For the love of dirt, Dec. 10 event offers soil painting

Scientists pose in front of bags of soil
Craig Cramer
Aubrey Fine and Kirsten Kurtz, laboratory technicians in the Cornell Soil Health Lab, and Kelly Hanley, laboratory technician in Lehmann Lab, crushed and sieved soils to be combined with water and gesso to create a paintable mixture.

Since childhood, most of us have heard that scolded reminder not to play in the mud. It’s an admonishment Kirsten Kurtz never quite heeded. The laboratory manager at the Cornell Soil Health Lab has instead marveled at the inherent beauty of soil, and found a way to turn mud into a work of art.

Mixing finely sifted soil grains with water and the traditional binder known as gesso, Kurtz has developed a method to turn the varying hues of soil into paintable mixtures. Similar to acrylic, the paint retains the texture and character of the soil from where it originates, with hues of varying colors to inspire the artist.

“I’ve worked with thousands of soils from all around the world through my time with the Cornell Soil Health lab,” Kurtz says. “This experience has helped me to see soil from not only the scientific point of view, but also from the perspective of their unique characteristics and inherent beauty.”

On Thursday, Dec. 10, the public can try the painting technique as part of a soil celebration led by the Soil and Crop Sciences Section in the School of Integrative Plant Science. The event marks World Soil Day, a recognition of the connection soil has with our food, water, biodiversity and global climate.

“Soil is not a renewable resource,” Kurtz says. “It takes an incredibly long time to develop, and we are losing so much of it to erosion and environmental degradation.”

On Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Mann Library lobby, the public can add their own artistry to a canvas prepared by technicians at the Cornell Soil Health Lab. The 4 foot by 6 foot canvas will feature an outlined sketch of McGraw Tower and Cayuga Lake with a soil profile beneath, affording space for the public to add their own designs.

The paints made from soil go beyond the expected pale browns. Soils rich in organic material provide a deep black cast, while those with iron oxides afford a reddish tint. Find the right soil and a rich assortment of colors can be made, spanning shades of browns and greys to more vibrant yellows and oranges. In the past, Kurtz has utilized a soil from Maryland to make a vivid blue.

Making art out of soil is a way to embrace the importance of something critical for our civilization, yet so often overlooked, says Kurtz.

“It’s a way to remember it, to think of its value. Painting with soil makes you think about it in a different way,” she says. “At Thursday’s event, members of the Section of Soil and Crop Sciences hope to use our passion for soil to promote awareness of its importance to our community.”

Soil is such an important – and often neglected – global resource that the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. Last week, Cornell Professor Harold Van Es, president-elect of the Soil Science Society of America, spoke at a United Nations conference organized by Italy, Qatar and Thailand to celebrate the year of soil.

"The International Year of Soils has significantly raised the profile of this resource, which is so critical to food production, sustainability and climate issues,” van Es says. “People are really starting to appreciate the value of this important resource.  Like clean air and water, we cannot survive without healthy soils."

Not only is it vital to grow the foods we need to survive, it’s an important element in the carbon cycle, sequestering more carbon than the atmosphere, according to Cornell Soil Health Lab technician Aubrey Fine.

“Water and the climate are big issues when it comes to the environment, but no one thinks of soil. When we’re looking at future climate change impacts, soil is going to be a really important part of the discussion,” Fine says. “It’s a big part of our future.”

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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