Dirt and Art

If you’re a fan of out-of-the-box thinking, then Emma Lake was the place to be this June.

That was where Ken Van Rees, five soil science students, and five fine arts students were making pigments out of dirts and bones – yes, bones – and then using the product to paint up a storm.

“It was a blast,” says the soil science professor, who is also a painter. “I had collected soils from around Saskatchewan, some different reds and ochres, and I also brought a lot of deer and elk skulls. We would pull the teeth out, cut off the antlers, and put them in pipes with the ends capped. We’d throw them in the campfire at night and in the morning, grind them up to make black pigment.”

Obviously, there was some science going on. If you heat bone in an anaerobic environment, you get a material that is mostly calcium phosphate, along with a bit of carbon and calcium carbonate. Add water and a binder to hold the pigment particles together – egg yolk was the ingredient of choice at Emma Lake – and you get bone black, a favourite of Rembrandt.

Van Rees and his students also heated soils rich in iron oxides to get intense red pigments, clays with the right mineral oxides to produce yellowish ochres, and extracted blue dye from a flowering plant called woad (a distant cousin of canola and cabbage) so they’d have a colour to capture the beauty of the northern Saskatchewan sky.

And there was art. All of the pigments were put to use – even the soil scientists had to wield a paint brush.

But the goal was something larger than the sum of those two parts, says Van Rees, who is, fittingly, an Agri-Food Innovation Chair (in agroforestry and afforestation).

It was an intellectual quest, one that began in innocent fashion eight years ago when Van Rees added an art element to his soil science field course by having his students paint a landscape. It was a fun thing, but also a way to give students a new perspective of landscapes they normally reduce into oh-so-precisely delineated components and subcomponents of soil science and biology.

It seemed to spark something in many of his students, and Van Rees spent “a long time thinking about how I could move this forward.”

“Then I read an article in Canadian Geographic about this painter in Ontario who was collecting pigments within 100 miles of where he lived to create his painting,” he says. “So I thought I’d go visit him.”

Things soon fell into place. The artist, Christopher van Donkelaar, offered to teach Van Rees and any students who might be interested about the craft of making pigments. Art and Art History professor Allyson Glenn joined in the effort, and together they were able to win university approval for ARTS 898 Creating Paint from Soil  (That number designates a ‘special course.’). The students had to produce several paintings, write a paper, and put on a week-long exhibition.

But it was the process, not the end-products, that intrigued Van Rees. He still talks about being captivated by a 2009 lecture that renowned creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson gave at the university; and by the work of Steven Johnson, who describes how advances in both neuroscience and psychology have changed our understanding of the creative process. Robinson, a sharp critic of current educational models, favours divergent thinking and collaboration, while Johnson says hunches, serendipity, and even errors beat rigid linear thinking by a country mile when it comes to innovation.

“Johnson writes about how innovation arises when you get different disciplines colliding together,” says Van Rees. “While Ken Robinson said: ‘Art techniques can be powerful ways of unlocking creative capacity and engaging the whole person.’”

Although that wasn’t written down in the course curriculum, the 10 students who gathered at picturesque Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus didn’t need it spelled out for them.

“It was just so different, you were free to try things out and see if they worked,” says Cody David, who is taking his Masters in Soil Science and studying greenhouse gases.

“Sure, in science, you want to be creative when thinking what you want to do in an experiment, but then you follow the proper procedures and you’re very methodical. The structure behind science is pretty rigid.”

When David told others about the course, many said it sounded really neat but “lots said it sounded weird.” Both sides were right. It was very stimulating, but the “free-flowing” attitude of the arts students felt very odd at first, says the 26-year-old.

If fact, even when it was time to set up the gallery, the different ways of thinking were starkly evident. The soil science quintet knew the task and were ready to roll. The arts students were searching for the right experience, trying out endless arrangements and groupings.

“If it had been up to us, we would have done it in two hours,” recalls David. “But the arts students were, ‘Let’s try this’ and ‘Now let’s try it this way.’ I mean, it took us pretty much all weekend. But I have to say it worked – what we had at the end of the weekend was way better than what we started with.”

David now has a small gallery of his own, mostly landscapes, but also more detailed pictures of tree trunks. He says he’s happy with the results, even though it was his first foray into art since high school.

Van Rees figures David and his fellow students have gained something else. He cites Robinson and the need “to engage the whole person.”

“I sometimes think we don’t think a lot about the student as a whole person,” says Van Rees.

He doesn’t claim to have discovered a new paradigm in teaching, but as he watched the students – whether cooking bones or struggling to capture the fall of light on a stand of trees – it was plain to see they were fully engaged and in high learning mode, he says.

“This was an experience that none of them would have ever had before,” he says.

“It was unique, it was creative, and they were engaged in an eco-system in an entirely different way. And on top of all that, they got to make their own paint from scratch.”


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