“A nice color over here,” artist Karen Boone said as she walked toward the edge of a small pond in the backyard of her Borden, Indiana home.
Holding a brown paper bag and gardening trowel, she crouched down to scoop some clay into her sack. She’ll use this ochre-colored dirt to, essentially, make paint, she explained.
“It’s so renewable and so plentiful,” she said. “Our whole 10 acres are just full of it.”
Boone describes herself as an outdoorsy person, who’s loved nature since she was a kid. But she kept bumping up against an issue with her art making process: its impact on the environment.
Some products, like paints, often come in plastic or single-use packaging that will eventually end up in a landfill. The supplies themselves might also contain synthetic materials: such as turpentine, aerosols, plastics, resins or fiberglass, which can be toxic to people and the planet.
For artists like Boone, this was not OK.
“We’re artists… we’re supposed to be improving the world and are not supposed to be damaging it,” Boone said.
Passionate about the natural world and sometimes having messages of conservation in her art, Boone began rethinking her practice about a decade ago so it would better align with her eco-conscious beliefs.
“And that’s really how I think about all this, is I don’t want to damage [the planet],” she said.
Sourcing Materials From Nature
Initially, Boone ordered natural paints online, figuring that would be a little greener.
Then, during backpacking and hiking trips, she got a different idea.
“I think it was just happenstance. Honestly, I think it was just that next step,” she said.
Looking at the different clays and soils she came across on those trips, she thought, “How hard can this be” to turn these brilliant colors into pigments she can paint with.
Boone researched how to do it, even looking up the techniques used by master painters centuries ago.
The method she’s settled on involves grinding what she’s foraged into a fine powder and mixing that with walnut oil till she gets a consistency she likes.
These earthy pigments are often grittier than store-bought ones.
“Sometimes I like it thicker depending on the piece I’m working on,” Boone said. “I like knowing that it’s got that texture in it.”
Boone has also learned to stretch her own organic canvases and found plant-based products to prime those canvases. She said she does use “regular paint sometimes.” But she thinks, going through all of this, has brought a new energy to her painting.
“It’s more lively,” she said. “It feels alive.”
‘Zero Waste’ Sculptures
For Justin Roberts of Murray, Kentucky, the desire to go green came before the art.
He was pursuing a career in the culinary arts when he got “the idea of making my daughter’s Easter baskets out of willow.”
“And after Easter, we would plant the basket and turn it back into a tree because I was tired of the throwaway culture and the footprint that we were leaving,” he continued.
That was in 2011, and he said, working in an industrial kitchen and “going to the dumpster and seeing all this trash,” is partially what pushed him toward examining his own carbon footprint.
Today, Roberts co-runs Walk the Willow with his wife, Shannon Davis-Roberts, creating furniture and large whimsical sculptures out of willow trees.
Roberts enjoys working with willow because he can keep harvesting from the same tree for years without damaging it, and he can grow new trees from cuttings.
Davis-Roberts said the willow sculpture artworks last several years, and then, “there’s nothing.”
“Like when it does break down, and it’s time to remove it, there are no screws, there’s no plastic, there’s zero waste,” Davis-Roberts said.
Roberts sees beauty in the temporary nature of their works: “Everything in life is temporary.”
They’ve also started working with invasive plants in their sculptural work.
Invasive species of plants can threaten nearby trees and other plants, as well as biodiversity and even economics. According to a recent story in Southerly, like Walk the Willow, other artists, plus architects and chefs, are finding ways to repurpose invasive plants, reducing their harm and creating something new.
Davis-Roberts said they think the arts can be a leader on the sustainability front, and hopes their willow sculptures might inspire others to think about the natural world more.
Saving Green When Going Green
Going green has a double meaning for Louisville printmaker Norman Spencer, whose prints often feature nature imagery, like foliage, flowers or birds.
He likes to buy some materials second-hand, which is better for the environment and saves money.
To buy paper, typically a big expense for his process, he prefers to go to estate or garage sales.
“Sometimes they’re really cool, like some old antique paper that someone’s had in like their drawer for like 50 years that isn’t made anymore, or has like a certain sheen to it that only comes with age,” he said.
He also tries to not let any paper go to waste.
“I cut my own paper, because I want them to be certain sizes, so I tend to have excess,” he said. “And even if it’s like little tiny strips, I tend to find uses for those as like bookmarks or just things like that.”
Other ways he cuts down on his carbon footprint include reusing leftover ink and prioritizing local manufacturers to cut down on emissions from overseas shipping or an “excess use of airplanes.”
Making Soil A ‘Household Name’ Through Art
Several years ago, Karen Vaughan was in Tennessee and noticed some “remarkable colors” in the soil.
“Soils are full of color, but this particular location had pinks and purples and orange and yellow, and it just really got me excited about it,” Vaughan, an assistant Professor of soil pedology at the University of Wyoming, said. “I started doing a little research online trying to figure out what we can do with these soils, and I started to play around with making watercolor paints.”
Vaughan said it’s been a “pretty long process” to figure out how to transform those soils into the typical consistency of watercolor paints. But she now makes and sells these watercolors with the help of her collaborator and fellow soil scientist, Yamina Pressler.
They said that the original audience for their effort For the Love of Soil, which was recently featured in the Smithsonian Magazine, was initially other scientists. But their reach began extending to the arts community.
“One thing that I often think about is the fact that both art and science are processes… they are ways of making meaning about the world around us,” Pressler, an assistant professor of soil science and restoration ecology at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, said.
For her, science “has been a very effective process” for shaping her understanding of the world.
“But I have learned a lot about soil, and my relationship with soil through my art, that is very different from what I have learned from a scientific lens,” she continued.
Overall, they both feel strongly that there’s an educational mission behind For the Love of Soil, and that is for people to pay more attention to soil.
“Whether that be through art, science, on their daily hikes, it has a real potential to change the way that we view soils and therefore the way that we manage them,” Pressler said. “Because soils are at the nexus of all of these grand environmental challenges.”
As for painter Karen Boone, she did fall down a rabbithole of research figuring out how to make her creative process greener. But after many years of working on it, she feels like she has a method that she feels good about.
“I’m now OK,” she said. “If you just do one of the things versus all 20 things that I might have said… you’re still helping a little bit.”
Because, she added, if you’re at least thinking about it, then you’re a part of the solution.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.