University Of Wyoming Professor Transforms Soil Into Art

Feb 12, 2021

Vaughan uses soil to create watercolor palettes.
Credit KAREN VAUGHAN

Many people think of science and art as complete opposites, but one University of Wyoming researcher is working to combine the two. Wyoming Public Radio's Ashley Piccone spoke with Karen Vaughan, a pedology professor who is using the soil in her research to make watercolor paint. She said soil is more important than you would think.

Karen Vaughan: I mean, soils are important for so many different reasons. The obvious ones that we are in touch with every single day is the food that we eat and the plants that we rely on to cycle our air. Gosh, I don't know how to summarize the importance of soil but, I mean, it's part of everything. I challenge my students to 'tell me one thing that you did today that did not rely on the soil' and I still haven't gotten a single answer that I'm satisfied with that does not have to do with the soil.

Ashley Piccone: When did you start turning soil into paint and what gave you that idea?

KV: I've always been fascinated with color. As a soil scientist, we use color as a tool to tell us what's going on below ground, you know, 'what do these different minerals mean?' or 'how deep does the organic matter go?' and 'how dark is that profile?'. But I only started making watercolors from soil about two years ago. And it was really one particular soil that made it happen, and it was this soil that had purples and pinks and yellows and oranges. We were actually in Tennessee, and it was like 'gosh, this soil is gorgeous. What should we do with it?' It felt like it needed more than just pictures. And so I collected a little from each of the different horizons and I eventually came home and made pigments out of it. And from there it was more of an awakening. I was like 'wait a minute, I deal with soil every single day, all the soils in and around Wyoming that are part of my research sites are also beautiful.' And they're subtle in their earth tones but those are colors that really speak to people, so it just went from there.

AP: What is it that actually gives the soil those different colors?

KV: Creating art with earth pigments, I would venture to say, is probably the first art form. This is nothing new. I mean you think about all of the art that's been created forever, it started with iron oxides and clays and charcoal. In soils, one of the really common pigmenting agents is iron oxides. I should say 'are' because they come in a range of colors from yellow, orange, red, purple, just some beautiful colors that you might not even think. And then there's other minerals as well. The greens are harder to find, the blues are harder to find, but if you live in Wyoming you've probably seen green and blue soil. But most other people have not had that opportunity.

AP: I'm curious if you have a favorite color or soil that you've found.

Fellow soil scientist from California Polytechnic University, Yamina Pressler, uses Vaughan's pigments to create paintings like these.
Credit Karen Vaughan / Yamina Pressler

KV: My favorite color is brown, I'm not going to lie. I mean, it's so fitting for a soil scientist. Actually, sometimes I say my favorite color is brown, the other times I say my favorite color is the rainbow. And that's the answer my kids give and I love it. So I get excited every single time I mull up another color because it's new to me. It might have looked one color in place and then when you wet it up and it seems so enhanced. And so it's just fun exploring the different colors that are out there in an entirely different way by making paint.

AP: What are some examples of people who have used this paint?

KV: You know it's really interesting, we've recently started selling some of these watercolors to generate income to do other science outreach activities, and the audience that is coming forward are these artists that are curious about natural resources and soil and learning more about nature. So that's one part of the audience. The other part are scientists that are like 'hey neat, I never really thought about doing art because I'm a scientist.' But you're allowed to do art, no matter what you're labeled as, so we hope everyone will give it a try.

AP: Can you tell me why you think it's so important to connect science and art together?

KV: So I'm using watercolor paints as a vehicle to communicate about the science that I feel really passionate about, so soil science. And I think the art is just a way that people open their eyes to different ways of thinking. Something that they haven't thought of: soil as being beautiful before. And I just love that. We're not going to hook everyone, but there are certainly some people out there that are going to start seeing soil differently.

You can find out more about Vaughan's work with science and art at her website.