Heidi Gustafson Recounts How She Established an Archive of Hundreds of Samples of Humanity’s Oldest Art Material
JUNE 7, 2022
The word ochre tends to be associated with the warm brownish-yellow color seen in ancient Egyptian paintings or lining the walls of Mediterranean cities. It also, though, refers to a physical substance found deposited in mesas, caves, and other landscapes around the globe that once removed, ground, and combined with liquid, becomes paint. With a lifespan as long as the geography of its origin, the organic matter is widely regarded as humanity’s first art material.
Housed in a North Cascades cabin, the Early Futures Ochre Sanctuary collects and preserves hundreds of samples of these pigments. Rough chunks of material and powder stored in vials fill the space and vary widely in hue, ranging from deep rust and gold to cool robin’s egg blue. The ever-growing archive is the project of forager, artist, and researcher Heidi Gustafson, who established the sanctuary back in 2017. She’s since amassed an incredible collection through a community-based practice involving scientists, archaeologists, creatives, and generally curious folks who donate the pigments they discover for safe-keeping.
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Gustafson via email in May 2022 about Early Futures, its evolution, and what it’s meant to work with a substance with such a rich and lengthy history. Gustafson discusses the multi-sensory and sometimes uncanny nature of her process, the threat the climate crisis poses to the earth’s stores, and how ochre’s legacy reaches far beyond its alluring color.
Grace: For those who aren’t familiar with Early Futures and the Ochre Sanctuary, can you explain what the project is?
Heidi: Sure! I bring ochres and earth pigments (iron-rich rocks, soil, dust)—humankind’s oldest art material—together in one place for a little while. Citizens, friends, and myself gather these colorful pigments from lands, including labs and industrial processing plants, worldwide and send them to me in my rural studio in the North Cascades. Unlike museums or collections, this is a living place that I consider more as a great teacher, full of kin.
Perhaps the metaphor of a seed bank or a lymph node helps to get a sense of why I do the project and how I think about it currently. In lymph nodes, diverse cells share information and “report” back to these central nodal locations in the body. They get instructions from other cells, to help heal better, respond to infection, and maintain harmony in the whole organism.
In the Ochre Sanctuary project, you could think of each ochre rock like a cell or seed that carries a lot of deep time knowledge about a particular place and the creatures and ancestors that live there. They “report back” to this little studio lymph node, to learn and grow threads between other geologies, places, people, imagination, and spirits and to also be able to go out wherever is needed from there.
So, a lot of rocks come into this room. Sometimes colorful dust gets made, and eventually, rocks leave…it’s an evolving collective or counsel more than a static collection. There’s so so so much to learn about interspecies health by listening to nonhumans, especially ones that seem the most silent.