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The Ochre Whisperer

The Ochre Whisperer

Heidi Gustafson’s foraging and archival work connects people to the earth and to their ancestors.

The Ochre Whisperer

Heidi Gustafson’s foraging and archival work connects people to the earth and to their ancestors.
August/September 2020 issue of American Craft magazine
Heidi Gustafson at a desk in her studio space

↑ Heidi Gustafson in the rural Washington cabin that’s both her home and studio.
Photo: Kyle Johnson

For archivist, forager, and artist Heidi Gustafson, 37, ochre is an object of a near-singular obsession for the past five years. It’s an earth pigment, a mix of superfine-grain iron oxides with clays and other minerals, often used in ceramic glazes and paints. Despite the notions of deep-yellow hues or earthy terracotta it typically conjures, ochre actually comes in an incredibly diverse rainbow – from creamy white to butter yellow, pale green to denim blue, blood red to wine-dark purple – as Gustafson’s impressive collection shows. Her study of ochre’s properties and its creative and spiritual uses fills her studio, Early Futures, located in the rural town of Everson, Washington, about a two-hour drive north of Seattle. It’s a lush green area that doesn’t seem like the kind of place where you’d find ochre in the wild.

Not when compared, for instance, with the American Southwest’s rusty mesas and dry riverbeds baking alluvial sediment into ochre layers. Or Hormuz Island in Iran, mined for Golak, a red ochre that colors the shoreline’s “tide of blood.” Or Darwin, Australia, where writer Victoria Finlay described rocks like “raspberry ripple ice cream” due to their huge swaths of unmixed red, orange, yellow, and white ochre. Surely, these are the kinds of places where an ochre hunter would want to be.

Ochre wall art and jars filled with ochre samples

↑ Ochre-based artwork hangs on the walls with raw samples of ochre filling the shelves below.
Photo: Kyle Johnson

“Those ochre-laden places are incredibly beautiful,” Gustafson agrees. “There is so much iron, which is already highly charged, so it’s literally a magnetized landscape. They can make you feel saturated and energized, [but] it can be overwhelming [to the senses].” In more hidden places, such as where she’s situated now in the Cascade Range at the base of Sumas Mountain (historically, a source for ochre), she says the iron presence is subtler, like little “tugs” that you have to tune in to. An ochre forager can really hone her skills there.

Being in her home state, not far from where she grew up, is also important to her work, Gustafson says. “Ochre is so much about our ancestral connections.”

Various ochre samples displayed on a rock

↑ While some ochres need to be crushed for pigment, others that contain less iron and more clay can be used in raw form, much like sidewalk chalk.
Photo: Heidi Gustafson

“Ochre was the first paint. But beyond color or pigment, it was the first translator of our inner worlds to the external world. Making marks and drawings that others could see, and then interpret and respond to, is how we grew culture.”

Beyond the First Paint
Archaeological records tell us humans have been drawn to ochre for a very, very long time. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Homo sapiens used ochre to draw on cave walls and on rocks – a sign of the development of higher consciousness and the birth of modern humans. “Ochre was the first paint,” Gustafson explains. “But beyond color or pigment, it was the first translator of our inner worlds to the external world. Making marks and drawings that others could see, and then interpret and respond to, is how we grew culture. We grew culture, we grew language, and [made it easier] to share knowledge.”

Heidi Gustafson foraging for ochre in a sandy hillside

↑ Gustafson finds ochre through a combination of external geological indicators and an awareness of subtle inner sensations, what she calls “tugs of iron to iron.”
Photo: Kyle Johnson

The beauty of ochre’s colors, Gustafson agrees, is probably one reason our ancestors were first drawn to the material. Take red ochre, she says, to which many cultures have a visceral connection. It has been documented in body paint for rituals associated with coming of age and spiritual rites; it’s used in local medicine, and found in burial sites around the world. It’s very high in hematite (an iron oxide-rich mineral), and when it’s ground into a fine powder becomes a dark, brickish red, resembling dried blood. Gustafson posits that our ancestors likened our own biology with the origins of life through this “blood” of the Earth. Keith Recker, author of True Colors: World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigments, points out that in Genesis the first man is said to have been fashioned of red ochre, and the name Adam can be traced to the words for “red earth.” Read more from Keith in "Color Vision."

While color is an accessible way for people to experience ochre, Gustafson’s main interest is in its materiality. Part of her practice includes deciphering the texture of a sample, feeling how hard or soft, cold or warm, and dense or porous it is. “I can learn so much from those sensations,” she says. Is the sample gritty? Then, it’s probably high in silica (quartz) and makes a more transparent mark on a rock or tile when she tests its streak. Very soft? Rich, hydrous clay will make a smoother, more opaque mark that may even stain her skin.

A spectrum of pigments from ochre

↑ Samples from Gustafson’s collection demonstrate ochre’s wide range of hues, including creamy white, butter yellow, pale green, denim blue, blood red, and wine-dark purple.
Photo: Heidi Gustafson

Gustafson’s collection brings hundreds of ferric-oxide specimens together to “speak to one another” and allows her to compare and study them. While many samples are gifted from contributors around the world, Gustafson is known as an ochre forager, and because of her particular commitment and skill set, she’s even considered an “ochre whisperer.”

Ochre Speaks and the Forager Listens
Six years ago, Gustafson was pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy at the California Institute of Integral Studies and living in Oakland, California, when she dreamt one night of a place with metallic rocks that had orangey-red centers and vultures skulking nearby. She didn’t recognize the rocks or the place until weeks later, when she was in a store parking lot and got an urge to follow a trail up the abutting hillside. Gustafson says she physically felt an inner tug to explore. The trail led to an abandoned quarry, and she found herself in the place from her dream: rocks with ruddy interiors (ochre, of course), vultures, and all. “So that was the beginning,” she says.

Heidi Gustafson foraging for ochre on a sandy shore
“I think it’s significant that our planet’s core is made of iron. That iron is in our brains and bodies, in our blood, carrying oxygen, so that we can live. You might think about [ochre] like the heartbeat of the Earth.”
Heidi Gustafson foraging for ochre on a rocky shore

↑ A strip of beach on the south shore of Whidbey Island in Puget Sound is one of Gustafson’s favorite foraging sites.
Photos: Kyle Johnson

The quarry is still a place she goes to when she’s in the area. Ochre sites become like friends to her. Sometimes she’ll stop by just to see how they are doing, how they’ve changed since her last visit, what new things they want to reveal to her. There are geological indicators that can point her to the right areas, certainly, but paying attention to a deeper sensation – that tug – is also important. That physical intuition has formed the backdrop and connective tissue of her work with ochre and with her clients. “It’s a feeling like iron calling to iron,” she says. “I think it’s significant that our planet’s core is made of iron. It is in our brains and bodies, in our blood, carrying oxygen, so that we can live. You might think about [ochre] like the heartbeat of the Earth.”

Various ochre samples in vials
Portrait of Heidi Gustafson

The Ochre Forager’s Toolkit

While Heidi Gustafson insists that you don’t need anything other than your body to hunt for ochre, it doesn’t hurt to have a few tools on hand.

Small knife: For scraping out samples and testing hardness.

Magnet: To test for magnetit or other magnetic iron ores.

Bags: A bigger bag to carry things in and smaller bags to separate your samples.

Small mortar and pestle: For grinding samples in the wild to see how they behave and change.

“Then you can mix it with a binder (a little water or saliva) and test how it reacts on paper or skin,” Gustafson says. “Is it smooth? Does it stain or stay on the surface?”

Unglazed ceramic tile: To use as a streak-test surface to look at color and pigment density.

Watercolor notebook: To test samples on paper, capture the natural palette of a place, and make notes.

Camera: To document (the camera on your phone will do).

Ochre photo: Heidi Gustafson | Portrait: Kyle Johnson

An Ochre Beach with Rainbow Hues
One of Gustafson’s favorite ochre sites is a certain stretch of the south shore of Whidbey Island, Washington. Enclosed by gray, sloped cliffs, this muted shoreline is home to an ochre rainbow, representing 200,000 years of geological change – if you know where and how to look for it.

An ochre deposit tells an intimate story, but within its geomorphological context, Gustafson says, it’s part of a history and a glimpse at the far future, long past our lifetimes.

Heidi Gustafson holding red ochre




← This sample of red ochre is likely 150,000 – 200,000 years old, Gustafson says.
Photo: Kyle Johnson

On the beach, there’s a shallow cave whose interior is striated with horizontal seams of red and orange and yellow – all examples of oxidized iron and minerals becoming ochre. The layers (and colors) are the result of geological behaviors and changing environmental conditions over vast stretches of time. They’re a record of tectonic activity – of glaciers advancing and retreating, and plant and biological matter transforming, mineralizing, and rusting under the pressure of the Earth’s crust. The final result is an ochre window eroded open by wind, rain, and salty waves.

Less easy to spot, unless you crouch down to the sand with a magnet, is black ochre. These crumbs of magnetite – a dense, magnetic, dehydrated iron oxide – might be the remains of Paleolithic glacial deposits or inland volcanic activity.

Heidi Gustafson holding blue ochre




The mineral vivianite is often called blue ochre due to its blue pigment.
Photo: Kyle Johnson →

Sometimes, blackish tablet-sized chunks of compressed peat are broken open to reveal speckles of crystalline blue, like lapis lazuli. That’s vivianite, often called blue ochre, a hydrated iron phosphate that is the alchemical result of organic matter, heat, and pressure. There are greenish versions and creamier ochres elsewhere on the beach.

For Gustafson, foraging ochre from this beach is both an intimate and active experience. “You have to participate,” she says. “The beauty of the ochre here isn’t splashed everywhere; it has to be sought out. You have to put energy into the cliff; it doesn’t just come to you.”

Ochre in Practice
Last year, Gustafson partnered with Oregon ceramist Julie Green, who was painting landscapes on a series of plates with pigments collected from those areas. For one plate, Gustafson provided sage-like pale green vivianite, a by-product of a Des Moines, Iowa, wastewater treatment site. What once was noxious agricultural runoff and blood waste from hog farms became a nontoxic pigment that Green mixed with acrylic binder and used to paint the Des Moines skyline. She titled the piece For Better or Worse or Gustafson (2019).

Heidi Gustafson foraging for ochre on a shore with a bluff

↑ Gustafson considers her ochre practice a kind of “subtle activism,” offering people deeper intimacy with the land.
Photo: Kyle Johnson

British-Iranian artist Hana Shahnavaz, whose work is inspired by the Persian miniature painting tradition, also loved working with Gustafson: “I’m [grateful] for the fellow earth-workers around the world who are sharing their findings and earth swapping,” Shahnavaz wrote on social media. “The stories of the earth feed into the painting and it all becomes one organic-world dialogue.”

“Earth swapping” as Shahnavaz puts it, is a frequent practice for Gustafson. She’s been trading samples with researcher and ceramist Kirstie Van Noort, who is cataloguing wild clays of Great Britain. Gustafson also sent foraged ceremonial pigments to Mohawk tribal member Rowen White, who works with the organization Indigenous Seed Keepers to archive and share native plant horticultural resources.

“The beauty of the ochre here isn’t splashed everywhere; it has to be sought out.”

Ochre mud and earth-pigment dyes have also been important in textile work by cultures around the world, so dyers often reach out to Gustafson. One such example is a group of death doulas in Seattle who contacted her to work with them on a series of ochre-dyed death shrouds. There’s power, Gustafson thinks, in circling back to some of the ways that ochre was used eons ago, to channeling the ancestral use of ochre at life’s end.

Customizing Your Color
Gustafson always starts with a personal consultation to understand the goals, needs, and intentions of the artists, craftspeople, researchers, or enthusiasts who seek her services. Some of her favorite inquiries are from spouses looking to surprise their partners with custom pigments.

“I’ll ask them if and why they are called to a certain color,” she says, “and if there’s a practice that they are planning to use it for.” She wants to know where the pigment will live – as a mineral paint, as a research object, or maybe part of an altar or personal collection. “Then I’ll go deeper. I’ll ask if they have connections to or are yearning or longing for certain places,” she says. “Maybe they want to form a connection to an ancestor via an ancestral place. There’s a powerful resonance with rocks from a landscape connected to our lineage.”

Ochre display in Heidi Gustafson's rock denCabinet of various ochre samples

↑ After Gustafson consults with clients, she selects ochres to grind for them. Raw samples and powdered pigments fill what she calls her “rock den.”
Photos: Kyle Johnson

Then from her “rock den,” as she jokingly calls her studio, rocks can “glimmer or wave” to her. Gustafson grinds them with mortar and pestle, checking the results, taking her time (from a few days to a few months), until they are right. She carefully packs them, handwrites a note, and mails them off. The first thing she wants to know from the recipients: How does it feel?

Working with ochre “brings the earth around us,” Gustafson says. That’s a big motivation for her clients and collaborators (and perhaps for her 30,000 Instagram followers, too). Gustafson sees her ochre practice as a kind of “subtle activism,” connecting individuals to a piece of land and kindling an intimacy they might have forgotten – or never quite held. That tiny physical sample, she thinks, can speak to us on a level deeper than words or any slogan or campaign ever could. “So many of us are disassociated from the natural world today, and we yearn for it,” she says. “This is one small way we can feel not so far away.”

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