earth painting social sculpture

Since Upper Paleolithic times, humans have used soil-based pigments to adorn cultural artifacts, dwellings and their own bodies. We decided this would be a good point of departure for a series of creative field experiments we conducted from 2006 to 2008 with landscape planning students, environmental engineers, and department members in an overgrown lot near the TU campus. The goal of the excursions was to explore personal connections to soil with basic tools of soil physics, amateur painting, and a sense of adventure. We equipped participants with canvases, Munsell color charts, and an acetone based soil adhesive often used to preserve soil profiles for museum displays. (in later field trips we used acrylic and starch-based mixtures, which are better for both the environment and human health)

Navigating through a labyrinth of foxholes and wild locust trees, we descended several meters below street level into the abandoned footprint of where a squatted building had once stood. Patterns in the sidewalk pavers revealed where the main entry had been, but we entered where the steep grade flattened out and offered the best access to the hidden jungle – a ruin without doors. We proceeded to spend a few hours collecting weather-beaten trash from the loose upper layers of rubble and chunks of crumbling concrete and brick from the compacted horizons just a meter below. We collected buckets of sandy fill in a variety of colors and textures, analyzing the possible history and physical properties of each source material. And then, of course, we painted.

Between discussions on groundwater quality, the archival functions of soil, and the sometimes-appropriation of Land Art by landscape architects and Waldorf kindergartens, we waited for the canvases to dry. Stephen Wilson once warned of the specialized blinders often donned by many in scientific fields: “Many scientific and technological researchers define the arts as alien territory… If they are personally interested, they hold stereotypical views of the arts that stops with classical museum and gallery forms such as painting and sculpture” (Wilson 2002, p. 876). Many scientists, including colleagues in our own department, still view art as something decorative to be hung on a wall or placed on a shelf. Many artists, of course, still view scientists as soulless number-crunchers removed from the cultural, social or political life. Through gritty brushstrokes we attempted to paint over such distinctions. It was a simple but meaningful act of earth painting.

“Earth paintings” were a studio digression of the Land Art movement, including notable works by artists such as Richard Long, Alan Sonfist, herman de tries, and Ulrike Arnold. In our situation, “earth paintings” were an outdoor digression of normal classroom study and an opportunity to reflect on one’s own connection to site, material and objective inquiry. As previous experience with painting differed greatly among the group, the true art became the experience of the site and action itself, and the deconstruction of roles and representation – a social sculpture in university rubble.


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