Soil Formation: Biology, Geology, and Chemistry

The artists and poets in this exhibition draw our attention to soil formation, a complex process that involves the physical qualities of rocks, diverse biological organisms, climate, and chemistry. [1] The layers of soils, called horizons, develop differently in different regions depending particularly upon the climate (especially temperature and amount of rainfall), as well as vegetation and animal life present. Soils can be quite variable based on these differences and can range widely in colors, textures, and other characteristics. Examples include very dark brown gelisols [2] in cold tundra or boreal forest regions, to brownish alfisols [3]  in humid forests and shrublands, to thick old reddish oxisols [4] beneath humid tropical forests. Each is characterized by very different colors in addition to very different organic matter accumulation and thicknesses of specific layers. The beauty of these layers attracts visual artists and poets. Some use soil as pigment for creating artist books. [5] Others use their close observations as metaphors for human experience. [6]

Soils may take thousands of years to develop, particularly as one shifts from fresh rock (e.g. a recently cooled lava) to a soil. As life colonizes the bedrock, organic matter starts to accumulate. In a temperate forest, [7] for example, when leaves fall from the trees, shrubs and herbs, they are decomposed by bacteria, fungi, and animals like pill bugs, to add to the rich dark organic soil horizon. Plant roots excrete acids that break up minerals in the parent material that hold essential nutrients. Earthworms eat organic matter in the soil and their excrements feed plants. The worms also create holes in the soil to allow water to filter through. These seasonal processes [8] can continue until catastrophic events, like fires or landslides, or everyday events, like tilling by farmers, can reset the soil forming process to begin anew.

1 Something Rich and Strange (Janet Allsebrook), Come Celebrate the Sacred Soil! (Dr. Bob Pliny)
2 Gelisols (Justine Owen) 
3 Alfisols (Justine Owen)
4 Twelve Orders, Twelve Verses (Justine and Jan Owen) 
5 Home Colors, (Sandy Webster), Below the Surface, Reflections from the Underground (Jan Ward) 
6 Core Samples (Carrie Larson), Alluvium (Mare Blocker) 
7 Secret Sides of Soil (Elizabeth Sanford), Beneath the Forest FloorII (Lucia Harrison)
8 Haiku for this Fragile Earth Our Island Home (John Sager)

Come Celebrate the Sacred Soil - Dr. Bob Pliny

Hardcover, accordion style binding; original manuscript, hand-painted and lettered; 90 lb. drawing paper glued to wallpaper; acrylic paints, acrylic inks, ballpoint pen, composition gold leaf; 29 pages; 348 x 17.5 x 1.75 inches; one of a kind.

Come Celebrate the Sacred Soil! reminds readers that Soil isn’t simply the substance we commonly refer to as: Dirt. Soil is the stuff that comprises everything we will ever know. The first few chapters of this book describe the elements and energies, which compose Soil. The book goes on to emphasize that all things exist as configurations of Soil through the forms of things continually shifting back and forth between states of Mud (liquids); Dirt (solids); and Dust (gases). In the final chapter of this book, readers are encouraged to cherish Soil, and to do so with the understanding that all inanimate objects and living things and all peoples and even we, ourselves, pass in and out of the world as momentary expressions of it. The text of Come Celebrate the Sacred Soil! spans twelve chapters, and is written primarily in common metre. Illustrations appear on each of the 29 pages, which make up this oversized manuscript.

Something Rich and Strange - Janet Allsebrook

Screw and post structure that opens into a fan; digital reproduction of watercolor paint and photographs; Somerset enhanced archival paper 225g/m2; polymer cover and cardstock back; 20 pages; 30 x 1 cm; edition of 25. 

This book considers ideas about soil in relation to temporality, cyclical patterns and the rhythms of life and death. I am particularly interested in composting and the continuous re-use of rotting material. The complexity of life forms in the soil which cause this decay are beautiful and efficient when operating as they should.

Dr. James Longbotham helped me to understand the biochemistry of decay in the soil and how elements are used again to create new life. As James said, “We are all recycled.”

When fully opened from left to right, the book can be read in a circle. The circular format is designed to reflect the circularity of life in the soil.

The outer layer of text is taken from the gravestone of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) 
“Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange”
The middle layer lists processes in the natural life of soil. 
The inner section lists the 18 chemical elements found in humans and in the soil.

GELISOLS - Justine Owen

beneath tundra,
ice and soil in
uneasy accord.
Winters wane under
fossil-filled skies.
Gelisols follow
the cold,
toeing the
tails of glaciers
until there is
no more north
to go.

Twelve Orders Twelve Verses - Jan Owen & Justine Owen

Coptic binding; hand-lettered; paste colored Hollytex polyester; ink and acrylic, paste paper covered binders board; 91 pages; 4.625 x 17.875 x .75 inches; one of a kind.

As an artist, I spend hours at a desk and take breaks to work in my garden. Good soil is important so in the spring, I add composted leaves and water and weed all summer. Still, I thought of soil as being dirt, sand or clay - even though my daughter is a soil scientist. When I asked if she wanted to collaborate for this exhibit, I did not know what to expect.

Now I know there are 12 orders of soil that are very different. Justine wrote poems that attempt to convey the diagnostic characteristics of the different soil orders in a way that stays true to the scientific taxonomy while losing most of the jargon (unless the jargon was a beautiful word). She sent images of the soils and descriptions. Since my work usually begins with color, I made pages with brown, red, ochre and black. The book is long like a core sample, 3 layers for each order with the poem on the top sheet and the description underneath. I like the combination of the visual, poetic and scientific.  

ALFISOLS - Justine Owen

of alfisols
shelved with
sheaves of clay -
pages hold
the chemistry
of sustenance.
Fervent readers,
delve deep
into waxy,

Home Colors - Webster

Accordion fold; hand pulled white line wood block prints; Stonehenge; colored with handmade watercolors from local soils; 6 pages; 4 x 5 x .75 inches; variable edition of 5.

Where I live is the inspiration for this book. I wanted the accordion style book to reflect the sense of place I call "home" at a glance. Wood block carving has such a mark of the hand's work and on the small scale of 2" by 2 1/4" the image takes on an intimacy in the little glimpses of what I experience every day. Processing my own watercolors from the soils collected in my area inspired the title for the book, "Home Colors".  The result is exactly what I had hoped for. There is the sense of place and home that can be held in anyone's hands. The colors of the "Dirt" make it a perfect entry for the exhibition. 

Below the Surface, Reflections from the Underground  - Jan Ward

Harding's flexible chain backed binding; hand printed andd photographic images were combined using Adobe Photoshop; Cason printing paper; rusted tea stained cotton and pellon, photo paper, vellum, rusted bottlecap; 11 pages; 8.5 x 11 x 1 inches; one of a kind.

"Below the Surface” borrows from and emulates how the ground has formed beneath our feet. Like peat bogs comprised of layers of earthly detritus, “Below the Surface” evolved from the interplay between composition and decomposition. Handmade prints, photographs, and scans of organic materials were digitally layered to create striations reminiscent of those made through geological processes. Representations of weeds, rocks, and wood rounds are woven together with tea stains, rusted cloth, and written word. A tablet of natural and human elements, “Below the Surface” reflects the tension of a world we both inherit and create, and highlights the fragility of our continually shifting environment.  

Core Samples - Carrie Larson

 Paper constructions adhesively "bound" using acrylic matte medium; various decorative papers with museum board spacers; colored pencil; dimensions vary from 1.75 inches to 7.75 inches tall; one of a kind. 

The history of a place—ecologically, culturally, literally—builds up in layers over time and what follows rests on what came before. While in residency at Sitka Center for Art & Ecology, I simply had to look around to notice this accumulation. The rich detritus of a forest floor—flakes of spruce bark, tufts of moss, tangles of lichen, humus—or the buildup of materials at the high tide line—bits of shell, wave-tumbled rocks, dried foam—all speak to what has taken place. These layers form patterns and rhythms that can tell us stories, if we learn the language.

Core Samples endeavors to get at the essence of this specific place through visual language. These layered elements set in relationship to one another reveal a communication of sorts—a dialogue between one aspect and another, a dialogue whereby the viewer becomes part of the discussion. As we begin to perceive the interconnections, we begin to recognize the fragile balance of our natural world and our place within it.

Soil Monoliths from the Maynard Fosberg Collection - Mare Blocker 


8 accordion books in the installation; unique drawings, ink on paper; Strathmore watercolor paper; 4 pages' 9 x 12 x .5 inches; one of a kind.

Accordion bound drawings of the Maynard Fosberg Soil Monolith Collection at the University of Idaho, Moscow. This collection of soil monoliths is one of the largest in the United States. When I first encountered them I thought of them as "dirt sculptures." I quickly learned the difference between dirt and soil, in my interactions with the pedologists at the UI. This series of hanging accordion structures, was drawn using the soil monoliths as models. I sat before each monolith and drew, staying true to the value, shape and texture of the forms in the soils. Images presented themselves as I learned more soil technical terms; parent material, over burden, event horizon. Each was drawn with an ink pen, and they average between 40-60 hours per drawing. 

The Secret Sides of Soil - Elizabeth Sanford

Origami flexicube; hand-painted and drawn; Fabriano Artistico hot press watercolor paper and card stock; watercolor acrylic and ink; 9 pages; 4.5 x 4.5 x 4.5 inches; variable edition of 3. 

A skink basks on top of this origami flexicube, its blue tail partially obscured by the violet leaves on the sides. An ant hides on the bottom. Opening the front of the cube reveals an earthworm depositing its castings on top of the soil; on the left, two plants start to network through their roots. This page opens to display a closeup of a plant root partnering with beneficial mycorrhizal fungi. The last hidden page unfolds from the cube's back and features soil bacteria arranged to form a word chain referencing aspects of the soil food web.

I chose this playful structure to reflect the complex and interdependent relationships of the soil food web. Each page is made up of several smaller units linked together. Moving one affects the others; focusing on one side changes the others and their relationships. Through my work, I hope to encourage all ages to share my sense of wonder and delight in exploring the dynamics of the natural world.

Old Growth: Beneath the Forest Floor II - Lucia Harrison

Mixed medium; hand made paper, water-based relief ink, watercolor, linen thread, and wood; 180 pages; 7 x 1.75 x 9 inches; one of a kind.

When standing in an old growth forest, you feel a false sense of stability.  Beneath your feet are layers of moss, hemlock and cedar needles, cones, fern fronds, and elk droppings.   A soil profile reveals layers of forests altered by geologic forces: fire, flood, volcanic eruption, and lahar.  Even the bedrock lies upon shifting tectonic plates.


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