Art Department Professor Allison McElroy’s mission statement for her current research project could be summarized thus: Soil—the upper layer of the Earth’s crust—is geographically unique, and can be beautiful.
JSU awarded McElroy a faculty research grant of $1,500 in 2011 to gather samples of soil from all 50 states in the Union, and then use them as an artistic medium.
When asked what her artistic vision for the project is, McElroy laughs.
“To get art materials cheaply,” she jokes.
“Nature has many resources to pull from—not just visibly, but materially speaking, too,” she continues, more seriously. “Plus, how ironic is it that I’ve gotten dirt all over the gallery walls?” she asks, joking again.
So far, she’s gathered samples from 31 states. “I started out trying to contact Art Departments in every state,” she says.
She’s called on people from across the country that she’s met at art conferences, and even had friends drive up and down the East Coast gathering soil for her.
She was surprised when she got samples from Hawai’i and Alaska first.
Currently, 21 of the samples she’s received are featured in works on display in a gallery in Hammond Hall.
Once McElroy has all 50 samples, she plans on including them in a bigger installation featuring a large painting completed using only soil-based color.
At first, McElroy created watercolor paints by mixing the samples she’s acquired with gum Arabic, resulting in a palette of rich, earth-toned colors—the rust-red of Alabama clay, for instance.
Now she makes ink with the samples, because all it takes is water, vinegar and the ground-up soil—a more natural composition, “which lends itself to what I’m trying to do,” she says.
McElroy is no stranger to using natural materials in her artwork—she’s worked with paper from wasps’ nests, silk from spider webs and even the lining of hog intestines.
But the idea for this project took root while she was working with different types of soil on an installation in graduate school.
“I needed the red of Alabama clay and couldn’t find it,” she says, but the many unique hues that soil from other geographic areas offered stuck with her.
So in 2011, she applied for and was awarded a grant from JSU to further explore soil as an artistic medium.
McElroy also took to social media to get the word out about her project, which has grown and taken on a life of its own since 2011.
A sprout grew out of the sample of dark, fertile soil she received from New Hampshire, and another artist from Oregon named Diane Archer agreed to work on an artistic collaboration with McElroy.
She’s even received soil from other countries, like Switzerland and Colombia.
“It’s interesting that you can contact someone out of the blue and all of the sudden you have a shared interest in dirt,” says McElroy.