In the Pacific northwest of the United States there is a hunter-gatherer renaissance that we have been paying attention to in recent years, if only at our desks. The Willows Inn was the first story we started following, but they continue to come our way, including today. Improbably captivating, this story is about a need to know, and in the process conserve knowhow, about the source of naturally occurring colors that has a history as old as art. Even if some colors are not inherently charismatic (in the eye of the beholder), we take note:
At her cabin in the woods of Washington, Heidi Gustafson is creating a many-colored library of one of mankind’s first pigments.
Heidi Gustafson has Whidbey Island’s Double Bluff Beach to herself. But she’s not sunbathing or scanning the waves for whales. Instead, she’s traveled to the northern end of Puget Sound in Washington to crouch, back to the ocean, foraging for ocher at the base of a cliff. Armed with a small magnet and a knife, she stoops low to assess the striations in the rock face, formed by glacial activity hundreds of thousands of years before.
Gustafson considers ocher to be any natural material primarily made up of iron (hence the magnet) that contains oxygen, a definition that she acknowledges is a bit “less strict” than ones used in various scientific communities. Seeking out the material has become, by happenstance, her life’s work.
For years, she has been engaged in a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary exploration of the mineral: collecting samples all over the Pacific Northwest; grinding shards down into pigments she sells to artists through her website Early Futures; making her own art with ocher pigments; and, at her small cabin near the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, creating an extensive ocher archive to catalog samples she’s gathered along with submissions of the mineral sent in from all over the world. While there has recently been renewed interest in creating paints from natural pigments, Gustafson’s focus is on ocher alone — and it extends beyond the material’s artistic uses to its scientific, symbolic and spiritual properties.
Her first encounter with the earthy compound began at a less scenic location than Double Bluff Beach: a Safeway parking lot in Oakland, Calif. Several years after earning a B.F.A. in sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Gustafson moved to the Bay Area to get a masters in philosophy, cosmology and consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies. After graduating in 2014, she wasn’t sure what to do. “Then I had this really banal but vivid dream of a place I’d never been,” she says of a vision that came to her one night. A believer in the prophetic power of dreams, Gustafson decided to find out more about the mesmerizing reddish rock she had seen. She tried to identify it at a mineral shop, but nothing was raw and rough enough — and so she began looking for old quarries in and around Oakland. That is how she ended up poking about behind a supermarket parking lot, where she found a small path that led to an overgrown quarry. “As soon as I stepped on that trail, it felt like, ‘Oh, here’s the dream, down to the two vultures that flew by,’” Gustafson says. Amid the tall grasses, she found heaping piles of the material she’d been chasing.
Ocher continued to appear in Gustafson’s meditations, so she continued to explore the surrounding landscape looking for it. In 2017, a year after relocating to rural Washington, she officially began her ocher archive. While she forages in the Pacific Northwest, a slew of archaeologists, artists, scientists and pigment makers — a number of whom heard about her project through word of mouth — have also contributed to the archive, submitting samples from as far as Zambia, the Brazilian Amazon, New Zealand and Russia. Once each specimen arrives at her studio, it is ground by hand into pigment, labeled and added to her collection, which now includes over 400 different samples. Arranged meticulously on a series of narrow shelves are vials of powder in the typical warm yellows, rich browns and deep reds but also more unexpected colors like lavender, navy blue and snot green. Gustafson hopes that bringing ochers together might create some sort of dialogue among the mineral samples, an idea she admits sounds “a little woo-woo,” but believes in nonetheless. Since our planet’s core is largely composed of iron, she considers iron-rich ocher the “heartbeat of the earth.” She adds, “A lot of my work is a super intimate practice of trying to touch that on some level.”…
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