Cornell Artists Win Global Soil Painting Competition

Story by Craig Cramer, the Cornell Chronicle, January 16
Photo by Matt Hayes, Cornell University

Soil, it turns out, can be a work of art – as a team of Cornell University artists and scientists have proven. A painting created with soil won first prize in the university category of a global soil painting competition sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Cornell was one of 15 groups to compete in the event, which took place on World Soil Day, December 5, 2017. Members of the Cornell community gathered in the Mann Library on the university’s Ithaca, New York campus to create two large canvases using more than 50 paints formulated from soils from around the world.

To create the substance used for painting, Kirsten Kurtz, manager of the Cornell Soil Health Lab and a graduate student in the field of natural resources, pulverized dried soil and mixed it with water and gesso as a binder, a technique she started using four years ago. “It’s amazing the range of colors you can get,” she explained. “Of course you have the usual browns and tans, and some tinged with yellow and red. But some yield pigments from jet black to light gray and even, rarely, green.”

Soils found around the world come in a range of textures as well, from gritty sand to smoother clay, Kurtz said. “The green on our winning painting is derived from French clay. Green soil is very difficult to find. The green French clays we used are generally found deep below the surface and developed over time from the ashes of ancient volcanoes.”

Kurtz and artists affiliated with the School of Integrative Plant Science used soil 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.

“We added three baskets filled with corn, beans and squash. These are the crops in the traditional “Three Sisters” polyculture used by the Haudenosaunee communities here in New York’s Finger Lakes Region for centuries, a technique that is a model of sustainable farming,” Kurtz said.

She led a similar community painting event at Cornell in 2015 that inspired FAO to take the idea worldwide.

“My main goal for these events is to inspire people to think about soil,” Kurtz said. “It is an essential natural resource, as important as clean water and air. We depend on healthy soil to provide us with food and fiber, and we can use soil to help fight climate change. We’ve got lots of great reasons to celebrate soil.”

With a bachelor’s degree in art, Kurtz is both an artist and a scientist. Work for her master’s degree in natural resources focuses “on quantifying the health of undisturbed grasslands and the consequent remediation of degraded grassland soils.”

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