Jesse Sherburne: teaching from tree tops – curious arts

Jesse Sherburne is always looking for new ways to push his students’ imaginations. The U of A alumnus, Edmonton-based artist and design instructor is especially keen to open his pupils’ eyes to the endless possibilities for them to apply their creative skill sets in an entrepreneurial manner.

Jesse Sherburne.

Jesse Sherburne.

“In a contemporary context, designers, artists — or what I like to refer to generally as ‘creatives’ —  they can generate their own opportunities and income, and essentially become their own career makers,” says Sherburne.

In 2013, when the Edmonton Arts Council (EAC) put out a transitory public art call with a specific invitation for new, emerging artists and designers to answer, Sherburne saw an outstanding learning opportunity. He seized the teachable moment, assigning his students enrolled in a third year Industrial Design class to respond with proposals as a course project in the winter 2014 term.

“For designers, especially those that can work in 3-D, those that are able to present and articulate their concepts and ideas well and understand the engineering aspects, responding to a call to create public art is a great way to generate some work and income and establish their own business.”

Sherburne says the initial course project was meant to introduce students to the process of creating a design contest entry, but was also assigned with the intention of delivering a valuable lesson in how to form and work within an arts collective.

An arts collective is a group of artists, curators and supporters working together, usually under their own management, to share resources for a shared mandate. Arts collectives have been around a long time, well before their surge in popularity in the 1960s. Sherburne says they continue to be an effective organizational structure in today’s creative economy, responsible for incubating some of the most influential artists and cultural movements.

Sherburne had his 15 design students break into working groups and form creative collectives, talking with them about the inherent values in working as team and pooling resources. They brainstormed how to develop a collective working philosophy, looked at the benefits of a division of labour when working on multiple projects at the same time and explored how to best to use each other’s strengths.

One of the student collectives from Sherburne’s class, Threshold Art and Design — comprised of Brad Comis, Sebastian Sauve-Hoover and Danielle Soneff — won the EAC’s open call and $30,000 in funding to realize their transitory public art concept called Impose.

A page from Threshold

A page from Threshold’s Impose proposal to the Edmonton Arts Council.

Threshold’s winning proposal was to make three miniature replicas of homes from Edmonton neighbourhoods, complete with lighting and sound to simulate the everyday activities of living, and to erect these houses on the branches of trees in Churchill Square. The students’ aim with Impose was to generate dialogue about the nature of our private and suburban spaces by superimposing them in an urban environment and shared public space.

“The feedback from the jury was that our students’ design presentation was one of the best they had ever seen,” says Sherburne. “My goal was to give the students a real-world opportunity, and then for them to win — that was great.”


Photo by TJ Jans.

The lesson then truly extended outside of the classroom with Sherburne working with the students towards making their renderings a reality. Given that the project proposed working with living trees on Churchill Square, Sherburne explains that the number of stakeholders involved was enormous. “Email threads quickly expanded from two to three individuals up to 25 people, and that was a big challenge.”

He expresses gratitude to the City of Edmonton’s urban forestry unit and arbourists for devoting a great deal of time and expertise to assist with the engineering aspects of the project.


Photo by TJ Jans.

It took almost another full year of additional work to address all the complicated design details. But once the treehouses were installed in downtown Edmonton from May to October 2015, with two treehouses in Churchill Square and another one in Peter MacDonnell Memorial Park, they sparked a great deal of conversation among delighted festival-goers.

Aspen Zettel Photography.
Aspen Zettel Photography.

While the student design project was transitory, Impose continues to leave a lasting impression on the Canadian urban design landscape.

The project captured imaginations Canada-wide, garnering national media attention and accolades, and was recently recognized with a 2015 Edmonton Urban Design Award of Excellence and a 2016 National Urban Design Award in the Student Projects categories. The national awards will be presented during the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Festival of Architecture to be held in Nanaimo, B.C., from June 8-11, 2016.

Previous articleCommon GroundNext articleGoodbye Riel House – Daniel Stadnicki: Drum kit