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Using Dirt to Paint a Larger Picture of Place and Memory
Artist Heather Bird Harris on the intersection of art, science, education, climate change, and memory, and her creative collaboration with wetland ecologist Ashley Booth.
Creative Fuel is a newsletter about the intersection of creativity and everyday life. There are essays, prompts, interviews, and more. It is entirely reader-supported and paid subscribers help bring it to life. If you’re a paid subscriber, you’ll get a weekly prompt every Saturday—this weekend’s is going to be inspired by today’s interview.
Last year, thanks to wetland ecologist Ashley Booth, I discovered the work of Heather Bird Harris. Heather makes paint and inks from site-specific earth pigments, and she and Ashley had collaborated on a project to create art from wetland soil, creatively documenting Louisiana’s eroding coastline.
Aswrote in a thought-provoking essay that I read this week, “Nature is not ‘out there’. It is not removed from, apart from, separate from yourself or anyone. Even trying to put words to this feels inadequate.” That is what I feel in Heather’s work. Like with other artists who work with natural pigments, nature is her medium, it is her practice. That practice allows her to take on the larger questions of climate change and environmental degradation in an artistic way.
This approach is at the essential intersection of art, science, and education. I asked Ashley about this intersection, and she said this:
“For scientists today, simply talking numbers and charts and figures isn’t going to fix the environmental issues we are facing in the next 50 years. Our greatest challenge is finding ways to communicate the specific issues we see happening and raise awareness and public support for ways to address those issues. Collaborating with artists while acknowledging the value that art has in challenging the status quo and making sense of the world in a different way is one way we can address that challenge. But I also don’t want to approach art or artists with this reductionist view that art is just a way to move closer to a goal of protecting the environment. To me, art does help create connections with a different audience. Scientists and the community at large have a lot to gain from collaborating with artists to work toward common goals. But art is also grounding in a way that science is not.”
We need that grounding, because the pressing questions of climate change are at such an enormous scale, and sometimes we need a different entry point to grapple with them. “Art and science are simply different ways of making sense of the world around us,” says Ashley. “Both are processes that we use to understand what is important to us, what we value.”
What I find particularly poignant about Heather’s work is her focus on memory. It’s a potent source for her—addressing how we tell our collective stories of history and events, and what the memory of land can tell us our communities and ourselves. As Heather and I talked, Summer Praetorius’ piece on land memory in Nautilus came to mind: “In the biosphere, resilience is deeply entwined with memory—it is the ability of a system to find its way back to an equilibrium state following a perturbation, which requires memory of previous states.”
We must remember. We must engage. We must connect. Art is a tool for doing just that. I hope that this conversation with Heather encourages you to think about your own connection to place, land, and creativity a little differently.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna Brones: Can you talk about your path to becoming an artist?
Heather Bird Harris: I went to school for art and graduated in 2009 into the recession. A professor told me, “if the world doesn't need art people right now, and there are no art jobs, then it needs you to do something else.” I ended up doing Teach for America, which brought me down to New Orleans. I taught for just a few years before rapidly escalating into administration and I was a principal for five years. When my kids were born, I changed to curriculum writing, so I could have flexibility, and started writing Louisiana, US, and World history curriculum.
Through that process I decided to recommit myself to my art practice that had been lying dormant and long forgotten. I started doing art alongside a really busy career, and it just started taking more and more of my time and interest. My goal was always to switch the ratio so that I could do art more full time, and then be able to contract and freelance with the curriculum work, which I think is super, super important.
I write anti-racist history curriculum for elementary and middle schools. I think it's the most important thing that our country could be doing right now, to fix our history education and lead with empowering narratives. I'm still contracting and freelancing, but I finally got to switch the ratio and do art full time. But they’re very connected.
I started working with land pigments through my interest in history. I was trying to represent landscapes in an abstract way. The first one I did was for a friend who worked with me on a history project and I knew that would hold a lot of meaning for her, in terms of her knowledge of the history of the land. It made me want to collect some of the land for her in the representation that I was making. That just snowballed from there.
What are some of the main connection points between the two?
I see a lot of connection between my history, curriculum, education work, and the visual iteration of it. My art practice is a way for me to explore land history in a creative way. I think history is creative because history is storytelling. I think that visually, it's just another form that I hope is more compelling to a different audience.
I am interested in thinking about the multiple histories of land and connecting that to its current form. Unfortunately, that is most often a state of distress, due to any number of environmental crises that an area is facing.
I'm really interested in what decisions were made—you know, relatively recently in terms of human evolution and the history of the Earth—that are now impacting our lives. How does that connect to people's stories? Whether they're in a gallery or are students as part of a history lesson, how does that connect to their personal experiences and their personal memory and what they know or don't know about the history that preceded them?
Both my art practice and my history work is seeking to tell a whole story. Not necessarily tell it, but explore it for myself. Find connection points within history and our present day situation to help me make more sense of what is happening currently and what might happen, like throughout my children's lives too.
You talked about land being distressed, and I was thinking about how usually we think of that as environmental distress, but there’s also cultural distress. Do you feel a sense of freedom and creativity in trying to address some of the same topics and questions that you do in curriculum and teaching through your artwork?
Yeah, they both accomplish similar things in different ways. Although, I really see teaching as creative. I remember my first year teaching and working like 80 hours a week. I was really invested in it, but also wasn't sure if I could sustain it. I decided that I was going to stay, and that if I was going to stay, I needed to think of every lesson as a creative expression. That really helped, And it made me a really, really good teacher.
I think that has helped me in the art realm, to be able to be more comfortable with creative expression and storytelling. I like connecting with people in ways that really matter. You know, one of the things that also kept me out of the art world was not just the recession in 2008/2009, but it was also a feeling that it was very separated from what people needed. It was just too elitist to even matter. That still exists, but I think that there are iterations of the art world and connecting—especially in terms of communicating the human experience of going through climate change—that is much more felt on a personal level. It has a really great impact in the same way that teaching kids does. So it [the art world] feels like it's more meaningful now. I was able to find a mode of expression that felt equally important as the impact I was feeling in schools.
Thinking about the intersection of all these things lends itself well to talking about the Land Memory Project. That feels like a combination of your art practice and your social practice as well as the history component. Can you tell me more about what that is and what you're doing?
The Land Memory Project is going to happen this May in Atlanta, through Science Gallery Atlanta and Emory University. They're hosting different projects that deal with justice in some way. My project that I'm going to be working on is in collaboration with historian Dr. Loren Michael Mortimer and environmental scientist Dr. Eri Saikawa.
I'm facilitating a learning experience for people to explore their own personal land memories, and learn about the indigenous history, through present day history of Atlanta, and then talk through the environmental concerns. Specifically, we're going to be looking at soil toxicity, but I'm sure others will come up as well. You mentioned earlier the social connection in terms of distress. Something I think a lot about and that’s talked a lot about in Atlanta is gentrification. That's another form of land distress that is arguably both environmental and social.
Over the course of three workshops, in addition to learning about the land history and environmental issues, we are going to learn how to gather earth responsibly, make it into paint, and in the process, test it for soil toxicity. Then people are going to create their own land memory paintings that are informed by their own personal narratives. I'm going to sew them all together to create a large earthen quilt installation. Then we're going to have a community panel, and then the community is going to also be able to paint their own smaller ones.
People's ability to think creatively is going to be the only way we get out of any mess that other people have created. It’s our ability to deal with these like larger things, in ways we don't even know exist today.
-Heather Bird Harris
That sounds so cool. You're tackling really big, historical and cultural questions and you're also taking on science research, like soil toxicity. Why do you think art is a good entry point for people to be taking a look and understanding those things?
To be clear, I am not an expert in any of those things. But I am curious about all of them. I'm really trying to create an experience in which everyone there is a learner, even the folks holding PhDs. Learning is definitely at the forefront of this project.
Art makes sense as a vehicle for that because it makes it more palatable to people. Academics most often communicate their expertise through historical articles or the peer-reviewed scientific studies, but those have a limited audience. I think in order to create collective change, we need to widen that audience in a way that can transform information to be relatable.
In order for that to happen, people need time and space to make their own connections. So I'm trying to create an ideal learning experience for everybody there to have that time and space to reflect, connect, get new information and be able to process that creatively. One of the most effective ways to learn new information is through the creative process. It's what you remember most.
That's why I think your art practice is so interesting, because you are finding this other way to come into this really pressing issue of our time: climate change and environmental degradation. I'm wondering what it feels like to work with pigments? What does it feel like to have your medium be the earth? How does that serve as a tool for reflecting and understanding this really big crisis that we are all living in?
I think I've given myself the learning experience that everyone could benefit from in a classroom setting: a creative process, a long term passion project. This is how people really learn. I'm grateful that I have this time and space to be able to learn. My practice with pigments has changed so much about the way that I see things and the way that I'm observing, the way I think about myself as part of a larger ecosystem of both humans and non-humans. I’m just seeing the world differently, in a way that makes me feel more connected. It's not just a feeling, it makes me more aware of the ways in which my actions are connected to everything and everyone.
It's definitely a time for, like, peace and reflection. There was a shift in my practice after Hurricane Ida. We came home and things were so chaotic. We just weren't settled. We were evacuated for about a month, and then we came back, and had to put it all together. I was so frazzled. And so that time in the studio, I needed it in a more emotional way.
I thought, “I'm just going to play with water and color. I’m just going to zone out.” I really found hours and hours of flow space, I think, in reaction to the tumultuous experience that we were going through. It gave me time to observe, like how land moves and water, and how colors react to each other.
It helped me reflect a lot and like, led to really intense life changes. That's when we decided that we were going to uproot and move to Atlanta. I think of that reflection process as the time and space I gave myself to process the emotions of leaving a place that I love.
I love New Orleans so much. It's such a special place. It was a really difficult decision to leave, but it was a decision mainly made for our kids. They’re three and five, and we just felt like we wanted to provide them with a little more stability, like with the unpredictability of increasingly stronger storms. That was the decision we chose for our family that made sense, and it was also a huge privilege to be able to so.
We both work remotely, and it has cost a lot of money to move. There has been a big wave of climate refugees, across the US and the world. It's a privilege to be able to choose to leave, even though it is a difficult situation.
Thank you for opening up about that. I think we can hold space for the privilege and the emotional difficulty. Because that's a reality that a lot of people are living in and it's important to understand it. I think it also speaks to a connection to place, which is clearly expressed in your work, because that's what your medium is: physically using elements of a place. Do you feel like having this practice where you are connected to the earth has helped you to be better able to transition to a new place? Are you excited about what soils are available in the Atlanta area? Has it given you a little bit of a focal point for putting roots in a new place?
Yeah, I think it has helped. But it's also difficult because my whole specialty is Louisiana, in both history and education. It’s actually part of what made it really difficult to leave, was that it's so much a part of me and a part of what I'm interested in.
But I think the creative process has helped me become more attuned to natural observation and that helps me. To acknowledge the place that I'm in, noticing the color of the soil, and the very drastic change to like the red earth of Atlanta. Noticing how the sun and the light is different. I'm probably noticing more than I would if I wasn't an active painter.
I think that's been a really positive experience: just being able to observe and learn a lot about being in a new place. A daunting part of that is learning about the human history of a place, which is another benefit of the Land Memory Project. As a learner, I'm really excited to learn from people directly, hear people's narratives. I'm definitely in this stage of learning and growth, which is exciting.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Ashley using soil samples from coastal Louisiana? What does it look like to make paint out of a soil sample?
Ashley and I found each other in the Instagram ecology of southern Louisiana residents who are interested in the environment. I was really fascinated with her work. I don't have a science background at all, but I was writing lessons on wetland loss and personally trying to figure out what was happening—trying to figure out, you know, are there any solutions or what was happening with federal funding?
We found that we have similar interests and messages, we're just going about it in really different ways. She was working on a study in Southwest Louisiana in wetlands on how effective different conservation strategies were for helping to protect the land loss, and potentially even build up. She was taking different samples, then they fired them to burn off organic material, and then put them in sealed petri dishes. At the end of the study, she had like 100 or 200 of these petri dishes of wetland soil. She reached out to me on Instagram and asked if I wanted them and it was like “1,000% yes!”
Part of how I'm gathering earth is in accordance with the honorable harvest, which I learned through Robin Wall Kimmerer and her book Braiding Sweetgrass. How are we taking from the earth while maintaining a relationship of reciprocity? Part of that is always asking permission. So I gather pigment in specific ways. Land that was donated and used for beneficial purposes that will help the coast of Louisiana? That made a lot of sense conceptually for me. I was very, very happy to receive that.
Because they had been fired, it accelerated the pigment process. Whatever the scientific process she used to get them so she could test them, that’s what I needed for fine pigments too. The wetland soil really reacted differently than any other soil that I've used before. It felt like it had its own total way of being, which makes sense because it's from a space that's very in between land and water, and it serves a totally different purpose in the world. It was just so thirsty.
If I spread it out on a canvas and it's flat, and then let water run through it, it makes way for water and creates really beautiful river patterns. It’s a really physical representation of the purpose it serves in nature too.
You know, you think that “dirt is dirt.” That's probably what I would have thought five years ago, but that is definitely an outcome of that learning process. Based on just color and texture, I know where things are, where land is from in my own collection from Georgia and Louisiana. It’s a process of really getting to know the place that I'm in and the role that we're all playing.
“Art in general – and Heather’s work in particular – reminds me of the beauty to be found in each detail of the world, of the importance of radical noticing. That is easy to forget when caught up in trying to address big picture environmental challenges, and I often need a reminder of why I started this work. That is one of the greatest gifts we gain from pairing art and science together – the visual reminder that beauty and truth can be found in the process of solving a problem, even if the problem itself is unsolvable.”
Okay, one final question… What does it mean to be creative?
I really think that being creative means you're able to look and think outside the box when you're trying to solve a problem. I really think it has to do with other ways of seeing. And I think of creativity as the solution to any problem.
Well, you're an educator and an artist, so it would make sense that you're dialed on thinking of creativity in a larger context.
Yeah. Also, a Skidmore slogan is “creative thought matters.” So that's also been drilled into me and my memory. For as much as we made fun of that, I think that is very true. People's ability to think creatively is going to be the only way we get out of any mess that other people have created. It’s our ability to deal with these like larger things, in ways we don't even know exist today.
What I mentioned earlier about history being creative: the creativity comes in when you think about which stories you are going to highlight and for which purposes. Like for our kids who are going to invent new worlds after us, they need to know that other models are possible in order for innovation to actually be based in creativity.
Knowing that capitalism is a relatively brief experiment, that it doesn't actually align with how humans have lived for the majority of time on Earth—that is such a freeing idea that allows for creative solutions.
You can support Bird’s work by buying a print or following her on Instagram. She’s also offering earth pigment workshops around the US about once a month over the next year. Sign up for her newsletter for updates.
RESOURCES + INSPIRATION
Here are some of Heather’s recommendations:
Reading: Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, Nick Neddo's The Organic Artist, Jason Logan's Make Ink, Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder's Coming Into Being, Rory Doyle's Monuments Upon the Tumultuous Earth, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and Chris Harman's A People's History of the World
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Harris, Booth, and Jeffery U. Darensbourg were recently in conversation with Tilke Elkins of the Wild Pigment Project. Darensbourg is a Louisiana Creole and an enrolled member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Indians. One of his areas of focus is language renewal, and as part of the collaboration with Harris, he gave the pigment a name: ‘Lu Kaliksh.’ It means “dirt crushed by hand” and “dirt was worn out.”