These artists have something to say about the environment. They're using Louisiana dirt to do so

Plunge your hand in one of Louisiana’s wetlands, and you’ll likely return with a fistful of squishy, dark muck. Go even deeper, and you’ll find layers of clays, mud, sand and silt that date back centuries.

The history of the area sits preserved just beneath the ground’s surface. For New Orleans-based artist Heather Bird Harris, the memories locked in the muck are an unlikely but irreplaceable ingredient in her most recent artwork about the state’s rapidly eroding coastline.

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Heather Bird Harris poses in front of one of her abstract paintings evoking Louisiana’s landscape using a mix of land-based and synthetic paints.

“To think about what that land experienced over generations and has seen through the recent brevity of human existence in southern Louisiana, I think that it carries that,” Harris said.

She first started foraging for dirt and clay on her own, but when a soil scientist offered her old samples from wetlands in southwest Louisiana, the answer was easy.

“It was an emphatic yes,” Harris laughed. Rather than grabbing the soil on her own, Harris could reuse soil left to sit in a lab from lower depths than she could reach on her own.

Hours of grinding, sifting and mulling transform the soil into a new form to express its past: paint. A perfect palette coaxed from the earth itself.

Harris is just one of a growing number of artists around the globe turning to nature as a material within their artwork.

Wild Pigment Project founder Tilke Elkins, who has researched and used plant and stone pigments in her artwork for more than a decade, said for the most part, artists working in this space acted in isolation. But in the last 4 years, that’s begun to change since starting her collaborative.

“Wild pigments have gone from an obscure practice to something that more and more people are becoming really passionate about,” Elkins said.

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In Louisiana, some artists have begun foraging in swamps, state parks, even drainage ditches to gather and process their own pigments as opposed to store-bought. The move often coincides with an environmental mission as well, using the land to convey why it’s important to protect it.

Harris spends days purifying materials pulled from the land, ranging from shards of deep red and orange bricks made from Louisiana clay, to the deep brown and rare blue marsh mud. She grinds the minerals as fine as possible to harvest the pigment.

She then starts a process known as levigation, which might even look more like a science experiment than art. The ground minerals go into water to further separate the coarser particles from the finest pigment.

“Whatever pigment is suspended, that’s what you want,” Harris said. “And the heavier sediment will fall to the bottom.”

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Heather Bird Harris glides a flat-bottomed glass muller over a mixture of gum arabic and wetlands soil to make a watercolor paint for her Louisiana-centered artwork on Dec. 9, 2022.

Once the water evaporates, the fine pigment is left behind. Now, it’s time for the final step before it’s ready for a paint brush. Harris mulls the pigment with a binding liquid until it becomes paint, repeatedly smoothing a flat-bottomed, glass tool over the mixture until it’s ready for use.

Most of her work revolves around abstract representations of Louisiana’s coastal landscape, using bits of the state itself mixed with synthetic paints. Recently, she painted a large-scale, abstract version of the state’s shoreline that, for nearly a century, has sunk and eroded faster than it could be rebuilt.

She allowed the watercolors made from the wetlands soil to pool and spread across a massive canvas. Some areas of the portrait are darker than others, especially in areas around an imprint of the Mississippi River. It’s wispy and muddled, but you can see the resemblance to the state. But the coastline is more true to reality than contemporary maps show.

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A painting by Heather Bird Harris hangs at an art exhibition in Atlanta, Georgia. The painting aims to represent an abstract look at Louisiana’s eroding coastline.

The recognizable boot-shape is less robust in Harris’ work, closer to reality as the state’s border with the Gulf of Mexico now appears far more jagged and gnawed on as more land sinks into the sea.

Part of her practice revolves around pointedly breaking away from controlling how the land, or paint, interacts with the water. It’s that attitude of control that instigated the land loss in the first place, she said, referring to the construction of levees that cut off the Mississippi River from the rest of the system. That action in the 1900s set the land loss crisis in motion.

“I got more interested in what was actually happening on the canvas with light interaction between water and land, and how that on a small scale replicates bigger geographic movements in Louisiana,” Harris said. “I found some comfort in trying to just let it happen naturally.”

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New Orleans-based artist Hannah Chalew poses on the patio of her studio in the middle of some of her past artwork on the relationship between plastic and the planet.

Hannah Chalew, another New Orleans artist, has steadily moved toward processing her own paint. Similar to Harris, Chalew aims to illuminate the harm posed by human’s influence on Louisiana’s environment.

Her focus, however, centers on the oil, gas and petrochemical industry’s legacy of entanglement in both the natural and cultural landscape, especially while living in a city and state deeply threatened by climate change driven by burning fossil fuels. At the same time, she tries to help her viewers imagine a livable future amid global warming.

What began as making her own paper turned into crafting her own pigments, in part to limit her own reliance on fossil fuels.

“I figured out how to make the paper, and then I was making drawings on it,” she recalled. “And then I was like, ‘Oh, like I’m just gonna use a store bought pen?’”

She turned to oak galls – round balls left on oak trees by insects – to make her own black ink at first. But other projects have taken her as far as Ascension Parish to collect pollution from outside a coal export terminal for her work with help from a nearby environmental justice group, Inclusive Louisiana.

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Shreds of plastic litter that Hannah Chalew uses for her work about the relationship between the oil and gas industry and Louisiana’s environment sit in her art studio.

Chalew scooped dark, sludge-like waste from a drainage ditch along the property and converted it into an even deeper black ink for a print critiquing how reliance on the oil and gas industry leads to pollution that overburdens communities. The collaboration recently earned her recognition with the 2022 Southern Prize, allowing her to donate back to the communities she works with.

It’s a slow, time-consuming way to make art, but Chalew said it’s just become a part of her work.

“The fossil fuel pollution is also sort of a renewable resource sadly,” she said. “I wanted to think, what does it mean to use that as an art material, and how does that shift how we think about this place and what is possible.”

To avoid becoming as extractive as the industries they criticize, both Chalew and Harris follow guidelines for foraging ethically. Elkins’ Wild Pigment Project also offers its own set of directions to ensure the exchange between artists and natural places is reciprocal.

Rules like: Never take the first or last of something, Harris said. Don’t take more than you actually need. Ask permission.

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Hannah Chalew’s piece, “overburden,” uses paint made from pollution found outside a coal export terminal in Ascension Parish.

The principles also extend to help ensure artists honor the land they’re pulling from because when it comes down to it, Elkins said these artists aren’t the first to walk the land. Understanding the culture and history of the area you source from should be ingrained in your practice, she said, because the pigments provide a nexus between the past and present.

“Wild pigments are expressions of community, and they actually physically embody records of what’s happened within the pigment,” Elkins said. “There’s no separating the pigments from relationships with these histories. And they’re energetic collaborators.”

Elkins and Harris hope their process can help stimulate healing from some of the painful histories the land holds, like colonization.

Here in coastal Louisiana, Harris not only works with soil scientists, but indigenous historians to better understand what legacies the earth holds and inform how she works.

“We’re just really at the forefront of this because of the historical decisions that were made when New Orleans and southern Louisiana was colonized, and we’re just living out the ramifications of that,” Harris said.

Harris and Chalew hope to raise awareness around the multitude of environmental struggles found in Louisiana, while celebrating the state’s beauty as well.

While Chalew also participates in traditional forms of protest, she also believes in the power of her art to touch people – something her mentor, New Orleans artist Willie Burch, taught her.

“He thinks artists are shamans, but also artists are like a mirror to culture, that we’re kind of reflecting back, allowing people to see things in a new way,” she said. “It’s a good thing to be reminded of and that there is a role for art.”

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