences and inspires artistic decisions. Use this resource to explore the symbiotic relationship between artist and environment, both natural and cultural.


Grade Level:
College, Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12
African Art, American Art, Ancient Art, Decorative Arts after 1890, East Asian Art, European Art, Modern and Contemporary Art, Native American Art, Pre-Columbian Art, South Asian Art
Africa, America, China, East Asia, Europe, India, Japan, Rome, South Asia
Subject Area:
Critical Thinking, Fine Arts, History and Social Science, Science, Visual Arts
Activity Type:
Art in Depth


Artists across all times and places take advantage of local materials and resources to craft their work. At the same time, the local habitat influences and inspires artistic decisions. Broken into six thematic lenses, this collection of objects lets students use art to expand their own thinking about the complex relationship humans have with the natural world.  What ideas about humanity, habitat, and creativity do these objects spark for them?

A focus object is featured for each thematic lens and is followed by other objects for extended thinking and consideration.  As students investigate, encourage them to document their thinking by using the prompts and strategies provided. 

Transforming the Earth: Landscapes

Considering landscapes as sources of insight

Humanity has had a direct hand in changing and shaping the Earth’s landscape. Not only has the landscape been a source of food and shelter, but it has also been the stage for human economic and political activity. Artwork that depicts landscapes can offer insight into how humans think about their relationship with the Earth. By considering these works as primary sources of human ideas, we can think about the messages they present about the Earth and its inhabitants.

Painted in 1853, Asher B. Durand’s celebrated painting Progress (The Advance of Civilization) features a conceptual rather than actual landscape. While it represents no specific American locale, modern viewers are presented with numerous details that point to several aspects of cultural and social history, including ecology, Native American policies, and the Industrial Revolution.  

Standing before this large painting, a viewer might be struck by how the elements of the image are arranged on the canvas.  This composition may lead the viewer’s eye from the lower left of the canvas across to the upper right. This visual progression echoes Durand’s presentation of the young nation’s progress, culminating in a busy port city accessible by railroad, steamship, and telegraph line. 

Asher B. Durand
Progress (The Advance of Civilization) detail

The various inhabitants of this imagined landscape are also important.  We might consider the point of view of the Native Americans looking out over the vista from a seemingly untouched wilderness. What about the driver of a laden horse-drawn cart making its way up a road cut from the landscape or the farmer working the land with a horse-drawn plow?  Unseen, but also important for us to consider, are the factory workers, steamboat captains, telegraph operators, church-goers, merchants, railroad workers, as well as the inhabitants of all the buildings.  

It is also helpful to consider for whom Durand made this painting.  Progress was commissioned by financier, industrialist, and collector Charles Gould who later became treasurer for the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. Perhaps Mr. Gould had his own ideas about nature and the landscape.  While he did not tell Durand what to paint, he was one of many American patrons in this era who commissioned art, preserving in paint the kind of landscapes threatened by their own interests in locomotive industries. 

Landscape: More Objects for Consideration

Choose from the images here to see more examples of art that feature landscapes. What might they tell viewers about the attitudes and ideas of their originating culture and time period? Do you see evidence of a transformation of the landscape by human hands? How do you imagine the artists conceived of humanity’s relationship to the Earth?

Try using the Seeing and SIFTing or Looking to Learn: Elaboration Game strategy to frame your inquiry and document your thinking.

Manicuring Nature: Parks and Gardens

Considering sources of natural experience

It is not unusual to find works of art acting as key features in parks and gardens. The reverse is also true: parks and gardens frequently play a starring role within works of art. When we consider parks and gardens as sources of natural experience, we can explore how these spaces inspire artworks that reflect a human motivation to both control and be immersed in nature.

Humans are driven to manipulate and create their own habitats.  Even so, we retain a desire for immersion in nature and the wilderness. Establishing garden spaces helps provide for the dual human desire for immersion in and control of the wilderness. 

Glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work is frequently informed by nature, and the artist has exhibited his work internationally at major botanical gardens and in natural settings. Visitors to VMFA’s sculpture garden can engage with Chihuly’s glass-blown piece, Red Reeds. The artwork’s form and arrangement offer an abstract evocation of the tall grasses often found near ponds and small inland waterways. It is installed in the museum’s sculpture garden reflecting pool, which allows Chihuly’s artistic interpretation of the natural world to sit among and interact with actual botanical elements such as water lilies, lotus, and grasses. Red Reeds colorfully activates an environment, both constructed and natural, where humans can relax and commune in a quasi-natural setting.

Parks and Gardens: More Objects to Consider

Dale Chihuly’s Red Reeds is a sculpture that is both inspired by and inspiration for experiencing the natural world.  Think about how other works of art reflect the inspiration of gardens and parks as sources of natural experience for humans.

Choose a few of the works from this group, and try using the Writing to Learn: Sensory Inventory strategy to start your thinking.

Harnessing Nature: Animals and Art

Considering animals as sources of power

Artworks may feature animals in a multitude of ways.  When we consider animals as sources of power, we can think about how artworks represent and reflect the relationship of humans to the animal kingdom.

Throughout time, humans have harnessed the power of wild animals both literally and figuratively. This domestication has led to humans, across cultures, using animals for transport, war, agriculture, religion, hunting, and indicators of status. 

Museum visitors who encounter this Bactrian camel in the East Asian galleries may be intrigued by the many additions to its natural form. Laden with packs, vessels, and hunted game, the camel’s head is held high with its eyes on the destination of a journey. 

Beginning around the 3rd century B.C., a web of trade routes linked China with parts of Central Asia, the Mediterranean, Africa, Europe, and South Asia. This network was later called the Silk Road because silk was one of the most desired products that traveled from East to West. 

The best pack animals for many sections of the Silk Road were sturdy Bactrian camels, because of their ability to carry a great deal of weight over rough terrain while enduring the extreme conditions of the Gobi desert, where it could be very hot during the day and very cold at night. This glazed earthenware sculpture represents one of these two-humped camels, which were so prized that they became a popular subject for Tang dynasty funerary sculptures. The ancient Chinese believed in a life after death, so they buried their dead with things they thought would be needed in the afterlife. During this time, models of camels, entertainers, and soldiers were made to accompany the burial of the wealthy. These objects were considered useful in the afterlife and signified the owner’s importance, which was often based on the wealth derived from trade along the Silk Road.

Animals and Art: More Objects to Consider

The museum has countless examples of art that feature animals as sources of power. Consider a few of them here. How are animals, both domesticated and wild, used in these artworks? What might the artists and original audiences for these artworks have thought about the role of these animals?

Try using the Looking to Learn: What Makes You Say That? to frame your inquiry.

Finding and Fabricating: Assembled Art

Considering the source of parts and pieces

Assembled artworks are those that are made of various distinct parts that are then put together to create a cohesive whole.  When we consider the sources of these different elements, we can consider how items, readily available to a culture or artist, may influence human creativity.

This bocio, or divination figure, from the Adja culture in the Republic of Benin, can be found in the African galleries at VMFA. It is a compelling example of assembled art that also served a sacred purpose. A viewer looking closely may notice a wide array of natural and man-made materials layered onto a nearly-hidden wooden figure. The fabrication of figures, like this one, is a gradual process; pieces of material are added each time it is used for the practice of Vodun: a belief in the mysterious forces that govern the world and its inhabitants. 

A Vodunsi is a person who uses bocio figures to help practitioners of Vodun learn about their fate.  Deactivated in 2001 by Vodunsi Comlaan Guizo when he sold it to collectors, this bocio no longer functions as a sacred object. In the museum, it remains a visual expression and a record of insights gained during many divination sessions.  Bocio figures are activated through speech, saliva, heat, sacrificial offerings, and assemblage–the addition of objects to a support. Here the support is a two-faced figure carved from iroko wood.

Bocio (Divination Figure), detail

The many different items attached to the figure were acquired by the Vodunsi at local market places or supplied by clients seeking divination.  They include both commercially made glass bottles and small gourds which are affixed to the figure with leather cords. Residue found in these vessels indicates they may have held medicinal powders.    

Whistles, bells, and padlocks are also present on this figure. They were applied to the figure as a way to communicate with the Vodun deities during a divination ceremony. The Vodunsi used whistles to call the deities, and bells may have been used to call other needed forces. The Vodunsi’s clients supplied the padlocks, which were unlocked to open and activate the bocio and relocked once the need for divination was resolved.

The viewer may also notice a kind of dark crust on the head; this is the result of various liquids being poured on the figure during divination ceremonies. This residue is primarily a plant resin with minerals and plant fibers mixed into it. VMFA’s object conservators also identified the presence of goat blood, which is consistent with the Vodun practice of animal sacrifice. 


Assembled Art: More Objects to Consider

Looking closely at art can help us uncover layers of complexity not apparent at first glance.  Choose a couple of objects from this group. Like the bocio figure, these are examples of art made by assemblage. How might the materials used in these pieces have influenced their creation?  What might the materials tell us about the environment in which these artworks were created? 

Try using the Looking to Learn: I See, I Think, I Wonder strategy to frame your inquiry.

Beauty and Bounty

Considering sources of plenty

From oceans and mountains to flora and fauna, the natural world can be a source of bounty for sustaining humankind. When we consider the sources of plenty and how they are displayed in art, we can think about the complex ways humans conceive of the Earth’s bounty as it relates to community, status, prestige.

While wandering through the Baroque gallery, visitors might be struck by the precision of detail in this painting. Dutch artist Jan De Heem painted this sumptuous display in Antwerp (present-day Belgium) around 1640-50. In his day, De Heem was famous for still lives like this one. The expensive fruits, vegetables, and flowers in his composition are from distant places across the world. That may seem normal by today’s standards, but in the 1600s, the acquisition of these items would have been expensive and dependent on the reach of Dutch traders. The objects in this painting were specifically assembled to show the wealth and sophistication of the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. Like many still-life painters of his time, De Heem often included some form of animal life in his work, such as the African gray parrot seen in this painting.

Not as apparent to a modern audience, 17th-century viewers would have seen another message within the opulence: worldly wealth cannot overcome death and judgment.  In this painting, the beautifully detailed watch in the golden case implied that worldly pleasures were fleeting and best enjoyed in moderation.

Beauty and Bounty: More Objects to Consider

Consider a few of the objects shown here.  Can you find similarities or differences between these objects and how they might reflect ideas about Earth’s bounty?  What might these objects suggest to us about community, status, or prestige for the cultures that created them?

Try using the Looking to Learn: Elaboration Game strategy to start your thinking.

Hunting and Harvesting: Utility and Embellishment

Considering the sources of artistic material and the motivation for their use

For thousands of years, humans have harvested wild animals for food and also for the fabrication of useful and beautiful objects. When we consider wild animals as the source of artistic materials, we may also consider the motivations behind the use of this material. 

Now carefully displayed in VMFA’s Native American gallery where visitors can appreciate its beautiful beadwork embellishments and expert leatherwork, this object was once used daily to protect and transport an infant. When not used as transport, it could be set upright against a support to serve as a kind of standing crib. American cradle boards, or “baby boards,” like this one are the ancestor to modern-day child carriers. 

This example was made by an artist whose name was not recorded.  However, we do know that she was a woman who was part of the Ute confederation of tribal units called bands. The Ute people originated in the Great Basin region of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Eastern Nevada, Northern New Mexico, and Arizona. By the time this cradle board was made in about 1880, most of the Ute lands had been lost to treaties with the United States, and most Ute peoples were living on reservations. Throughout their history, however, Utes have maintained a relationship with the ecosystem that revolves around the principle of sustainability.  Nothing is taken from the land that can not be replenished, and nothing taken is wasted. As expert hunters, they use all parts of the animals they hunt, including the hide. 

The main body of this cradle board is an example of the superior brain-tanned hides for which the Ute women were known.  The soft leather pouch, padded for the child’s comfort, was mounted on a stiff wooden frame that provided protection with its rigidity. While this structural design allowed portability and safety during travel or work, the lovingly applied beadwork is expressive rather than practical.  Functionality, spirituality, and individuality were crucial to each cradle board, granting the child physical and spiritual security while “bound” during the first year or so of life.

Utility and Embellishment: More Objects to Consider

An object made to be both useful and beautiful, the cradle board is an example of art that uses hunted materials conservatively. Its maker took care to consider the effects of its use on the ecosystem.

Choose a few of the objects from this group. They are examples of art that incorporate animal-sourced materials obtained through hunting. What are your thoughts about the possible motivation for using these materials?  In what ways does its use seem to support the utility of the object? In what ways does its use seem to support embellishment or aesthetics?

Use the Sketching to Learn: Beyond the Frame or Looking to Learn: Ten Times Two strategy to start your inquiry.