Our Dark Materials

An introduction

Today we begin a new series about the uncivilised arts of artist-foragers and makers. Natural materials artist Caroline Ross has brought a treasure trove of hand-hewn knives, grave goods, and a rock painting of ochres and charcoal to recent issues of Dark Mountain. Here she introduces the series, and four artists whose craft and skill transform base materials into both beauty and use for the future in the 'haptic desert' of a machine-mediated world.
is the author of Found and Ground a practical guide to making your own foraged paints, to be published by Search Press June 2023. She is a natural materials artist, writer and T’ai Chi teacher living on the south coast of England teaching traditional skills worldwide and online. Caroline is a regular contributor to Dark Mountain.
In front of me is a jam jar of bright yellow earth, deep red ironstone pebbles and a loose sheaf of swan feathers, gathered after the wildfowl moult at Mudeford Spit. Empty mussel shells from last night’s dinner are simmering clean on the stove, and, along with empty contact lens cases, will become palettes for paints when the students arrive tonight. Mud from a pothole puddle on a Georgia red dirt road sits in a yogurt pot, waiting to mix with scabs of cherry tree gum picked from a tree in a car park last week, and transform into watercolour paint, with the addition of a little honey scavenged from the breakfast table.

I am thousands of miles from home, at In Situ Polyculture in Vermont, USA, home of self-described ‘collapse-aware utopians’, and we are preparing to greet students who will come to learn how to make parchment and paints from waste-stream and foraged materials this weekend. The methods are labour intensive and the results will be art supplies that our ancestors would have recognised. Using what modern society discards and being willing to get our hands dirty means these skills will be of use, whatever the times ahead hold.

Chalk, red ochre and seaweed charcoal paints, feather and reed brush

It’s not straightforward to describe what I do: I am partly a natural materials artist and forager-maker but also a teacher of traditional art methods in non-traditional contexts. Right now, for instance, I am sitting halfway up a hill overlooking a wooded valley in rural Vermont, resting my bones before two days teaching students how to make traditional art supplies such as oak gall ink, quill pens and the preparation of pigments from earth. This will be followed by a sprint through the centuries of paint-making via egg paints, such as tempera (yolk), glair (egg white) and watercolour paints made from gums exuded by trees. 

Art in the modern world, like music or writing, can be made entirely virtually, on screens with computers. For a few months now, humans have even been able to outsource the creative decisions to AI, and not trouble their own consciousness with any aesthetic decisions. Fingertips swipe frictionless surfaces and pupils skim over the fleeting emissions of light-emitting diodes.

While completing my undergraduate and postgraduate art degrees, I used many litres of acrylic paints, showed mediocre art videos on screens and used the electronic paraphernalia common to most contemporary art of the time: the extractively sourced stuff of future landfill. 

Digging haematite red from the site of a disused ochre mine, South Gloucestershire, UK (photo: Nick Hunt)

It took many years away from ‘Art’, immersed in the woods and shores of the UK, to develop any sense of what making art where earth matters could be. In my art education, nothing was said about materials beyond how to buy them and perhaps their surface qualities. The intimate familiarity with tactile qualities of materials which is part of a craftsperson’s life has been largely stripped from contemporary art education since the 1960s.

This trend for ‘craft’ and ‘art’ to be placed in separate silos has only increased since the turn of the 20th century and the birth of modern art. Surface aesthetics are important, but need not come at the cost of deeper materiality. When fabrication of art is separated from the artist completely, as is the norm in much conceptual art, the idea, logos, becomes all important, and matter is relegated to a vessel. 

In this series, we’ll be featuring four artists whose work and choice of raw materials eschew the pristine in favour of the real, the everyday and the overlooked.

In this online series, Our Dark Materials, we’ll be featuring four artists whose work and choice of raw materials eschew the pristine in favour of the real, the everyday and the overlooked. Trenchant ideas and deep politics can be expressed by working in natural, traditional or scavenged materials, just as well as they can by factory-made components. The work our four featured makers create are like oases of haptic richness in a tactile desert. 

 

A haptic desert

Cherry tree gum for watercolour medium, foraged in south London

Contemporary homes and lives, in the global north particularly, are characterised by glossy surfaces of ubiquitous technology, such as laptops, phones and televisions. Machine-made smoothness is the norm for almost all tables and chairs, kitchen surfaces, vehicles and everyday objects. A hundred and twenty years ago, ordinary roughness, textural variation of surfaces and regional differences of things, such as clay homewares, or the fabric and styles of clothes, were far more common. 

Going back a little further, only the very rich traditionally had the money to afford the embodied craft-time inherent in perfectly smooth surfaces in their homes: marble, glass, mirrors, fine silks or silverware. Most of humankind, for almost the whole of our evolution, have toddled, played, lived and worked amongst a huge variety of textures. Human brains develop in the physical context of material culture, not just intellectual or visual culture. Traditionally, hands felt basketry, wood, stone, clay.

Contemporary neuroscience has proved that brain development, emotional maturity and physical coordination only advance properly in the context of regular beneficial touch and physical stimulus. The brain as an organ develops from the same cells as skin, the ectoderm, rather than those which develop into internal organs. The local vernaculars of texture and materiality are akin to the breadth of local folk music, or dialects across the world. When a majority eats at the same few IKEA tables, drinking from identical mugs, listens to the same global pop and speaks English, a utilitarian chill descends and nips the wild herbs of local tactile culture in the bud. 

When a majority eats at the same few IKEA tables, drinking from identical mugs, listens to the same global pop and speaks English, a utilitarian chill descends and nips the wild herbs of local tactile culture in the bud. 

In a rich haptic life, such as those embodied by the artists we will be featuring, nettle stings and stained fingertips, dusty palms and nostrils full of pungent botanicals are par for the course. From fabric made from the abundant and much-maligned stinging nettles of England to black ink created from deadly firearms of America, we will share the process of transformation by which dark materials transmute in the hands of artists employing convivial tools plus time, intention and skill. 

 

Chalk lumps dug up and discarded by badgers from their setts

In the ruins

Two years ago I collected a deep green clay pigment from some cliffs that had crumbled on the Jurassic Coast, near where I live in Dorset. I put a large bag of this aside to send out to fellow earth artists around the world but unfortunately it was lost when my studio was destroyed by fire. All that remains of it is one colour swatch in my sketchbook. Recently a new landslide from the same cliff uncovered pale green rocks four feet deeper into the cliff, which after heavy rains were washed into a pile near the high tide mark, where I collected them. It was not the green that I had chosen to collect, but the green that the land allowed me to gather. 

At home I smashed, ground and sieved the rock until it was fine enough to make paint. I called this pigment ‘In the ruins’, prompted by Dougald Hine’s recent book At Work in the Ruins. He writes of the ongoing catastrophe of modernity, climate change and the predicament that we are in. Near the close of the book he writes about my practice of using what is discarded, rather than standardised acrylic paints or other goods made from fossil fuels. All of the artists and makers we will be sharing with you over the coming month also wrestle with these issues in their work in different ways and find creative richness in the broken, the partial or the dark. 

Towards the end of the book Hine encourages us to look for the dropped threads, the things that have been marked as extinct or obsolete, which are actually still necessary and useful. We can look to the best things of the past that have been relegated to history books or described as quaint habits of our ancestors. Here is where the artists and makers of Our Dark Materials habitually reside, practising amalgam arts, making things by hand, recovering and experimenting with old ways, methods which we will need in the future.

Their work is like the process of gathering ochre: digging for nuggets of brightness in the black earth. By refusing to avoid the messy, the difficult, the broken and the dysfunctional, these artists transform what is into what can be. The caricature of the alchemist is the bearded old man in a robe in his garret. The reality is a global community of ordinary people from every place and walk of life, not turning lead into gold, but better – turning ruins into foundations.

 

Found and Ground A practical guide to making your own foraged paints by Caroline Ross will be published in June 2023.

For UK orders; Search Press | Found and Ground

For US orders: Search Press | Found and Ground (searchpressusa.com)

 

 

 

 

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