Voices of Ochre

We are excited to reveal the publication of  our twenty-second book, available now from our online shop. The Autumn 2022 all-colour special issue takes the shape of an ARK with a cargo of  testimonies, stories and artwork gleaned after the flood. The edition was in part formed by the collaborations between artists from the Wilderness Art Collective and Dark Mountain writers. Here WAC artist Catalina Christensen discusses ochre practices with Heidi Gustafson from the Ochre Sanctuary, alongside their pigment collections and artwork.
Catalina is a Colombian artist based in London and inspired by nature. IShe is creating a pigment collection that started with Colombian pigments and now also contains pigments from Spain and the UK and from other pigment people around the world. Heidi is an artist and ochre specialist based in the rainy, volcanic Cascade foothills of rural northern Washington, USA.

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.

We think of ochres and earth pigments as kin and as creative power. We listen to ochre talk. Our paintings speak rock. Sometimes we translate further. Sometimes we don’t know what is going on. This primal art of taking rock to paint is very old, as old as humanity. We are in a 300,000-year-old lineage of people leaving a colourful mark behind – an ancient creative process we seek to carry, protect and continue for generations to come.

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.

Tell me about where your ochres are from?

I was born in Colombia. From an early age I have been interested in rocks and colour. My family used to visit the small town of Villa de Leyva that is surrounded by a desert called La Candelaria, where you could collect fossils and where colourful rocks were scattered all over the ground. Today, the fossils are long gone, but the colourful rocks are still there. The ochres in the painting and display come from this desert. The area was a sea until the rise of the Andes millions of years ago, as a result of the collision between the continental South American Plate and the oceanic Nazca Plate. Once the water receded, the area was covered with the marine fossils and ochres.


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.

Catalina Christensen – Pigments
Heidi Gustafson – Pigments

And you? Where are yours from?


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.


Dark Mountain: Issue 22 – ARK

Our full-colour Autumn 2022 edition is an ARK carrying a cargo of testimonies, stories and artwork gleaned after the flood


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