SPK Park Ranger Wins USACE Art Challenge Honoring Earth Day

Published June 18, 2024
Updated: June 18, 2024
Lead natural resource specialist Shawna Polen stands in front of a interactive display for Hensley Lake holding a handmade letherbound book she created for a sustainable art challenge.

Shawna Polen, lead natural resource specialist for Hidden Dam at Hensley Lake, poses with her handmade, leatherbound book at the visitor center. The idea for the book stemmed from papermaking projects Polen has previously done with students who visited the lake. (Photo Courtesy of Shawna Polen)

Park ranger Shawna Polen soaks paper scraps in a tub of water as part of her process for making paper.

Park Ranger Shawna Polen completes a step of the papermaking process for her handmade leatherbound book. After soaking pieces of scrap paper in water for about 12 hours, the pieces are blended into a pulp and pressed into a frame to achieve the desired size and thickness of the paper. (Photo Courtesy of Shawna Polen)

handmade leatherbound book with string, thimble, and scissort sitting on top

The handmade leatherbound book is shown completed along with a few supplies needed to complete the project. The book, which won first place in the USACE-wide Sustainable Art Challenge in May, took Park Ranger Shawna Polen approximately 20 hours to complete from start to finish. (Photo Courtesy of Shawna Polen)]

SACRAMENTO, Calif.  ̶̶̶  Whether she’s outside on the job or creating something in her own free time, park ranger Shawna Polen describes herself as a crafty person. This combined with a love and appreciation of nature is what ultimately drove her to participate in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sustainable Art Challenge.

The Sustainable Art Challenge is an annual contest hosted by USACE HQ to honor Earth Day. This year was the first year it was open to all USACE employees. Those wanting to participate were asked to create a piece of art using recycled, reused, or reclaimed materials.

Polen, who is the lead natural resource specialist for Hidden Dam at Hensley Lake, was announced Grand Champion for her handmade, leather-bound book on May 2.

“I thought it was just such a great opportunity,” Polen said “This was a cool thing because I'm so crafty. I was like, ‘this is awesome. I get to combine two things that I like.’”

Initially, Polen was planning to only make paper and draw on it once it was complete. She came up with this idea because papermaking is an activity Polen has previously done with students who visit the lake.

“That’s something that (students) are going to walk away with -- that memory,” Polen said. “And even long after they forget who I am, they'll just remember they did that fun project with a park ranger. And that's the key. That's the thing that child will remember always.”

So, making paper for the art challenge felt like a good way to incorporate one of the ways park rangers engage with the community, which was important to Polen.

She started by taking shredded paper and soaking the scraps in water for about 12 hours. The soaked pieces then need to be blended, sifted, shaped, and dried until they can be used as sheets of paper.

The project continued to evolve after that, she said. She already had pieces of leather laying around so she decided she would bind the pages into a book. To do this, she had to fold the paper, sew the edges, and then bind it to the leather pieces. From start to finish, the project took approximately 20 hours to complete.

“It's just so cool that something as silly as the bound book could actually win our internal competition because not only am I going up against others, but I'm going up against others of us,” Polen said. “The best in the field that are having fun with what they do -- we're recycling new products. So, it's just an extra cool thing.”

Sustainable resources, learning and teaching about nature are a few ways Polen said the Sustainable Art Challenge compares to her job as a park ranger. The art challenge allowed for the artists to share something about nature, which is a huge part of a ranger’s job when working with the public, she said.

“Every single one of us who submitted something, this is something that we did with our families or have done with the public or like to do ourselves. And that ties us back into why we work for this agency and do the, the missions that we do. For me, it's that public facing portion of the interpretation that makes it worth it,” she said. “I think that's the best part of what we do.”