Check out what people are saying about "Dirt?" here.
Learn about different artists, how the exhibit came together and more.
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Alexandra: I was hoping you could give me some more information on the inspiring exhibition, Dirt?, which opened last week. Where did your interest in soil begin and how did you find out about the International Year of Soils (IYS)?
Lucia: I recently retired from teaching at The Evergreen State in Olympia, WA. USA. The college is known for its innovative team taught interdisciplinary programs. For the past 12 years I have been teaching drawing and painting with scientists in programs such as Picturing Plants, Drawing from the Sea, Visualizing Ecology, Drawing on Earth, Visualizing Permaculture and River Reciprocity. In Visualizing Ecology I taught with Steve Scheuerell, an agricultural ecologist and he introduced me to soil science and permaculture concepts. We read David Montgomery’s book, Dirt, where I learned about the problems with soil conservation. Steve inspired me to grow my own vegetables. I discovered I live in an area with polluted soils from an old copper smelter. I had to learn how to garden with soils contaminated with arsenic and lead. In Drawing on Earth, I taught with Abir Biswas, a geologist and we studied soils, dug soil pits, and explored making art with soils. In my own art practice, I began making soil cores with hand-made paper and a variety of natural material inclusions.
I found out about the International Year of Soils from a fellow book artist, Sharon Sharp who told me of the residencies in the U.K. I applied for two residencies, but did not get accepted, so I decided to celebrate the Year of the Soils locally by curating this exhibition.
Alexandra: Are you aware of, or perhaps connected in some way to the other artistic activities happening on occasion of the IYS? (e.g. Rooted @ DePaul, Soil Culture UK…) What about other IYS activities at Universities, government organizations, etc?
Lucia: I found out about the International Year of Soils from a fellow book artist, Sharon Sharp who told me of the residencies in the U.K. I applied for two residencies, but did not get accepted, so I decided to celebrate the Year of the Soils locally by curating this exhibition.
Alexandra: There are so many genres, art forms, and media that artists use to explore soil themes. I am so impressed that you’ve narrowed down so many great works into one exhibition of artists’ books. You yourself are a book artist and also a curator. Can you tell me a bit about how you found and selected the participating artists? Who are these artists? How did you find them? Were they working on soil issues prior to Dirt! or did they explicitly take on the subject matter for the exhibition?
Lucia: I am a founding member of Puget Sound Book Artists. We are affiliated with The University of Puget Sound. In this organization, I had the opportunity to learn how to curate exhibitions. I asked Jane Carlin, Director of the Collins Library if I could organize an interdisciplinary exhibition to celebrate the International Year of Soils. She agreed. I began the process by meeting with science faculty – Steve Scheuerell, Abir Biswas and Kena Fox-Dobbs – as well as the scientists and environmental educators from the Tacoma Smelter Plume Project of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. I asked them – what issues they would like artists and poets to address. How could we make soil issues visible? Based upon these interviews, I wrote the international call for entries and we created a website so that book artists and poets could learn about soils. My idea was that this call would spark collaborations between book artists, poets and scientists. I sent out the call for entries through an established network of book arts organizations and posted the call on websites for poets. As you look at the catalog you can see the creation dates. A few of the artists were already making work about soils, but I was impressed by how many learned about soils to make work for this exhibition. Several of the works were collaborative. Some artists consulted scientists (see Allsebrook’s Something Rich and Strange) Others were deeper. Owen and Owen’s work (12 Orders 12 Verses) was a collaboration between a mother book artist and calligrapher and daughter soil scientist and poet. Another Soil Dwellers (Michaelis et all) was a collaboration between a poet, soil biologist, book artist, and musician. In all, we received 67 poems and 62 artist books. Ninety-eight people submitted work. I organized two teams of jurors and we narrowed the selection to 40 artist books and 27 poems.
Alexandra: It is very fitting to exhibit artists’ books at a library. Can you tell me about the Collins Library and how the exhibition fits into their physical space and educational program? What does the exhibition look like? Can viewers interact with some of these books like they would pick up other books in the library?
Lucia: University of Puget Sound is a small private liberal arts college located in the middle of the city, Tacoma, Washington. The Collins Library is centrally located on the urban campus and is open for long hours. This makes it a great exhibition space since it opens at 7:30 am and closes at 2 am. Jane Carlin, Library Director is devoted to the book arts and community outreach. The library has typical users – students, staff and faculty, but also welcomes the general public. The large exhibit space is located right in front of the circulation desk, so that they can monitor the exhibit. It has ceilings two floors high and lots of natural light. The space has had many lives – maybe housing the old card catalog and then a reading room. Jane Carlin turned it into an exhibition space. The books and natural history specimens are behind glass. We had a day where we opened the cases and people were able to handle the books.
We have engaged students and faculty in the exhibit. Last winter, I gave presentations in 14 classes about the International Year of Soils and invited students to participate by collecting soil samples on spring break. This effort got the word out about the exhibit, but only two students collected the samples. In the summer I joined the student garden club and received a warm welcome. They agreed to house the “dirty” parts of the exhibit – a vermaculture bin, demonstration of composting, etc.
Alexandra: There are many words for ‘soil’: dirt, ground, earth, land, humus, loam, compost, clay, ash, etc. What is the significance of this extensive terminology and what do these terms mean to you? Does it matter what that brown stuff underfoot is called as long as it’s treated sustainably? Have you received critical feedback regarding the title of the exhibition?
Lucia: Choosing a title for the exhibit was difficult. Of course the scientists wanted it called Soil. But we thought that Dirt? (emphasis on question mark) would attract an audience to reconsider what they think about soils. The soil scientists are very specific about the term, but the artists tend to think of soils as anything underground. In the catalog essay, (co-authored by me and Abir Biswas (geologist) we distinguished between soils and geologic layers in terms of time – soils are a more recent layer.
After reading the poems and artist books, I organized the exhibit into themes. "Layers in Time" explores layers of the earth and dynamic geological processes. "Soil Formation" discusses the physical qualities of rocks, diverse biological organisms, climate, and chemistry. "Soil Dwellers" considers the organisms that help create soils as well as those who live in the soil. "From Farm to Garden" explores the meaning of farming and gardening in relation to humanity and soil. "Human Development and the Soil" considers the unintended consequences of humans sculpting the land to meet basic human needs for food, water, shelter, energy, and safety. Explores diking, hydroelectric power, logging and forestry, draining bogs, acid rain, industrial and agricultural pollution, and individual environmental practices.
Alexandra: Who is Dirt curated for? Can you describe the nature of the audience? Was/is it aimed at the general public, an educated public, a mainly art audience, or a specialized group (e.g. environmental groups, local residents, library visitors etc.)? How did the selection of artists (or objects) cater to or challenge the expected audience?
Lucia: Quite honestly, I assumed the audience would be students, faculty and staff, educators, artists and poets. But in my initial failure to have Puget Sound students collect soil samples, I thought I should also reach out to a younger audience. Maybe the exhibit would capture the imagination of the young – and they would not take soils for granted.
I read all of the poems and artist books and looked for references to geologic and biological materials. Then I worked with the geology faculty at The Evergreen State College and University of Puget Sound, to find samples that would ground the poems and books. I worked with the Slater Museum of Natural History to acquire specimens of soil dwellers (invertebrates, insects, amphibians, mammals) and those who eat soil dwellers. They wrote captions for each specimen explaining its connection to soil. We also added a table where viewers can look through a dissecting scope at soil ingredients –plants, seeds, feces, bones, worms, sow bugs, fungi etc. I put together these samples since they are not in the natural history museum. We are working on adding bacteria and microscopic organisms. We plan to display a Burlese Funnel and several soil cores in plastic tubes.
So we designed events to match different audiences. I made postcard and e-mail invitations to different groups. The exhibit preview where we opened the cases was marketed to book artists and poets. The opening was for the artists, faculty, staff, and general public. We will feature the exhibit in an Art/Science Salon that attracts scientists and artists from the region. We have an educator night marketed to K-12 teachers. This will include a lecture about Staying Healthy with Polluted Soils – since children are most affected by the lead and arsenic. Another lecture that evening will focus on interdisciplinary teaching. We have a day where we will read children’s stories about soils and then make paint from soils. This event is marketed as a part of Tacoma Art Month. I will give tours of the exhibit to art classes. Finally, we have a poetry reading where we will feature the poets who live close to Tacoma.
Alexandra: (after opening) What kind of exposure do you expect the exhibition to have? Will you keep track of visitor statistics?
See the above answer.
Alexandra: (after opening) What kind of resonance are you getting from visitors? Do you have the feeling that people leave with a greater understanding and appreciation for the soil? Are there any works in particular that were especially popular with visitors? Have there been any questions or issues brought up by visitors or artists that challenged you or inspired you to explore further?
Lucia: The exhibit just opened and the University of Puget Sound orientation and classes won’t start until next week. The main visitors have been parents and prospective students and the artists in the exhibit. All have been really excited about it. In response to this question, we will keep track of visitor statistics and we added a book for visitors to record how they understanding of soils changed as a result of this exhibition.
Alexandra: Do you have any advice for transdisciplinary integration of (soil) arts and (soil) sciences? How can the Dirt works contribute to a more integrated conversation on soil conservation? What advice could you offer in terms of co-authoring, co-funding, and co-presenting soil research between and across scientific and artistic disciplines?
Lucia: It seems like poetry, visual art, and natural history captivate audiences more than scientific articles or even science writing. The work in the exhibit engages the senses, heart and emotions. I am hoping that this will get audiences to think differently about soils – at least not take them for granted. Since I have had a 33 year career in interdisciplinary teaching – integrating art and science comes naturally to me. So I think that in teaching art, we need to connect it to another discipline. I love teaching art with scientists because making art helps the students learn the science – we both share close observation. I find that the art students learn that science can be accessible. The science students gain an appreciation for how artists can link inner emotions with outward observation.
Alexandra: Based on your experience of curating Dirt!, what would you say is the biggest challenge/threat facing the health of the planet’s soils? What is the future fate of the soil?
Lucia: After curating this exhibition, I learned more about the tension between human needs for food, energy, shelter, safety – and the need for healthy soil. So many of our human developments – hydroelectric dams, industrial and agricultural pollution, logging, deforestation, draining bogs, dikes, paving, personal homeowner practices – impact soils. Most people are unaware of these consequences. I think the biggest obstacle is ignorance and indifference. People need to realize that our greatest gift to future generations is healthy soil.
Alexandra Toland is an artist and environmental planner living in Berlin who recently completed her PhD on Soil and Art in the Dept. of Soil Protection at the TU-Berlin. She has a post-doc appointment at Oregon State University with Jay Noller, with whom she is developing a comprehensive book project, Soil Matters, on the topic of soil and art.