search

The art of dirt

Soil painting celebrates essential resource

periodiCALS, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 2018

Kirsten Kurtz, second from left, along with artists (from left) Patty Chan ’18, Shujie Li ’17 and Fatma Rekik, MS ’17, hold their winning “Three Sisters” painting. Photo: Craig Cramer

The soil under our feet may not be top of mind, but it provides the foundation for everything we need to live—and it’s disappearing. Since the advent of industrial agriculture, roughly one-third of Earth’s arable land has been lost to erosion or pollution. Kirsten Kurtz is on a mission to save this essential resource by turning our attention to its natural beauty.

Kurtz, manager of Cornell’s Soil Health Testing Laboratory and a graduate student in the field of natural resources, does this in a profound way: by painting with it.

“You can see how I became inspired,” said Kurtz while pulling out soil samples ranging in hue from reddish brown to tan to yellow ochre. “It was being in the lab and seeing all the colors come in.”

By mixing soils with water and clear gesso, a liquid binder, she creates unique paints similar to acrylic that retain the quality and texture of the soil. She first began experimenting with soil painting in 2014, and a community event she organized on campus the next year drew hundreds of Cornellians to try their hands at the unique art form. 

The success of that community gathering inspired the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to take the concept worldwide. It launched a global soil painting competition in December 2017 with the goal of illustrating soil’s crucial role in sustaining life. For the contest, Kurtz and other artists gathered in the lobby of Mann Library and used the special paints to honor an agricultural practice used by Native American communities. The scene they painted was based on “Ringelreihen,” a 1910 work by the German artist Franz von Stuck, which shows three women spinning arm-in-arm.

For their version, the artists added baskets filled with corn, beans and squash. Those crops are the three main agricultural crops—known as the “Three Sisters”—grown for centuries by the Haudenosaunee communities in the Finger Lakes. Their contest entry, which incorporated more than 50 paints formulated from soils from around the world, won first prize in the university category of the global competition.

“Painting with soil is a powerful way to show younger generations that soil is something you can study,” said Kurtz, who grew up on a 200-acre organic farm, worked in various wineries and vineyards and has worked with the soil health lab for more than six years. “If we want to feed the world, we’re going to need many more soil scientists, and we need to encourage creative people to enter the field. You need creativity to solve many of the challenges we’re facing, and being an artist helps.”