ITHACA, N.Y. — Forests, agriculture and hosts of plant and animal life depend on a resource that is easy to overlook: soil. But, using a combination of art and science, a graduate student at Cornell is getting people to look more closely at this vital resource by painting with it.

For a few hours Tuesday in Mann Library at Cornell, Kirsten Kurtz brushed and blended shades of browns, yellows and grays onto a large canvas. At a second table nearby was another canvas where visitors could pick up brushes and add their artistic touch to a pre-sketched mandala using different soil shades and textures.

With the paintings, Kurtz said she hopes it will help people appreciate soil.

“We basically want to help people to think about it, think about it as something as a natural resource that belongs to all of us and that we all have a responsibility to protect and preserve for future generations,” Kurtz said.

Kirsten Kurtz uses soil to paint on World Soil Day. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
Kirsten Kurtz uses soil to paint on World Soil Day. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

The paint Kurtz and others were using was made of different soils from around the world. She creates the unique paint with a simple mixture of soil, water and clear gesso, a binding agent. The result is a substance similar to acrylic paint.

Kurtz developed this method of soil painting two years ago, as a way to bring her somewhat dueling passions together. Kurtz studied art as an undergraduate student and now manages the Cornell Soil Health Testing Lab and is a graduate student in the field of natural resources. She was also raised on an organic farm, so she was grew up understanding the importance of soil.

“It really had a lot to do with me kind of having a hard time understanding how I could be an artist and a scientist at the same time,” Kurtz said.

The scene that came together beneath Kurtz’s brush Tuesday was of three sisters, who had with baskets of corn, squash and beans at their feet. It was inspired by Native American agricultural practices, Kurtz said. Native Americans would plant these essential companion crops together because they benefited each other. The corn would provide structure for the beans to grow, the beans would provide nitrogen to the soil and the squash spread along the ground blocking the sunlight, which helped prevent weeds and contain moisture.

“I thought it would be nice to pay homage to the roots of our country with this project and think about indigenous peoples’ agricultural practices and what we can learn from them,” Kurtz said.

Kurtz’s paintings showcase the beauty and many shades of soil and are meant to create conversation about the finite resource. Ninety-five percent of food comes from soil, but a third of global soil is already degraded, the United Nations says. Poor management practices, over-tilling, pollution and over-nitrification are some of the thing that contribute to degrading soil, Kurtz said.

When healthy, soil is a living ecosystem containing nutrients, organic and inorganic matter. Healthy soil helps regulate water, sustain plant and animal life, filter pollutants and provides structure.

Kirsten Kurtz creates a wide earth-toned palette using soil from across the globe. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
Kirsten Kurtz creates a wide earth-toned palette using soil from across the globe. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Cornell’s Soil Health Testing Laboratory is the most comprehensive soil testing facility in the world. They receive samples from across the globe and examine them for biological, chemical and physical characteristics, not just for nutrients.

Kurtz’s soil painting has sparked an international competition. Inspired by an event hosted by the Soil Health Lab and Kurtz in 2015, for the first time this year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations hosted an international soil painting competition

The event coincides with World Soil Day, which takes place annually on Dec. 5. The day is meant to highlight the importance of soil quality for food security, healthy ecosystems and human well-being.

“We need to take care of it, we need to preserve it,” Kurtz said. “It’s eroding at a really alarming rate but luckily we have this huge soil health movement going on right now. There’s a lot of really promising things happening as far as research now that everyone’s starting to understand that we need to look at soil as a living thing and not just as — well not to treat it like dirt, basically.”

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.