Created by Cornellians, "Three Sisters" received international acclaim as a masterpiece soil painting.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Created by Cornellians, "Three Sisters" received international acclaim as a masterpiece soil painting.

January 24, 2018

Cornell Students Win International Soil Painting Competition

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A soil painting produced by five Cornellians won first place in the university category of an international soil painting competition sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization to celebrate World Soil Day.

The painting, titled “Three Sisters,” depicts three women holding hands and dancing around in a circle near wooden baskets. The paint was created by mixing a variety of soils from around the world with water and gesso, a substance used for priming paint canvases.

Patricia Chan ’17, who contributed to the winning painting, said soil painting challenges the popular misconception that soil is just a grayish-brown substance on the ground rather than a  colorful tool for painting.

“The visual tool of the soil painting itself did a lot to speak to the diversity of soils that we have on this Earth,” Chan said. “Seeing on the canvas these oranges, yellows, deep, dark colors and even green sparks a thought that there is more to soil than we initially think.”

Kirsten Kurtz grad, manager of the Cornell Soil Health Lab, explained that although soil painting has been around for “a really long time,” the Cornell team pioneered the use of soil painting as a connection between the sciences and the art.

“I would say that we pretty much spearheaded using [soil painting] as a communication tool,” Kurtz said. “The main purpose of the event is to bring attention to soil and to just be aware of it existing.”

Another one of the contributing students, Emily Detrick MPS ’16, said the painting attracted a lot of passing students intrigued by the project when they exhibited the painting on Dec. 5.

“Art is always a great way to get people involved from all backgrounds,” Detrick said. “While they were there, they learned a lot about soil. It was a big, collaborative kind of feel.”

Detrick saw the event as an opportunity for students in science to learn about horticulture through artistry.

“It is sort of this niche medium that some artists work in,” Detrick explained. “It’s such a good way to communicate research and science to broad audiences using art.”

Detrick also noted that soil painting is a great way to connect with the natural world, and that by working with this substance, painters can achieve a holistic sense of their organic environment.

“Painting with soils is a great way to learn about what is around you, to experience the earth around you and to tie whatever your subject matter is into the sense of place,” Detrick said. “It’s also a great starting point to understand soil science and soil health, and why it matters.”