Art Meets Science in GCC Greenhouse

In coming months, Greenfield Community College Art students and faculty will create art using “locally grown” inks they’ve made themselves from plants grown in GCC’s greenhouse. The Pigment Garden Project is the brainchild of Art Instructor Kelly Popoff and Greenhouse/ Laboratory Technician Tony Reiber and a collaboration between GCC’s Science and Art Departments. Kelly and Tony grew pigment plants in the greenhouse and gardens this summer and have begun processing the plants into ink. They grew cosmos, coreopsis, tansy, amaranth, beets, and Hopi dye sunflower, and will gather pigment plants from the wild, including chokeberry, pokeweed, and elderberry. Processing the plants involves simmering them in water, reducing the amount of liquid, and using gum arabic as a binder and metal powders to make the ink colorfast.

The dropper bottles of plant inks are a dream come true for Kelly, who ten years ago started experimenting with making pigments for her painting using colored soil from her former home in North Carolina. Because there isn’t much information available about making ink from natural materials, Kelly and Tony are using books about dyeing wool. Historically, plant dyes were a primary source of pigments for artists.     

“There’s a lot of chemistry involved,” said Tony. “Copper, alum (aluminum potassium sulphate), and iron are three metals used as mordants to fix dye so it won’t oxidize or fade. Many factors determine which color will be present, including when the pigment was extracted from the plant, whether the plant parts were fresh or dry, and when during the growing season they had been harvested.”

Talking about her collaboration with Tony, Kelly said, “We’re experimenting using different mordants with the plants to see variations in color they produce. The same flower petals make different colors depending on which metal is added. I’ve always been fascinated with how disciplines overlap and what we can learn from where they meet in the middle.Students from both science and art backgrounds will learn about the common ground between the fields, where there is similarity.”

Commenting on the project, GCC Dean of Humanities Leo Hwang says, “Kelly and Tony are teaching intentionality. How do you take something that is aspirational (utilizing local and hyper-local resources) and turn it into action? By teaching students how to make pigments out of local plants, Kelly and Tony are teaching about an ecology of the Anthropocene, our current age where human activity and our impact on the environment are woven tightly together. We have choices on how we interact with the environment and how we navigate a relationship with that environment. While the end product is a pigment, the end result is a group of students, artists and scientists who see how their roles are interconnected and how their actions are connected to the environment. Collaborations like this, across disciplines, where students and faculty broaden horizons and create innovative experiences, make GCC a unique and tremendously rich place to teach and learn.”

Students interested in the Pigment Garden Project are invited to an informational meeting on Monday, October 21 at Noon in Room S113. For information, contact Kelly Popoff at popoffk@gcc.mass.edu, 775-1240 or Tony Reiber at 775-1366, reibera@gcc.mass.edu.

By Mary McClintock, ’82 

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