Making a Mark, Lightly

For Caroline Ross, feathers become brushes, seashells transform into painter’s palettes, and clays offer up pigments.

Caroline Ross had been rewilding her life, and her art, for several years when she brought a basket of her foraged art supplies to a festival run by the Dark Mountain Project in Dartmoor, England in 2016 and shared her artistic process with others. It was, she writes in her artist’s statement, then that she first had the opportunity to “appreciate the warm reception these strange items provoked in others.”

I wasn’t at that festival. But seeing the basket, or a version of it, filled with quills, scallop shells, and natural pigments, through a computer screen some 5,000 miles away, I have a sense of how those festival-goers felt.

To see Ross’s painting supplies — even a digital rendition of them — is to feel a sense of closeness to her and to the earth. And this, it seems, is the point. She “borrows” molted feathers from her avian neighbors for use as quills, fashions pencil cases out of birch bark, and uses old shells “the crows have feasted on the riverbank” as painter’s palettes. For the paints and pigments themselves, she looks to old traditions. She uses whipped egg whites as the base for some paints, boiled buckskin for others. She forages red and yellow and green clays and rocks and dusts to give these bases color. And then she brings it all to life by putting quill to rock and hide and paper.

“This is not some re-enactment of olde-worlde art techniques,” she writes of her practice. “The art I make is very much of the moment in which I find myself, as a woman, as a mammal, an earthling…. I make my art not just for the humans, but for the trees who provide materials for brushes and boxes, for the rock strata that provide my pigments. What art do you make when it is not only human eyes watching you, when the market is not the measure? I do not have the answers yet, so I get up and make ink, grind color, and make marks.”

And make her marks she does. Her works are grounded by the natural colors, but still manage to evoke a sense of wildness, of abandon. They suggest landscapes, and people, and wildlife, but at the same time hint at a freedom in her artistic process — one that, it’s easy to speculate, might be tied to her freedom from the trappings of modern materials.

Learn more about Caroline Ross’ work at: carolineross.co.uk

What requires no speculation is that these materials allow her to tread lightly on the land around her.

“My new ancient materials are not polluting the earth,” she writes. “We think of art as environmentally neutral at worst, but most art materials are made to be disposable. It has only been this way since coal and oil based chemicals brought a whole new era of color to the world of paint, and subsequently brought plastic materials to the artist. Before then materials came from the earth and when no longer needed, returned to it.”

A beautiful sentiment for her artwork, and one we might all apply to our own varied undertakings.

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