Persuasive Art to Care for our Air

“Ms. Kim, I didn’t know this was a problem before today,” said one student at the end of our art lesson on persuasive art to raise awareness about air pollution and change behavior to reduce it.

Before COVID-19 caused a lockdown in March 2020, we had started an ambitious art project to create a large mural to encourage families to stop idling at pickup and drop off at our school, Mountain West Montessori Academy in South Jordan. This was designed to support Principal Angie Johnson’s kind requests sent through e-mail to families to stop idling as it was harming the health of children and staff at the entrance each day, twice a day. When I asked the 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade students in Lower Elementary (approximately 160 total) if they thought their voices, through art, could successfully change behavior and reduce idling, the response was loud and clear: yes!

Although we were able to put up the “Turn Your Key, Be Idle Free” signs at school that were generously donated by Utah Clean Cities, we had to wait until April 2021 to reintroduce the persuasive art project in a different way that was more adapted to schedule changes and social distancing. Instead of making the large mural, students made individual persuasive artworks to show families the problems that air pollution creates, to educate others about idling, and to suggest various ways we can all reduce air pollution.

The lesson introduced winter inversion, summer ozone, causes and effects, idling, and many ways we can all make a difference to reduce air pollution. It also showcased the artwork of environmental artists such as John Sabraw, Aida Sulova, and Chris Jordan to show students that art can be a powerful tool to help raise awareness and change behavior. Students gave their opinions about what messages the artists were trying to convey, using evidence and reasoning. They also looked at photographs of inversion in the Salt Lake Valley and of children in other cities where air pollution is a major problem, such as Beijing and Los Angeles, expressing complex feelings and empathy for both the air and the people.

Some students were not aware of an air pollution problem in the Salt Lake Valley and others did not know what idling was before the lesson. Some students shared that they had asthma and wanted to ask their neighbors who idle to please stop because it makes it harder for them to breathe. Many students came up with great ideas for how to convey their sadness to see air pollution, their anger when people pollute, their concern for the environment, and their suggestions for improvements (electric cars and tools, no more idling, using other modes of transportation that pollute less, such as biking or horseback riding to school!). Informed and inspired, they created their own art using discarded paper to persuade people to care more about the air.

All artwork was displayed in the school entrance on Earth Day so that everyone could see their messages, either from the car or by walking in to drop off or pick up students. When noticing everyone stopping to look at their art, they saw firsthand that their voices matter and are being heard. “Be Idle Free” posters were hung alongside their work and educational brochures with “Turn Your Key, Be Idle Free” decals were left in the entrance for students, families, and staff to help spread the word. Nearly everything was gone by the end of the day!

The generous donation of educational material and signs for our school has certainly helped students send out their message and has had an impact on our school community, as well as our air quality! I am very proud of the students for using their voices through art to help bring about change that will help Utah, and the world. It is my hope that their artwork can inspire other schools to make efforts to reduce air pollution. We greatly appreciate the support of Utah Clean Cities and believe that, thanks to their participation in our efforts, we have taken a true step forward in reducing air pollution at our school.

See the artwork below!