The Good Earth
Laurel Jones ’16 is combining art and chemistry in her Senior Capstone Experience project, part of which is on display at the Kohl Art Gallery as artwork made of soil-based paint.
Make no mistake: Laurel Jones ’16 loves chemistry. She chose the major—and doubled it with math—because she wanted “to understand how the world works on a smaller level. That was the allure. I wanted to be that person, that scientist.” But growing up as an only child on a farm in Harford County, she also developed a deep love for art.
“I didn’t really have any brothers or sisters or neighbors to play with, and so art was always my go-to thing to do,” she says. And, in a quintessentially Washington College way, she has combined these two loves into her Senior Capstone Experience project, combining research in “green chemistry” into an art project using soil-based paints. The first segment of her SCE, “Greener Paints: Pigments of the Earth” is on display as part of the “100 Proof” exhibit of student art displayed at the Kohl Gallery in late March and April.
Jones’ SCE was inspired by a class that Anne Marteel-Parrish, professor of chemistry and the Creegan Chair in Green Chemistry, and Heather Harvey, assistant professor of art, are developing. “It’s going to cross the two departments of chemistry and art,” Jones says, “and it’s about combining green chemistry and sustainability into art and actually completing works in the lab and combining the two different fields. That was one of the options that students could choose for an SCE, and I saw that and said, that’s what I want.”
Her project has multiple parts. In the literature review, she researched the process of making traditional paints on an industrial scale, learning about their core components and the environmental and health implications of the chemicals and processes involved. She also researched the latest information in green chemistry and paints, and finally, discussed green paints she could make herself.
“That’s when the experimental portion came in,” she says. Her first experiment was using different types of soil to create paints. She collected soil samples from seven locations, including Montross, Virginia, Chestertown, and a beach on the lower Chesapeake. Then, she experimented with natural binders.
“All paints need a binder to suspend the particles or pigment into something that can be spreadable,” she says. “So I made this naturally derived binder from casein, which is a protein in cow’s milk. So soil, protein, and I made paint.”
She used the paints to create three paintings, all different aspects of leaves of a tree. Though fundamentally earth-toned, the paintings show distinctive greys, ochres, browns, and yellows, and they have a gritty texture that compels you to reach out and touch them. The second part of her experiment will be to extract pigments—anthocyanins—from plants like red cabbage and cranberries.
“I can extract them, and I know I can alter the pH, and when I alter the pH there will be a color change; that’s a property of anthocyanins. So I’m going to try to do watercolor from extracting these pigments.” If she has time, a third experiment will be to make “lake” pigments, an ancient process where you take a water-soluble dye and turn it into a powdery pigment.
Jones, who is the first person in her family to get a four-year bachelor’s degree, has decided to pursue a career in nursing. She’s already been accepted to the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, but she’s still waiting to hear if she’s been accepted to the University of Delaware’s nursing program, her first choice.
She hopes that her senior capstone project will inspire people to think differently about the world around them.
“That you can make a painting and make paint without traditional crazy chemicals and toxic materials, I think just seeing that will maybe make people think for a second,” she says. “There are a lot of options available, and some of them are natural and in our own back yards.”