For Brooklyn artist Ellie Irons, finding the link between nature and art is as simple as looking at the sidewalk on her way home. “Invasive Pigments,” Irons’ latest installation (on view now through January 15, 2015 at Silent Barn’s Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture, the New York art space and performance venue) showcases the her collection of cultivated plants and the surprisingly diverse paint pigments she derives from them.
Trained in both art and environmental science, Irons has spent the last two and a half years experimenting with creating pigments from “invasive species” of plants (those that grow without any human intervention), collecting berries, flowers, leaves, and roots from cracks in the sidewalk or abandoned lots in her Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn. “My practice as an artist and visual thinker involves challenging the notion of a binary relationship between the natural world and the human world,” says Irons. “By urbanizing the New York City landscape, we’ve made it inhospitable for many plants, but aggressive, opportunistic, and disturbance-prone species are pre-adapted to these urban circumstances, as they were unwittingly cultivated in the shadow of human industriousness.”
These “companion plants,” as Irons prefers to think of them, include species like Black cherry (Prunus serotina), Princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), and Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), which are harvested, ground down, and mixed with gum arabic, resulting in 100% natural pigments. The paints are “similar to commercially available watercolors in many ways, but…those colors are very standardized,” Irons notes. “My paints vary based on how finely I grind the plants, what time of the year I harvest, and how much water, pigment, or plant fiber is present. It provides my work with an extra richness. I’m also pleased that the paint I make is slightly lower-impact ecologically than the standard commercially available pigment.”
Irons’ work is truely a nod to the unexpected ways nature can thrive in industrialized landscapes, but it also fits into a larger movement of designers embracing the connection between art and the evironment—see Blond and Bieber’s work printing textiles with algae-based dye, the newly developed flax, jute, and hemp composite Nabasco, or Dutch designer Nienke Hoogvliet’s sea algae rug.
Her pigments are notable for their range and functionality, but also because each one tells a story about the lineage of the plant it came from. For example, Irons found a higher yield of yellow pigments in early spring flowers (like lesser celandine, black medic, yellow wood sorrel), and a diverse range of reds and purples from late summer and fall species (including white mulberry and bittersweet nightshade). To further illustrate this point, Irons utilized her Silent Barn specimens to create several illustrations, including a phenological clock, color wheel, and maps detailing the exotic origins of her plants (some of which have migrated to the U.S. from as far away as Japan).
What began as a foraging project, “Invasive Pigments” features specimens grown from soil samples collected over the past year. The plants, which include pesticide-resistant Asiatic dayflower (known for producing a vibrant blue tone, a rarity in the plant world) and pokeweed (which creates a rich magenta ink that some say Native Americans and European colonists used as a dye over 200 years ago), offer viewers a chance to see the beauty and utility in plants they’d otherwise step over. Irons is interested in “any medium that can help me feel more aware of and connected with my physical habitat—that is, the living landscape.”