Recent visitors to historic Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Washington are being treated to an interesting art exhibit, which they may have come across accidentally during a hike or a stroll along the beach.
One of the creators/artists describes it as “a playful trail through Fort Worden State Park, a website with a Microbe Manifesto, eight textury-touchable signs for eight soils, a collaboration with the microbes to produce beautiful cloth, a website with gloriously geeky geological info.”
The Soil Remembers is an ecoart project created by local Port Townsend artist and Goddard College graduate Deanna Pindell, Kansas-based Rhonda Janke, an artist and soils scientist, local painter Dawn Sagar and local soil scientist, John Flemming. The project, which they funded themselves and later gifted to the community, explores the history and geology of the park through the perspective of its soils and soil microbes. Deanna said, “We sought to tell the story of this land from the point of view of the soils, including the natural and cultural histories of place.”
The project began in 2011 under the Site-Specific Arts Program at Goddard College, which has a satellite campus at the Park, and was installed on the grounds of Fort Worden for three weeks in 2012. This year, according to Deanna, they were able to put the exhibit on display once again, with the blessing of the State Parks administration. “They received so many positive comments about it last year,” she said, that it was easy to get permission to reinstall the signs.
The artists and scientists explored the Park to discover the different soil types and ecosystems within the 434-acre multi-use park, which has over two miles of saltwater shoreline, high bluffs, grasslands and a variety of other ecosystems. They settled on eight soils and sites. With permission, they collected samples from the various sites, tested and identified them and began making paint from the soil samples. They tested linseed oil and acrylic bases for the paints and for weather resistance and decided on acrylics.
At the small, sample dig sites, pieces of cotton fabric were wadded and tied up with string, then placed in the holes, covered up and allowed to rest for a month. “Tying them with string created even more interesting results,” Deanna explained. Each site had detailed soil descriptions recorded, plus markers were buried with the fabric to assist recovery, which proved essential as one of the cloth samples in the peat bluff, was difficult to retrieve.
A month later, the fabric pieces were unearthed, washed and made ready to be included in the signs. The microbes in the soil had created wonderful designs in the fabric, each one unique to the soil it was buried in. When it came time to create the signs, the cloths were coated with urethane to make them waterproof and to protect the designs.
The Sign Posts
The weather is a major factor to consider out on the edge of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so great care was taken to make the signposts very durable. Each signpost is unique, with a 60-pound cement base, 4×4 treated post and a hand-painted/created sign.
The 2’ x 2’ plywood squares had random, rounded holes cut into them to display the microbe art, then they were sanded and weatherproofed. The fronts were painted with commercial soil-based pigments before matching each board up with a particular soil. The sample soils created the palette of colors and textures used on the signs and contributed to the designs.
The partially-decomposed fabric was then stapled to the back of the sign over the holes and the staples sealed to weatherproof them.
What resulted were interesting, tactile, educational and whimsical signs that were place as close to the soil sample site as possible. They invite touching, with the sample soils rough on the surface. For example, soil from the Rhododendron Garden was full of needles from the evergreens that shroud the garden, giving the soil a hedgehog appearance. Other soils are smoother or peppered with round pebbles that the artists used to embellish the artistic signs.
“The lines between science and ecoart are blurring,” Deanna said, acknowledging that some people don’t understand the significance of The Soil Remembers project. “We want to engage people’s senses.” She continued, “We even have a Microbe Manifesto.”
By bringing science and art together, a wider range of people are exposed to important subjects, in this case, soil and what it means in the scheme of life. Projects such as this also open science up to children in a way classrooms can’t.
To delve deeper into the project, visit the site The Soil Remembers where you can find all the geeky science-talk Deanna promised, plus links to all the resources they used during the research.
The Soil Remembers is a temporary installation through September.