Subtle Earth: Artist Cultivates Deep Relationships to Her Wild-Crafted Materials

Words by Taylor Hanigosky
Photos by Meghan McMackin + Heidi Gustafson

Washington native Heidi Gustafson’s work defies categorization and that might be one of the many reasons she loves it. At the intersection of art, geology, archaeology, and spirituality, Gustafson navigates the mystery between worlds as she dives into the mysteries embedded in the earth. She is a self-described pigment worker, a master forager, and a student of time. Heidi’s practice involves seeking, collecting and honoring earth pigments and ochres from diverse landscapes across the world. Her home base is her studio in the Cascade foothills of Northern Washington where she houses a library of pigments and hosts workshops that aim to facilitate a relationship between people and the land. Recently, I got the chance to talk to Heidi about digging in the dirt and collaborating with the earth. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.


Taylor Hanigosky: Currently, your artistic practice consists of seeking and making pigments from natural materials. Let’s just start from the beginning. What is an earth pigment, how do I find it, what do I do with it?


Heidi Gustafson: Earth pigments are a natural, raw material that are on the surface of the earth. That can be soil, clay, rock, even crystals. It’s just the stuff that you see lying around. without having to do any mining, or have any geology background, That material is our oldest technology for art, but also for the built environment like brick and concrete. Earth pigments include the whole realm of iron-oxides, which make steel. What you do is really straightforward. You pick up a patch of iron-rich soil and crush it up with some sort of grinder. In the case of watercolor, you mix it with tree resin. To make oil paint, you add flaxseed or linseed oil. You can add animal fat to get lipstick. There’s a range of what you can do with it.


TH: I see that you work a lot specifically with ochres. What’s the difference there?

photo by Heidi Gustafson

HG: Ochres are a subset of earth pigments that are iron-rich materials. Any material made up of predominantly iron is an ochre. Ochre linguistically means yellow, but as a materials term, it makes a whole range of colors.


TH: What draws you to work specifically with ochres?


HG: One of the main reasons is that iron and oxygen and ochres are these very primordial materials. They are the first materials that appeared on the earth, made by our earliest ancestors, the first microorganisms. Iron and oxygen together begun to form the material that later gave rise to life and then to us. So the primordial connection is essential. I think about ochres as my ancestors. By participating with ochres as a human, it is sort of like having a direct relationship with the planet, with our ancestors, and with our own constituency. Our blood is made of the same iron and oxygen. Iron is what delivers the oxygen to the different parts of our bodies. To me, there is a very deep connection to life force, which i think is related to creative practice.


TH: It seems very fluid for you to recognize these connections between land and body and time, and then to pull from that creatively. Have you always been drawn to working creatively with land? How have you built that relationship over time?


HG: It was something I had to learn how to do from the inside out. Or from the imagination first. Literally, I had a dream of a place, and then i found that place. It turned out to be this giant, destroyed indigenous ochre quarry in northern California that was once one of the largest ochre sites in that region. And by finding a connection to land through the dream world, it now has become more meaningful for me to connect in a multi-faceted way—imaginatively, but also through geologic research. I had to learn, but the dreams taught me how to.


TH: They’re good teachers! Your educational background is sort of synthesizing all of these different disciplines of science or geological research, but also art and religion. I’d love it if you could talk about the intersection of all of these studies and how they’ve influenced your artistic work.


HG: I’ve come to realize that a lot of my connection to ochre is that it is a bridge between so many different disciplines, and it sits in the middle of the relationship between art and science, or the earth and the cosmos, and also between history and archeology and modern architecture. I often forget about all of those disciplines and recognize the more primal common ground that we have between things. I think that’s something that really matters to me as an activist. Between all these disciplines, there’s something to be shared.


TH: I’m curious about the work you’ve done scientifically. What has it been like working with geologic researchers as you collect your materials?


HG: I work with local geochemists and paleontologists, people who have a really specific connection to the land. They’re seeing in completely different time frames than the human organism is used to seeing. It is not necessarily about the scientific details, but this way of being in the world, that totally changes my perspective on how I’m experiencing landscapes. It’s the same when I work with archeologists. They don’t really care about this specific moment, or this time and place. It is very psychologically relaxing.


TH: I think that’s something really beautiful about when scientists and artists collaborate.


HG: What i’ve noticed is that there is a lot of process overlap. When you’re material or process driven, the medium is not the focus. The process is where a lot of translation can come.  That’s where you can find a connection with collaborators and your audience.


TH: I work really similarly with my own practice, being very process driven. I am realizing the outcome isn’t as relevant as is developing a relationship to these materials.

photo by Meghan McMackin

HG: Yeah, exactly. Or just cultivating relationships with materials as an outcome. It is really hard to do. It’s really hard for us to relate to non-human beings. These are practices that I think we need to get better at if we are going to keep living on this planet.

I often get asked, what do you do with the pigments, and I just feel that they are self-organizing in the presence of each other. That’s the work. I don’t have to do anything else. The work is that you build relationships, and you allow the pigments to form relationships on their own. We’re trying to learn how to collaborate with each other and that’s a huge art work in itself. Sometimes the pigments say, I want to help you process your emotional shit. They’re really powerful at helping the human organism process that deep soul stuff. But most of the time its just letting them live.


TH: How is it different when you’re foraging in a place that is home to you, very familiar to you, versus when you travel and go to new places specifically for these materials? How do you engage with new places?


HG: There are certain places that are very ochre-rich. They’re basically like archeological sites, but some of their sacredness has been lost to the modern mind. When I am first drawn to a place, I need to see if a relationship is possible. If it is, it’s just this very slow process of learning how to offer myself before I feel like I can ever take anything from this place. You have to really check in with how much of that land wants to be seen or taken away. and that’s a hard thing to learn. In Washington, where I forage is not ochre-rich. The relationship isn’t as old. There are these newer glacier clays, for example. When you go into a relationship with these geologic formations, they’re not as used by humans, they’re not as old. Building that relationship is very different. There’s a little more light-heartedness in certain ways.


TH: It sounds like you can really feel that time and history that is embedded into that landscape.


HG: I think that’s part of the process that ochres teach. But also, you can really feel landscapes that have the presence of human activity, or that have been disturbed on some level. I really like trying to relate to that history.


TH: Something I’ve been thinking about is how we build a relationship with land as humans. How ancestrally and historically, that relationship was our survival. Now, we are so far removed from the fact that we are part of nature. We’re so isolated that we don’t see the reciprocal quality of that relationship anymore. Conservation and “Leave No Trace” policies, while well-intentioned, can remove our role in our surroundings and make us think we can’t interact with the “wild,” to use that word. But you’re very much in conversation with the landscape, you are taking in the sense of collecting materials, but you’re also giving so much.


HG: There’s a lot in that. I do think that we’re really feeling the impact of our abstracted relationship with nature. I think climate change is a huge product of this abstraction on so many levels. In the ways that you’re saying, we’re willing to abstract the land to keep it wild, and then we assume that we still have some kind of control over the relationship. That’s still a dominating relationship, even if it’s trying to say we want the land to be protected. So then, I have the right to tell you what land can be protected. Should we do the same thing and call the city the wild? It’s made of earth materials and earth beings and they’re all interacting in complex systems and they’re evolving. To me, the line here is really fluid. We’re going through an evolution as human beings, in relationship to climate change. This has happened in response to past climate events, there’s evidence that humans have had to adapt. So I think there is a process of having to adapt to some of the mistakes, or experimentations that we’ve made. People touching and interacting with the land is something we are trying to establish as evolutionary beings. It’s an adaptive response.


TH: I like how you’re describing this craving to interact with the landscape in a really tactile and tangible way as an evolutionary response, rather than just an emotional one. We’re being drawn to go back to their earth not just because of our emotions, but because of our evolutionary need to feel like we are a part of that larger system.


HG: Well, I think the emotions evolve. There’s a study that putting your hands in certain top layers of soil exposes these microbes that have a stronger anti-depressant effect than pharmaceuticals. The emotional pacifiers are also in the physical material that we touch in the land. The emotional and the material are connected. In my world, I always think of the hands as a part of the metabolism. If we’re constantly touching hyper-sterilized, Tide-washed clothes, you’re actually metabolizing poison into your body. Instead of touching dirtier, more worn-in, cedar-rubbed clothes, where you’re metabolizing trees.


TH: It seems like you work through your art as a type of activism. Is this intentional or does the work stand for itself?


HG: What I tell myself is I am trying to have my work inspire a wide and eclectic range of people from very different backgrounds to touch their backyard. Its this very subtle awareness, this subtle activism, of helping people to find ways to open their perceptions of what is in their own dirt, their own landscape, their own city, their own hand’s reach. Showing how I do that through Instagram or through hosting workshops at my studio, is a more dynamic part of my practice that I’d like to imagine is happening, where I’m hoping to establish a creative connection between people and materials and landscapes. And that you don’t need to touch capitalistic materials in order to touch the center of your own creativity.

photo by Meghan McMackin

TH: I’m curious about how your workshops are going. Because being with people in person and passing along knowledge is such an affront to capitalism, in a way. It’s so simple, but we don’t do it enough.


HG: That’s what I hope is happening. It is almost like reinvesting in traditional ways of cultural exchange, person to person and oral and land-based work. I am in a landscape with people, walking and talking and sharing what the land has taught me. And seeing if that teaching is available for them. That’s a super old method. We’ve lost that ability to lead people to the creative source. My own studio is a huge library of different stones and pigments from all over the world, and I invite people to take and use which materials they are drawn to. People are so timid and careful when they realize how much work it takes to get the materials here. I love seeing that. I think that pacifying people’s greed is such a hard thing to do. Even for myself, I need to be over satiated, and that’s really problematic. People recognize when they’re full of food, but not so much when they’re full of material.


TH: That requires much more listening.



HG: And empathy.


TH: Well, I feel full. I don’t know about you.

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