I recently retired from teaching art at The Evergreen State College, a public liberal arts college, known for its commitment to interdisciplinary team teaching in full-time academic programs. Initially I learned about soils when teaching Visualizing Ecology with Steve Scheuerell (Agricultural Ecology) and Kevin Francis (History of Science). We studied soils and drew soil organisms through the microscope. I realized that soil was more than “dirt.” It was alive! In a later program that combined Geology and Art, we drew and took soil samples from campus soil pits with Abir Biswas (Geology). We learned that these soil cores revealed the important information about the ecology and history of the land and I also saw metaphorical possibilities. My students enjoyed the assignment to make a series of drawings imagining the history of their lives as stratified layers of the land.
I learned about the United Nations International Year of the Soil from my friend and colleague Sharon A. Sharp who told me about the opportunities for artists. In a conversation with Jane Carlin, Director of the University of Puget Sound Collins Memorial Library, about the upcoming exhibitions, I asked, “How about an interdisciplinary exhibition on soils?” We joked initially about “dirty little secrets” and worried about “dirt in the library.” But when she saw that I was serious, she researched the idea and then fully embraced the possibilities for such an exhibit to bring together students, staff and faculty from different disciplines at the University of Puget Sound. She reached out to University of Puget Sound faculty and staff, the Slater Museum of Natural History, and the Catharine Gould Chism Fund for the Arts and Humanities for support. I really appreciate the encouragement and support she has given me.
I am continually surprised by the reaction people have about an exhibit on soils. Some of my friends -- poets, artists, academic colleagues and avid gardeners – were very excited. In other polite conversations, people looked at me curiously – why would you want to make art about dirt? I tried my best to verbally explain why soils are so important to our lives and the legacy we leave on the planet. Often the response was a blank stare or a polite change of the conversation topic. But that was just talk.
I have faith that poetry, art and natural history offer us a way to bring challenging topics – like soil – to the attention of the public. The exhibition seemed like a way to engage people to learn about soils and to collaborate with others. Since I am on the Board of the Puget Sound Book Artists, I thought that a thematic exhibition would offer a challenge to our membership. I met with several scientists -- Steve Scheuerell (Agricultural Ecology, The Evergreen State College) Walt Burdsall and his staff (Natural Yard Care & Tacoma Smelter Plume Project at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department), and Kena Fox Dobbs (Earth Sciences, University of Puget Sound) -- to ask them why soils were important and what issues might engage artists and poets. We created a website to share information with artists and poets. I consulted with Sharon A. Sharp (Poet, Book Editor, and Book Artist), William Kupinse (English Department, University of Puget Sound) to learn strategies for reaching out to poets. Jane Carlin and Laura Russell (22 Sandy Gallery) gave me ideas for contacting book arts groups and formatting the call for entries. Jim Murphy, Jane Carlin, Jamie Spaine, Sharon Sharp, and Deborah Greenwood offered constructive criticism for the call for entries. I sent the call out internationally to networks of book artists and poets.
Ninety-eight poets, book artists, and/or scientists responded. I appreciate the many people who made new work for the exhibition. I was excited to learn about the artists who were already making work about soils. I was delighted to see that some of the artists and poets took this opportunity to consult with or collaborate with scientists. Some of the scientists also made artist books or wrote poetry.
I divided the jurying for the exhibit into poetry and artist books. Sharon A. Sharp, William Kupinse (University of Puget Sound) and Peggy Burge (University of Puget Sound) gave generously of their time to read the sixty-seven poems submitted and to choose the very best ones. Susan Aurand (The Evergreen State College), Abir Biswas (The Evergreen State College), and I spend a delightful day choosing from sixty-two artist books submitted. I really appreciated their time and expert judgment.
We made a special effort to reach out to students at The University of Puget Sound. We dreamed up an idea to have University of Puget Sound students collect soil samples over spring break to become part of an installation. Steve Scheuerell (The Evergreen State College), Kena Fox Dobbs (University of Puget Sound), Barry Goldstein (University of Puget Sound) and Liz Roepke (University of Puget Sound Student) all helped put together a protocol. Jamie Spaine, Administrative and Special Projects Coordinator at the Collins Memorial Library was also very helpful and she organized students to assemble the packets. I received a warm welcome from faculty in the visual arts, earth sciences and literature and visited 14 classes. This initial effort informed students about the UN International Year of the Soil and the upcoming DIRT? exhibition, but the sampling part was a complete failure except for Max Degruy and Mairan Smith who were the only students of the 220 contacted who brought in their samples. Jane Carlin helped me to think of more effective ways to engage students and she invited me to join the University of Puget Sound Summer Garden Club. Here I found a welcome and excited response from Molly Golanka and Bryce Monser the coordinators of the club. Some of the “messy” parts of the exhibit – like vermaculture and composting demonstrations will take place in the garden and not in the library.
Once the jurying was completed my attention focused on the exhibition catalog and design. I am extremely grateful to Debbi Commodore (Puget Sound Book Artists) who graciously agreed to design the logo and layout the catalog. Her expertise, superb organization and patience has been a blessing. Abir Biswas (The Evergreen State College) generously gave his time to co-author the essay for the catalog and we had a great time writing it together. We poured over the selected poems and artist books to highlight the themes that had emerged. He politely corrected all of my misunderstandings, gross generalizations and unsubstantiated facts. I helped him make his scientific language more accessible to a general audience. I apologize in advance to artists whose work extends well beyond a given category or theme.
Deborah Greenwood (Puget Sound Book Artists) generously offered her time to provide her vision for the exhibit design. She had great ideas for how to make the exhibit visually interesting and cohesive. I am also grateful for her help in unpacking and checking all of the exhibit entries and for installing the exhibition. We met with Peter Wimberger (Director), Katy Papoulias (Education and Outreach Staff), and Dennis Paulson (Director Emeritus) at the Slater Museum of Natural History at The University of Puget Sound. They loaned natural history specimens, suggested we integrate the specimens with the artist books and poems and worked with us to create an engaging exhibit.
Jamie Spaine (University of Puget Sound Collins Memorial Library) did a wonderful job receiving all of the artist books and making sure that they were safe. Her skilled assistant University of Puget Sound student Marissa Irish created the on-line catalog and designed the poster and postcards.
Jane Carlin is a master of creative ways to engage the Collins Memorial Library with the community. She really helped me think about the most effective programming to go along with the exhibition. The programming will include: an artist book preview for collectors and members of the Puget Sound Book Artists group; an educator and student evening; a Tacoma Arts Month event; a poetry reading; several lectures; and some events at the University of Puget Sound Student Garden.
Putting together this kind of exhibit took precious time away from my family. I am grateful to my partner James Murphy, my daughter Aisha Harrison, my daughter-in law Annette Santomassimo, and my grandson Ayo Harrison who all made sacrifices so that this exhibit was possible.
Lucia A. Harrison, July 2015