Pigment Ecologies

Whenever I pack up my studio to leave town I always make a new batch of watercolours to take with me. These pigments carry deep time stories and deep ecologies, and already are poems and artworks unto themselves:

Wild and raw vivianite and celadonite; vivianite from industrial automobile waste; glacial clay, made in part by compressed 10,000 year old horsetail plants, peat and ice sediment and the movement of glaciers in the Pacific NW; and an “air-like” pigment of chalk and heated iron from an old fire pit above sacred ochre cliffs in British Columbia.

These were from a collaboration with artist, researcher and ore whisperer, Heidi Gustafason of Early Futures who generously sent me a few foraged pigments to make new work with. Thank you dear Heidi, I will do my best to honor the use of these.

Working with earth pigments is a very visceral experience. A lot of listening is involved. It’s easy to treat the earth as mere material, even as someone who thinks she knows better! No matter how slow, attentive and gentle I think I’m being, I’ve realized there’s always a slower, more attentive and even gentler way of being. This is something these pigments teach me.

So as an artist I’m increasingly interested in stepping back to allow these teachers to express themselves in the simplest, most direct way possible. Without adding anything unnecessary, or taking anything away.

Here are three very special pigments from Heidi’s Climates of Change series. Above is HOT EARTH; a 20-30,000 year old baked clay ochre, about the same age as all of human civilization. Gentle, yielding, and yet brilliantly radiant. A real companion.

BURIED WILDFLOWER FIELD. The above soil once yielded medicinal plants but then a car parts supply lot was built over it. What loss. Depletion. But now we have this pigment showing us “what is”. So how can we listen and tend to what is? Particularly when things are not the way we think they should be? The depth of this pigment surprised me. It immediately transformed into a warm, rich chocolate and it felt like I was being given permission to become part of its evolution. So, I guess we can never know what will happen next, and that is something worth leaning into.

CEDAR ROOT. The soil and charcoal from the roots of a great tree, now cut down for Washington lumber. I worked with this one when I was very tired and in the midst of packing up my studio. I was pushing this pigment around under my glass muller and unlike the others there was so much resistance. I realized I wasn’t paying enough attention and was rushing to finish. So I thought about this tree, and all the trees which have been lost to human conceit, and suddenly I was no longer trying to make or do anything. I was simply being with this soil and with this tree, and paying my respects to all of the great beings who have protected us and our planet, despite the way we’ve treated them. I did not photograph working with this one, and perhaps rightly so.

Found in the “brackish water” of a shipwreck yard in North Carolina, these rich, clay-like, purplish-red ochre nuggets are the truest of shipwreck treasure. Gifted to me by ink alchemist and mystic Thomas Little, who travels around with a little wooden ink cart full of transmuted iron oxides, sumac, indigo and gun metals, for those lucky enough to come across him. A fellow street-wanderer and one of my dearest inspirations. You can follow his ink-making adventures at A Rural Pen. Thank you for all your treasures Thomas.

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