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Person to Know: The Woman Archiving the World’s Ochres

By Alex Ronan

 
Foraging for Ochre in the Pacific Northwest

Heidi Gustafson, who has spent the past five years collecting and working with ochre, walks along Whidbey Island’s Double Bluff Beach, off the coast of Washington, in search of the material. She came to scout this area, where she spent time as a child, after recalling its interesting cliff exposure. The beach is a scenic two-hour drive from her cabin near the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

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Foraging for Ochre in the Pacific Northwest

“This piece has a lot less iron in it and a lot more clay,” she says of a shard of rock discovered on the sand. “You can use it right away. It’s like a giant piece of sidewalk chalk.”

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Foraging for Ochre in the Pacific Northwest

An especially low tide reveals a large piece of barnacle-clad red ochre that came from the nearby cliff. “It’s probably between 150,000 and 200,000 years old,” Gustafson says. She often contacts geologists if she needs help dating ochre from a particular site.

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Foraging for Ochre in the Pacific Northwest

Inside Gustafson’s cabin are shelves lined with samples of ochre and the powdered pigments she makes from them. She likes to keep all processing to a minimum: She hand-grinds specimens with a mortar and pestle and then runs the resulting powder through a sieve. It’s more “personal and connective” that way, she says.

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Foraging for Ochre in the Pacific Northwest

Some ochres, Gustafson believes, are calling out to be turned into a pigment. Others are more resistant. Those ocher fragments are either returned to their point of origin, or, if Gustafson cannot get back there, placed outside in a stone graveyard of sorts that she has created in the forest near her cabin. A few of her ocher-based artworks hang on the wall.

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Foraging for Ochre in the Pacific Northwest

Gustafson grinds ochre into pigment powders by hand, then sells the tints directly to artists through her website, Early Futures. Ochre has long served as a “collaborative tool for humans,” Gustafson says. Evidence suggests ochre was combined with plant sap to create an adhesive for primitive tools and used for both art and cultural rituals.

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Foraging for Ochre in the Pacific Northwest

Gustafson uses her own pigments to paint with and also makes ochre pressings, a process which she says is almost like finger painting with a stone fragment.

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Foraging for Ochre in the Pacific Northwest

In one hand, Gustafson holds a chunk of vivianite, often called blue ochre, and in the other a pile of the pigment it creates when crushed. She found the sample on the Kitsap Peninsula near Seattle.

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Foraging for Ochre in the Pacific Northwest

The archive at Gustafson’s cabin comprises over 400 vials of hand-ground ochre, and she doesn’t have an endpoint in mind. “I’ll keep doing it and see where it leads me,” she says.

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Foraging for Ochre in the Pacific Northwest

Heidi Gustafson at the remote cabin near the foothills of the Cascade Mountains that serves as both her home and studio.

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Heidi Gustafson has Whidbey Island’s Double Bluff Beach to herself. But she’s not sunbathing or scanning the waves for whales. Instead, she’s travelled to the northern end of Puget Sound in Washington to crouch, back to the ocean, foraging for ochre at the base of a cliff. Armed with a small magnet and a knife, she stoops low to assess the striations in the rock face, formed by glacial activity hundreds of thousands of years before.

Gustafson considers ochre to be any natural material primarily made up of iron (hence the magnet) that contains oxygen, a definition that she acknowledges is a bit “less strict” than ones used in various scientific communities. Seeking out the material has become, by happenstance, her life’s work. For years, she has been engaged in a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary exploration of the mineral: collecting samples all over the Pacific Northwest; grinding shards down into pigments she sells to artists through her website Early Futures; making her own art with ochre pigments; and, at her small cabin near the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, creating an extensive ochre archive to catalogue samples she’s gathered along with submissions of the mineral sent in from all over the world. While there has recently been renewed interest in creating paints from natural pigments, Gustafson’s focus is on ochre alone — and it extends beyond the material’s artistic uses to its scientific, symbolic and spiritual properties.

Her first encounter with the earthy compound began at a less scenic location than Double Bluff Beach: a Safeway parking lot in Oakland, Calif. Several years after earning a B.F.A. in sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Gustafson moved to the Bay Area to get a masters in philosophy, cosmology and consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies. After graduating in 2014, she wasn’t sure what to do. “Then I had this really banal but vivid dream of a place I’d never been,” she says of a vision that came to her one night. A believer in the prophetic power of dreams, Gustafson decided to find out more about the mesmerizing reddish rock she had seen. She tried to identify it at a mineral shop, but nothing was raw and rough enough — and so she began looking for old quarries in and around Oakland. That is how she ended up poking about behind a supermarket parking lot, where she found a small path that led to an overgrown quarry. “As soon as I stepped on that trail, it felt like, ‘Oh, here’s the dream, down to the two vultures that flew by,’” Gustafson says. Amid the tall grasses, she found heaping piles of the material she’d been chasing.

Ochre continued to appear in Gustafson’s meditations, so she continued to explore the surrounding landscape looking for it. In 2017, a year after relocating to rural Washington, she officially began her ochre archive. While she forages in the Pacific Northwest, a slew of archaeologists, artists, scientists and pigment makers — a number of whom heard about her project through word of mouth — have also contributed to the archive, submitting samples from as far as Zambia, the Brazilian Amazon, New Zealand and Russia. Once each specimen arrives at her studio, it is ground by hand into pigment, labelled and added to her collection, which now includes over 400 different samples. Arranged meticulously on a series of narrow shelves are vials of powder in the typical warm yellows, rich browns and deep reds but also more unexpected colours like lavender, navy blue and snot green. Gustafson hopes that bringing ochres together might create some sort of dialogue among the mineral samples, an idea she admits sounds “a little woo-woo,” but believes in nonetheless. Since our planet’s core is largely composed of iron, she considers iron-rich ochre the “heartbeat of the earth.” She adds, “A lot of my work is a super intimate practice of trying to touch that on some level.”

Ochre, Gustafson points out, has helped today’s humans better understand our ancient ancestors. In a 100,000-year-old paint workshop discovered at the Blombos Cave in South Africa in 2008, archaeologists unearthed liquid paint made from the mineral, an innovation the researchers described as “a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition.” As climate change escalates, Gustafson finds comfort in foraging and working with ochre. “It’s bigger than me, older than me and has a future that extends beyond me,” she says. She recalls standing in an abandoned quarry, not long after her project began, and looking out at San Francisco’s glittering business district. “When you’re thinking about it on geologic time scales, what minerals really teach is to see humans as this sort of surface mineral,” she says. “We’re interacting and transforming and digesting and creating a silver pigment on the surface of the earth.”