Heidi Gustafson Recounts How She Established an Archive of Hundreds of Samples of Humanity’s Oldest Art Material
June 7, 2022
The word ochre tends to be associated with the warm brownish-yellow color seen in ancient Egyptian paintings or lining the walls of Mediterranean cities. It also, though, refers to a physical substance found deposited in mesas, caves, and other landscapes around the globe that once removed, ground, and combined with liquid, becomes paint. With a lifespan as long as the geography of its origin, the organic matter is widely regarded as humanity’s first art material.
Housed in a North Cascades cabin, the Early Futures Ochre Sanctuary collects and preserves hundreds of samples of these pigments. Rough chunks of material and powder stored in vials fill the space and vary widely in hue, ranging from deep rust and gold to cool robin’s egg blue. The ever-growing archive is the project of forager, artist, and researcher Heidi Gustafson, who established the sanctuary back in 2017. She’s since amassed an incredible collection through a community-based practice involving scientists, archaeologists, creatives, and generally curious folks who donate the pigments they discover for safe-keeping.
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Gustafson via email in May 2022 about Early Futures, its evolution, and what it’s meant to work with a substance with such a rich and lengthy history. Gustafson discusses the multi-sensory and sometimes uncanny nature of her process, the threat the climate crisis poses to the earth’s stores, and how ochre’s legacy reaches far beyond its alluring color.
Grace: For those who aren’t familiar with Early Futures and the Ochre Sanctuary, can you explain what the project is?
Heidi: Sure! I bring ochres and earth pigments (iron-rich rocks, soil, dust)—humankind’s oldest art material—together in one place for a little while. Citizens, friends, and myself gather these colorful pigments from lands, including labs and industrial processing plants, worldwide and send them to me in my rural studio in the North Cascades. Unlike museums or collections, this is a living place that I consider more as a great teacher, full of kin.
Perhaps the metaphor of a seed bank or a lymph node helps to get a sense of why I do the project and how I think about it currently. In lymph nodes, diverse cells share information and “report” back to these central nodal locations in the body. They get instructions from other cells, to help heal better, respond to infection, and maintain harmony in the whole organism.
In the Ochre Sanctuary project, you could think of each ochre rock like a cell or seed that carries a lot of deep time knowledge about a particular place and the creatures and ancestors that live there. They “report back” to this little studio lymph node, to learn and grow threads between other geologies, places, people, imagination, and spirits and to also be able to go out wherever is needed from there.
So, a lot of rocks come into this room. Sometimes colorful dust gets made, and eventually, rocks leave…it’s an evolving collective or counsel more than a static collection. There’s so so so much to learn about interspecies health by listening to nonhumans, especially ones that seem the most silent.
Grace: The subtle differences in shades of reds or blues, for example, go well beyond the symbolic meaning that we tend to associate with paint swatches or pure aesthetics. What do these variances tell us about both the history and geomorphological context—tectonic activity, shifting glaciers, that kind of thing—of a pigment? What do they convey about the medicinal, spiritual, or cultural purposes, as well?
Red that feels “intense or energizing” is often made of 500 million-year-old ancient volcano spew. Yellow that is “sunny” might be ochre made by spring sunlight interacting with microbes to create fresh iron hydroxide.—Heidi Gustafson
Heidi: Great question! I really value moving away from abstract and symbolic meanings of color into the materiality of color. Why? Color is tied to matter, as much as light. In fact, in the ochres and Earth pigments, it tends to be the metal element (iron, copper, lead, etc.) that are responsible for our color experience. In the sciences, they call these elements and molecules “chromophores.”
When you get into the nature of color (akin to tracing food from farm to table), you start to realize color symbolism has a lot of direct, solid foundations in geomorphology. Red that feels “intense or energizing” is often made of 500 million-year-old ancient volcano spew. Yellow that is “sunny” might be ochre made by spring sunlight interacting with microbes to create fresh iron hydroxide. Blue that feels “mournful or spiritual” could be made from vivianite (iron phosphate) forming in dead bodies.
There’s a mythic geology to every single natural pigment that tells deep time and place stories, as well as conveys artistic and scientific knowledge. Color is always ecological, and for humans, also carries cultural heritage and insight. I love imagining and feeling how a rock could be exposed to heat, freeze, water, storms, mythic drama, earthquakes, drought, stampedes, violence, human hubris. In that way, color is a language of the gods…. usually weather gods!
Grace: While color is the immediately apparent detail of the samples, you also study the texture. What does looking at the softness, temperature, and coarseness help you understand?
Heidi: Well, maybe it’s silly and obvious to say but the nitty-gritty. Texture, and other sensual ways of connecting to rock, like smell, taste, etc., is a way Earth communicates detail. Our hands are incredibly adept sensors. In the soil sciences, texture is the primary way they identify different soil types, like sand (feels grittiest), silt (smoother with a little bit of grip), and clay (soft and smooth). This tells us several things, including how the soil, which is basically a synonym for earth pigment, might behave: Will it absorb water? Will it let water pass through? Will color fade? This tells us how it might support plants or if it is better to make vessels or walls or to carve a shelter.
I also love that in a lot of older mineral field guides, the most important information comes from tasting or “mouth feel” of a mineral or the coldness that a crystal maintains when put to your lips or cheeks, which is one of the human body’s most sensitive temperature sensors.
Grace: This reminds me of wine tastings and all of the nuances that are part of that practice. Are you doing tastings? I assume it’s less common today since you say it’s in the older guides.
Heidi: I wish! Geophagia or geophagy or Earth-eating is the technical term for internalizing soil, clay, chalk, etc., and is a common practice in many places worldwide. I’m not an expert at the tasting side of it, nor do I have enough training to really feel comfortable offering that formally to people. There is a great project The Museum of Edible Earth, though, that does exactly what you are asking. They host soil and Earth tastings! And they source materials with known properties or tested properties so they are very familiar with that specific edible geology and its cultural history of medicinal use.
Grace: What have been some of the more surprising discoveries or submissions since the project began? Is there something you’ve been hoping to find and haven’t yet? Are there gaps in the collection of 600+ samples?
Heidi: I think what continues to surprise me is the gap between how long we have used ochre as a species (over 300,000 years) and how that continuous development of ochre knowledge is so radically unconscious in our minds today in my own Western American culture. I think a lot of what surprises me, again and again, is how and why ochres resurface and make themselves known.
I’m also often delighted to discover ochre’s autonomy in this work. One day, I’ll get a piece of ochre from a place I’m unfamiliar with in the mail from someone I don’t know. A week or two later, I might get a note from someone looking for that exact bioregion ochre for ancestral reasons. In the beginning of doing this work, I found that stuff so uncanny. Like, what? But now that I’ve experienced ochre’s synchronistic energy enough times, I really trust that ochres have their own agenda and agency, and I feel responsible and grateful to simply witness and support that as best I can without trying to understand it or control it.
Grace: Are you still selling pigments? I’d love to know about the connection between preservation and sharing your findings, whether that be the physical material or knowledge. How are you currently balancing the two?
Heidi: It’s an ever-fluid and evolving response to what is needed. Currently, I am not taking pigments requests. Sometimes I do offer specific pigments in exchange, to raise money or trade or invite conversation. Now I mostly try to support people who work with ochre specific to their own culture and ancestral land—whatever that means to them.
My main integrity thermometer is ochres themselves. I try to follow ochre’s lead: I ask ochres what they need and want, in many different ways, and how I can be of greatest benefit to Earth. Both individual pieces in my studio but also larger geologic places/beings with whom I have a relationship. I am here to serve ochre. But who knows if I’m doing it right or mishearing what they convey?
I will say, there are times that something about ochre is secret or specialized or initiated knowledge that has restrictions for physical, cultural, or spiritual safety. That material or knowledge is not shared with the general public, and those boundaries are very important to learn. So while my sharing is open and fluid, there are also cultural protocols that should be learned and respected. In America, this specifically means connecting to, learning from, and supporting Indigenous and Native peoples whose families and ancestors have been in relationship with ochre-rich lands here for 5, 10, 20 thousand years or more.
Grace: You’ve spoken in the past about the connection between ochre, which is essentially iron-oxide, and the earth and the human body, which similarly are made of those two elements. Could you describe your understanding of that connection? Has it shifted or evolved in the last few years given the increasingly urgent nature of the climate crisis?
Heidi: Oh yes, there is a deep connection between Earth, ochres, and the evolution of our species. Let’s start with Earth. Our planet is made primarily of iron, oxygen, and silicon, which consist of 77% of the planet’s total mass. And ochres? They also primarily contain iron bound with oxygen and sometimes silicon, too—iron oxides plus often soil/clay content, which tends to be silicon dioxide-based. So, I think of ochres as essential microcosms of Earth.
Now, what about people? We’re mostly carbon and water. But to breath, move, speak, think—essentially “be alive”—we need circulating blood, blood whose main job is to bind oxygen with iron in hemoglobin and deliver it around the body. So blood is a bit like internalized ochre; Earth’s loving in our veins. We all—Earth, ochres, people—need iron and oxygen bound together to live and spin and hang out and thrive.
The other profound factor is that modern human brains and cognition developed alongside a rise in ochre use in the ancient past into today. Thus, the very way we think and imagine is structured on developing pigment from rocks to paint and transforming that material into various forms of long-lasting and legible creative expression.
Grace: You’ve also talked about steel in relation to the earth and climate. Where does that fit in?
Heidi: Steel is a central actor in climate change, in my opinion. Long story short: ochre is iron oxide—iron oxide is what humans use to make steel. You get steel by incinerating ochre so there’s no more oxygen and basically only molten iron remains. Steel, which I think of as suffocated ochre, is the key of the modern industrial-techno-global world, including colonial culture’s ability to expand, control, imprison and dominate—railroads, nails, chains, engines, drill bits, sewing needles, compasses, the backbone of civilization’s material, etc. Industrial steel gave us an ability to change a relatively stable climate era into an unstable mass crisis and extinction in just a few hundred years.
There are so many crucial stories to tell inside of that big elemental picture, but I’ll leave it at that for now. For people that want to start to dive deeper: there’s a good introductory book by renowned economist Vaclav Smil that summarizes how steel founds cities and civilization today, Still in the Iron Age: Iron and Steel in the Modern World.
Grace: I know no one can predict the future, but I would imagine that after such intense study for so many years, you have an idea of how the climate crisis could affect the earth’s stores of ochre. Are you willing to share any thoughts on that?
Heidi: What a thoughtful question. Thank you. I actually ponder the question in reverse: how does a human relationship with ochre influence today’s climate crisis? And why does fresh ochre always show up more in the fossil record around climate change in the past? These are questions I am currently researching and writing about…. so will have more to say in the coming months.
One thing that is perhaps important to mention is that in several cultures and amongst Native friends I know, there is immense respect, fear even, of ochre places. It’s not something to mess with. You don’t even go there unless you have some training or are brought with an appropriate guide. And colonial cultures have really really really messed with those rules, trespassed, violated, and traumatized many of those ochre places big time. The consequences? They’re ugly. And not good.
Grace: You’re in the process of working on a book. Can you tell us about that?
Heidi: I’m in the editing process, so can’t speak too much about it yet…but I can say Book of Earth is about ochres and earth pigments and their creative powers in our lives today, as well as their influence on the evolution of humans in the past and into the future. It’s really a chance to see and get to know ochre better and learn more about what’s involved in going from rock to paint. I’m especially stoked for all the gorgeous photographs and strange stories I wrangled out of my heart. So many amazing swamps and goo and muck and bloody crazy rainbows! It’s been a great chance for me to share beloved ochres in the Ochre Sanctuary. My publisher Abrams is aiming for a spring 2023 release, so maybe look for it around Earth Day next year!
Grace: What’s next for the project?
Heidi: We will see where ochres want to go, especially in the next few years of crucial climate action.
As far as I know, in my lifetime, the plan is to build a temple of sorts for ochres that will be modeled after ancient stone dovecotes or columbariums— perhaps like a gentle acupuncture point to support Earth’s planetary body. And it will be a place people maybe come to pray, be inspired or magnetized, and receive a little bit of ochre’s energy?
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