Started in 2012, Feral and Invasive Pigments is a public fieldwork, writing, and studio-based project that revolves around making watercolor paint from the leaves, petals, and berries of the spontaneous plant beings (aka weeds) who thrive in areas heavily impacted by urbanization, industrialization, and climate change.

Above, left to right: freshly harvested white mulberry fruit; a map-drawing colored with pokeweed ink; in-progress palette from pigments harvested in the urban meadows of Brooklyn; paint-making ingredients for a workshop at the Genspace Community Bio Lab.

From the brilliant blue of Asiatic dayflower, thriving on copper mine tailings in southeastern China and in monoculture crop fields in the Midwestern US, to the deep magenta of pokeweed, sprouting from deteriorating parking lots in Taipei and concrete riverbanks in Los Angeles, I work with local participants (humans and plants!) to build a living archive of the palettes offered by the vegetal beings who build our shared habitats. Through group harvesting sessions, paint-making, art-creation workshops, gardening experiments, and solo studio and research work, I co-create palettes that directly reflect the land that grew them, and use those palettes to inspire maps, charts, guides, videos and texts that explore plant-human relationships in the face of climate chaos. Making these palettes provides a hybrid, hands-on approach to contending with ecosystems impacted by extraction that is both flexible across habitats and intensely site-specific, while engagement with the vegetal beings who are learning to heal land damaged by extraction is both nourishing and sobering.

Above: The New Pangea 2 (Pokeweed and Asiatic Dayflower), 2018, featuring urban plant pigments from Brooklyn, New York; Taipei, Taiwan; and Kyoto, Japan. Pokeweed / (Phytolacca Americana) / Pocoon* evolved on the lands currently known as southeastern North America. It has long been known as a useful dye plant by the Indigenous peoples of these lands, including the Lenape and the Piscataway peoples. Pokeweed has been spreading steadily throughout the temperate world over the past 400 years as settler colonial landscape transformation, intensifying global travel, and climactic shifts make new lifeways possible for the plant. Unlike many native forest species, it does well in disturbed areas and continues to thrive in cities and suburban habitats. It was probably introduced to Europe and Africa during the colonial period for its dye properties and perhaps as an ornamental. Asiatic Dayflower / Commelina communis is native to East Asia, and was cultivated in Japan as a pigment plant, for use in wood block prints and fabric dye. The earliest record of its existence in the United States is in a botanical collection where it is dated 1898. It may also have been introduced as an ornamental, and has recently begun appearing in crops of Roundup Ready soy beans and corn. It seems to exhibit a resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, thus it has been labeled a “superweed.” In its native southeastern China, it has been recognized for its ability to thrive on copper mine tailings, where it tolerates heavy metals and accumulates them in its tissues, winning it the title of “hyperaccumulator.”

The drawings and maps depicted here detail species’ points of origin and spread through contact with humans, while the pigment diagrams demonstrate connections, both metaphoric and physical, between plants, pigments and urban habitats. The workshops and walks focus on ameliorating plant awareness disparity, cultivating cross-species solidarity, human and plant adaptation to life in cities, and of course the multisensorial delights of making and using paint.

Images from a paint-making workshops with MOCA Taipei and Bamboo Curtain Studios in Taipei, Taiwan, Summer 2017.

Through the gathering, cultivating and processing weedy and feral species on an intimate scale, the project encourages dialogue around the wider implications of labeling certain life forms as “alien”, “exotic” or “invasive” (and thus dispensable/disposable) and develops plant-human connections in habitats where people are often alienated from the vibrancy and central importance of plant life, from sidewalk cracks and strip malls to so-called “vacant” lots and superfund sites. Current updates about the project are accumulating at #invasivepigments, archived blog posts from the project’s early days are here, and additional context for the project can be found on my writing & press page. Also available is my recent zoom lecture, “Feral and Invasive Pigments: Learning with and From Weeds through Ecosocial Art,” part of Eclipta Herbal & Krater’s Invasive Species Proposal Series.

Tools and materials used to make paint from Pokeweed / (Phytolacca Americana) / Pocoon* berries
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Above: color samples made of acacia tree gum (called gum Arabic in the art & culinary industry), honey, and pigments derived from leaves, stems, roots, blossoms and fruits of local spontaneous plants naturalized in current-day Brooklyn, NY (from Morrow’s honeysuckle to ailanthus to garlic mustard).
Above: Paintings from my Transect Studies series, drawn from local habitats in several locations where I’ve worked as an artist-in-residence, including left to right: Brooklyn urban meadows (summer 2015); Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory research meadow edges, Gothic, Colorado (June 2016); Bamboo Curtain Studios urban meadows/Plum Tree Creek watershed, Taipei, Taiwan (Summer 2017); Seedbox Environmental Humanities Collaboratory urban meadows, Linköping, Sweden (May-June 2019).

The video below documents the process of creating watercolor paints, from plant collection to processing to painting:

Feral and Invasive Pigments was on view at the Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture from November 7th 2014 – January 15th 2015. The CSAA also hosted the first Invasive Pigments Garden, documented below as it evolved from bare earth in March of 2014 to a towering canopy in the fall. There is a video about that process here: Spring to Senescence.

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Above: Invasive Pigments Color Wheel, 2013
(thanks to Flickr users clspeace, treegrow, esagor, Esteve.Conaway and klm185 who provided Creative Commons licensed photos for this piece!)

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Asiatic Dayflower: Wildflower/Superweed, 2014

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Above: Asiatic Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is native to northeastern Asia and was imported to the United States in 1860 as an ornamental. It was later used to stabilize soil along roadsides and highway embankments, where it “escaped” cultivation and naturalized, spreading rapidly through the eastern states over the past 50 years, radiating out from its highest population density just south of Asheville, North Carolina. It is closely related to the indigenous American bittersweet, and there is evidence that the two species can hybridize.

Above: Columbian/Eurasian Exchange (Black Cherry/Garlic Mustard), 2013

Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is native to the eastern United States and South Eastern Canada. It also lives in Europe, where it is considered invasive in several northern and central European countries. It was among the first to American trees to be introduced as an ornamental in European gardens (arriving in England as early as 1629) and has successfully naturalized in a range of temperate climates.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is native to Eurasia. Since Europeans arrived in the northeastern Americas, it has spread throughout much of the northeast and mid-west United States and Canada. Young shoots were eaten by peasants in Europe, so its introduction may have been purposeful. It thrives in forested communities and edge habitats. With no known natural enemies here (deer avoid it), it has the potential to spread broadly, specifically into areas disturbed by human activity.


Above: Asiatic Dayflower (C. communis), 2012

Above: Barberry is a popular garden ornamental that came to the north eastern United States from the mountains of Japan, via St. Petersburg. It is now naturalized across much of the East Coast, where it is avoided by deer and thus flourishes as an understory plant.


Above, an experiment with local and upstate algae, including didymo, a microscopic invasive diatom.

NEWS AND PRESS

REFERENCES
Many of the facts stated above are drawn from Peter Del Tredici’s book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide. Other useful resources for information on weedy, introduced, naturalized, and invasive plants include:

*The common name pokeweed is most likely a contraction of various Algonquin language terms for plants producing red dyes and the common English term weed. In Powhatan, an Algonquin language that was spoken in current-day Virginia, the term pocoon was used to refer to several dye producing plants, and has made its way into the current common name for the “wildflower” Lithospermum canescens, also known as hoary puccoon, whose roots yield a red dye (Benda, n.d.). Among the Lenape, who speak the Algonquin language Unami, the term for red dye is pèkòn (Lenape Talking Dictionary n.d.). As the Lenape Talking Dictionary notes, “Around the year 1600 the Lenape language was spoken by thousands of people. Now, the remaining speakers who grew up with Lenape as their first language have all left this life. We can be grateful that some of our elders took the time to try to preserve the Lenape language for us. They did this by teaching classes, making recordings, working with younger tribal members and with linguists” (Lenape Talking Dictionary n.d.). This is something I think about every time I visit with poke.