Soil becomes art for OSU scientist, painter

When students in Jay Noller’s soil science classes go out in the field, they are sometimes surprised at the expectation that they go with sketchpad and pencil in hand. But Noller believes that observing, and documenting, what they see is an important part of learning to be a soil scientist.

OSU soil scientist Jay Noller uses the soil profiles he studies in the field as inspiration for his paintings, which include soil in the pigment. (photo: Dennis Wolverton)

OSU soil scientist Jay Noller uses the soil profiles he studies in the field as inspiration for his paintings, which include soil in the pigment. (photo: Dennis Wolverton)

“To me it’s a tried and true method of science,” he said. “In the past, before videography and digital cameras, it was important to illustrate what one was looking at. This is a slight revival of that.”

As a child, Noller watched his father, an engineer with NASA, paint abstract pieces in his studio.

“Any skills I have I learned from him,” Noller said.

While Noller’s science is firmly rooted in Oregon soil, rather than deep space, he has inherited his father’s belief that art and science are complementary.

In his own studio in northwest Corvallis, Noller paints his own pieces, soilscapes that capture the complexity and elegance of the state’s soils, and which sometimes include actual pigment from the soils he collects and documents.

“It gelled four years ago,” Noller said. “I had always sketched, and did pen and ink drawings for ages. What I found back in 2005 was that the illustrations of my soil profiles morphed into paintings and then into portraits.”

And now, the soil he researches has become part of the pigment he uses on his canvases.mazama-tephra-blanket-i

“I’ve always been drawn to red soils, which is a good thing, because we have a lot of that around here,” he said. He said Oregon has a particularly rich variation of soil types, making it a dream location to study soil science.

“I don’t think there’s any better place on the planet to study soils, and certainly no better place to teach about soils,” he said. “Our students are very fortunate in that regard. There are few campuses that can get so close to so many soil types.”

Noller shares his paintings with his students, and also teaches them how to use sketching as a tool for learning.

“One of the challenges is to really let the students do their own mode of expression,” Noller said. He doesn’t expect each student to have strong artistic ability, but to use their sketchbooks to capture an expression of what’s in front of them. “It’s an organization of how they see things.”

The exercise also compels students to think about negative space, that is, capturing the space around the object, rather than the object itself. It shakes students out of their normal mode of thinking, and gets them to observe the landscape in a very different way.

And for Noller, that broad spectrum of soils makes its way into his paintings.otter-rock-beach-soil

“For my art, I have a much broader palette.”

To see examples of Noller’s work visit his blog at soilscapes.blogspot.com

~ Theresa Hogue

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