Getting dirt on her hands: JSU instructor creates ‘earthy’ art from American soil
by Sherry Kughn
Special to The Star
Sep 01, 2013 | 1807 views |  0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Art instructor Allison McElroy’s artwork, created with soil from around the country, is on display at the Hammond Hall gallery at JSU. Submitted photo
Art instructor Allison McElroy’s artwork, created with soil from around the country, is on display at the Hammond Hall gallery at JSU. Submitted photo
There is dirt all over Allison McElroy’s classroom studio, and that’s the way the artist and JSU art instructor likes it.

McElroy’s experimental paintings, which are made using various colors of soil, are on display at Jacksonville State University’s Hammond Hall for a few more days. The work is preliminary, she said. It is part of her desire to create bigger paintings in the future.

McElroy received a faculty research grant to collect soil from all 50 states and make it into paint and ink. She named the project “eARTh Painting.”

“I hope to someday have a body of work that could travel to different schools and venues,” McElroy said, and she would like to share her work with the people near and far who have sent her soil samples.

The works on display reflect the reds of Alabama clay and the golds, browns and blacks from local and faraway lands. There are 21 samples in all — one from Alaska, another from New Jersey and another from Illinois. The patterns in some paintings resemble the textures seen on rocks and trees. Others look more like the undulations of the surface of water. The colors vary widely, but the overall feel of the work is earthy.

“You’re not going to get the vibrant colors,” explained Sarah Welbourne, a student of McElroy’s. “But you are making something yourself and getting closer to nature.”

The earth theme is part of a movement among many modern artists to use fewer man-made items. In addition to soil, McElroy and her students have experimented making paints and inks with spices, berries, flowers, rust and ash.

To prepare the soil, McElroy first dries the sample in an oven to get rid of impurities. Next, she places the soil in a coffee grinder. She bought hers at a thrift store but said an old blender will work just as well. After it’s ground to a powder, she stores it in containers. For paints, she mixes in a substance called gum arabic, available at most craft stores. For inks, she mixes the soil with a few drops of white vinegar and water. The paints and inks can be applied onto paper using brushes or any type of applicator, even the tip of a finger.

So far, McElroy has collected soil from 21 states. She invites anyone who would like to help expand her collection to visit her website.

“Through collecting I have met some wonderful people, and interesting things have happened,” said McElroy, listing off artists Diane Archer of the Women’s Environmental Artist Directory, Jean Constante from Switzerland and Profe Atresarmando from Columbia.

“This is a medium that is affordable, does not contain harsh chemicals, and fits into the recycle/reuse category,” said McElroy. “What is not to love about that?”

The exhibit will continue to be available for viewing by request in the flat files at Hammond Hall.

Read McElroy’s blog at or email her at

Contact Sherry Kughn at
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