Arts & Culture

The art of dirt: Art, poetry and science delve deep in UPS library’s new exhibit, ‘Dirt?’

Imari Nacht, “Books70Earth” in the exhibit “Dirt” at the Collins Library, University of Puget Sound.
Imari Nacht, “Books70Earth” in the exhibit “Dirt” at the Collins Library, University of Puget Sound. Staff writer

Art often attempts to make the invisible visible, but in the latest exhibit at the University of Puget Sound’s Collins Memorial Library, what’s expressed in ink, paper, words and sculpture is something that’s literally under our feet at all times: soil.

But this isn’t just an art exhibit. In “Dirt? Scientists, book artists and poets reflect on soil and our environment,” art, literature and science come together in an extraordinary multidisciplinary meditation that’s as thought-provoking as it is beautiful.

Inspired by the 2015 United Nations International Year of Soils, curator Lucia Harrison has gathered 65 international artists, poets and scientists to think hard about the dirt that most of us take so much for granted. Holding a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity, providing sustenance for many of its ecosystems (including our own), soil is nevertheless a fragile, easily damaged resource that is constantly being eroded by human engineering and agriculture. Yet we depend on it, utterly; its health is our health. And so Harrison, a faculty emerita in art at The Evergreen State College and founding member of Puget Sound Book Artists, has collaborated with scientists at both schools to make us think more — and differently — about dirt.

It’s a combination of imagination, emotion and physical fact that at first seems overwhelming. In the central space of the Collins library, vertical and horizontal cases arranged in a square hold a myriad of objects that you’d normally use different parts of your brain to process: a stolid black beetle in a jar with a dry habitat description; a long poem that needs several readings to fully take in; a folded paper book that is wordless but sings with that mixture of curiosity and dread with which we view our own dusty death. There are words that hold a world of meaning in themselves, scientific words that we (probably) can’t understand, words so tiny they can’t even be read. In other words, “Dirt” is a challenge to our usual perception of information — which is exactly why it’s so perfect for changing our thinking.

The show starts out with an installation of Harrison’s own, in the lobby area: a calm floating row of handmade paper circles suspended from a rod. Flowing along a spectrum from indigo to white, they’re a sculpture that unfolds into two-dimensional meaning along the walls, where each color is displayed plate-style with a scientific explanation of the different biomes on Mount Rainier that inspired it: indigo and pale blue for sky, the green of trees (with leaves embedded in the paper), white-threaded root mat, blackened fire zone, pumice-white volcano ash and slate green bedrock. Like dirt itself, the circles are highly tactile, but made pristine through their sampled geometry. Facing them are coyote and rabbit skeletons bounding through a glass case — field data and emotions speaking as one.

That combination goes on throughout the exhibit, to mostly excellent effect. Some of the art is less than stellar — a rather simplistic book of eight paper cubes printed with an underground scene, a large accordion manuscript with childish art and sentiment — but most of the work is both skilled and thoughtful, sorted by Harrison into five broad categories.

“Soil Formation” includes an interactive table with both microscope and soil samples to inspect, and a spiderwebby network of miniature books, hand-papered, with hand-printed incomprehensible data on mycelium (fungi spores).

“Soil Dwellers” juxtaposes delicately lacy ant lions and exquisitely striped June beetles (all specimens are from UPS’ Slater Natural History Museum) with Mari Eckstein Gower’s intricate pen-and-ink designs of what lives in the soil, or Sharon Sharp’s dark, abstract mystery of what we still don’t know there — such as hundreds of pathogens that could be future lifesaving medicines. A collaboration between Emilie Bess, Catherine Alice Michaelis, Melanie Valera and Emily Van Kley brings together alliterative, punchy poetry with an expandable double-pamphlet art book on gorgeously leafy paper, letter-pressed with meandering earthworm tracks. Furry bodies of marmots, owls and gophers spread serenely between the art books.

In “Farm to Garden,” Debbi Commodore folds a seed catalog, spilling tendrils out of a vintage box; Natalie Cunningham offers a poignant poem remembering the deep smell of her mother’s potting mix while three jars of the ingredients (peat moss, Vermiculite, Perlite) bring the words to reality. In “Human Development of the Soil,” an actual chunk of peat, tightly layered, stands near multi-artist work “In-voluntario,” an accounts book altered out of recognition into a moss-green terrain sculpture, leaves and soil adhering to the eaten pages like something out of a peat bog grave.

“Layers in Time” explores strata in metaphor, like Alex Borgen’s ethereal “Mountain Passage” fold-out, its dirt, gold and handwriting pressed into pearly paper dialoging with the actual sample jars of pebbles, silt and clay. Suze Woolf’s immaculately painted images of sandstone, folded into a pop-up book, give abstract, emotional comment on the actual reddish lump of arbosic sandstone nearby (geological samples come from both schools’ collections). All of these are given more description in the catalog, both online (see box) and in hard copy for library use.

But it’s the individual works pillaring each corner of the exhibition that speak most eloquently, defying category. Mare Blocker’s four long scrolls of intricate ink drawings speak, like soil, on both a particulate and large-scale level, vaguely hinting at eyes, bodies, rocks. Deborah Greenwood’s “The Land” collages vintage postcards and farm equipment ads into a rocking star-fruit shape, a homage to human-conceived rural bliss.


What: “Dirt? Scientists, book artists and poets reflect on soil and our environment.”

Where: Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma.

When: Exhibit open 7:30 a.m.-12 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m.-12 a.m. Sunday through Dec. 6 (see website for updated hours as term progresses).

Cost: Free.

Events: 4:30-8:30 p.m. Sept. 17 Art/Science Salon with curator/scientist talks; 4-7 p.m. Sept. 24 educator and student night on dirt and health; 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Oct. 3 Earth Pigments hands-on art and family reading hour; 6:30-8 p.m. Oct. 15 poetry reading.

Information: (includes catalog); to order print catalog, visit More information about soils is available in 12 two-minute videos made by the Soil Science Society of America at See for information about the United Nation’s Year of Soils.