Catalina Christensen and Heidi Gustafson are artistic researchers who gather and keep collectives of ochres – rocks, clay, vials of dust and muck — in their respective studios in the UK and US. Catalina, a member of the Wilderness Art Collective, collects and makes pigments as an art practice. Heidi looks after an Ochre Sanctuary, which holds hundreds of ochres sent from citizens worldwide, like a creative earth seed bank.
These paintings are made from two places, geologic landforms. We tried to let them talk to one another. Catalina made hers first. Then Heidi’s ochres responded. Instead of trying to translate them, we thought it best to share our process and let the pigments speak for themselves.
An unexpected encounter with some rock paintings, made by the Muisca people who inhabited the area until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, formed the inspiration to start gathering and processing the ochres to use in my works. The Muiscas created a series of petroglyphs and pictographs utilising red pigments made from cinnabar and ochres, as well as charcoal and chalk. There are also many Muisca sacred places in the area. Unfortunately, during the 1530s many leaders and members of the community were massacred and a heavy process of acculturation resulted in the loss of many of their traditions. For example, the Muisca language was prohibited in 1770. My work with pigments has allowed me to connect with the spiritual leader of the Muiscas, Suaga Gua Ingativa Neusa, and their efforts to be recognised and to protect and share their patrimony and ancestral knowledge.
I was born and raised in north-west Washington (Duwamish and Coast Salish ancestral land), and I live a couple hours from one of the first steel-making plants probably on the entire West Coast. The land carries trauma of my culture (Euro-American), and these are places I feel ancestrally important to connect to. To make steel you have to cut down old-growth forests for fuel, and mine land to get the ochres and rocks that are incinerated into molten iron. Steel, of course, is what scaffolds civilization’s dangerous and wild expansions (railroads, nails, weapons, industrial machines and on and on into today).
Today this place is a beach where the waves gently come ashore with an orange glow, from bacteria that live off the iron that has sunk into the sand. Signs say it is an unsafe place, but to me it’s a beautiful place in recovery. I gathered a few ochre rocks that had escaped their fate as steel, a brick from the old beehive charcoal kiln, and the very smoky-smelling old-growth charcoal that has transformed into soil that grows yarrow and grasses and deliquescing ink mushrooms on the banks.
Could you share how you process your ochres into pigment?
The ochres are gathered and separated by colour and then washed. Afterwards each colour is ground by hand in a similar way to how it has been done over the centuries. I utilise a bigger stone and fossils to do the grinding, always leaving a small rock for reference. I use a sieve to separate the different particle sizes. Afterwards, each size is washed to get rid of impurities, by mixing with water and letting the pigment sink to the bottom, then discharging the water until it is clear. Then they are poured and smeared into a thin layer in slabs and left to dry. A final grinding is done and the pigments are ready to be used or stored.
Ancestral Connection by Catalina Christensen
For me, the gathering and processing of the ochres is an artistic endeavour. The created pigments are as important as the works created with them, and that is why I like to include pigments in my exhibitions. Rocks and pigments are intrinsically linked with humans; it is a primal relationship, but most people are too busy and distant from nature to engage with it.
Working with ochres connects me to our ancestors and allows me to preserve an ancient tradition that started in Kenya over 285,000 years ago. It also enables me to show the beauty of the Earth, and hopefully inspire people to protect it as well as preserve the ancient sites of our ancestors.
I agree with you. And I process mine similarly, minus all the extra refinement. I just ask the rocks if they mind being crushed. And thank them. I break a little bit in a mortar until it is fine. Sieve. And add water. Pray for Earth.