My name is Ellen, and I am a visual artist and writer living in Portland, Oregon. Many months ago, a good friend of mine forwarded me a Loam newsletter, and I’ve been following along with this platform ever since, so inspired by all that is sprouting up here at the crossroads of art and environmentalism. In a sea of a doom and gloom news headlines, communities like this serve as liferafts, allowing us to pause and breathe for long enough to remember where we are going, what we are capable of, and who is there doing amazing work alongside us.
While not overtly political, my own work is rooted in awe, wonder, and appreciation for the natural world. When we let ourselves fall in love with the world, we can’t help but be moved to protect it. I believe in the power of attention and curiosity, in healing the divide between art and science, and looking to the earth for guidance on anything from cultivating resilience to elements of visual design, like patterns and color palettes. It’s from this place that I begin my month-long residency, full of gratitude for the opportunity to connect with all of you.
Here in Portland, our winter color palette is basically two-toned. There is the gray blank of sky, swallowing our shadows along with our light, desaturating each day into a kind of monotonous drone. And then there is the green. I’ve been living here for two years and still can’t get over the green. It’s a surge of chlorophyll unlike anything I experienced growing up in New England. There’s something almost electric about it—tree trunks shaggy with moss, waist-high ferns, lime green buds at the end of each branch. Over the weekend, I saw an abandoned parking lot covered with what looked like a florescent green shag carpet.
These days, as the sun reappears for a few glorious hours at a time, nature’s color palette is expanding rapidly. Pink Camellias are everywhere, blossoms bigger than my fist litter the ground like confetti. The magnolias are unfurling, the forsythia flaming yellow, the rosemary bushes thick with periwinkle blossoms. The flowers in Portland are unparalleled. It’s like they’re on steroids. This proliferation of color is our gift. It’s what we get for having made it, chilled and muddy-booted, through the gray.
There’s a YouTube video I saw a while back, where an older man who was born with severe color blindness puts on special glasses and is able to see true color for the first time in his life. He stands on the front porch of his house, turning in slow circles, taking in the trees, his garden, a bunch of colorful balloons his family got for the occasion. “Look at the flowers!” his wife exclaims. “Look at my hair! It’s red!” And then he is weeping. And his family is weeping. And I, from behind my screen, am tearing up with them. The world in color. Impossible. Miraculous. Utterly ordinary.
For those of us fortunate enough to be blessed with normal sight, color is fundamental to our experience of the world. We’re so immersed in it that we may rarely stop to consider how insanely bizarre and beautiful the phenomenon really is.
Electromagnetic radiation, experienced by humans as visible light, is emitted from a massive burning star millions of miles away from earth. It’s made up of waves that resonate at different frequencies across a vast spectrum, only a very narrow portion of which is visible to the human eye. Specialized cells in our eyes receive these lightwaves from our environment and pass them off to our brains, which have learned to categorize things that emit long waves as “red” and short waves as “violet.” At essence, light is a spectrum of colors. We can tease it apart with a prism, separating pure white light into a perfect rainbow.
Thinking about color in this way makes me feel like I’m somewhere between a middle school science class and a psychedelic experience. It’s this place where scientific truths mingle with mermaid hair and rainbow cake pops. I love that it pushes up against the outer limits of my logical, left-brained capabilities while simultaneously reducing me to a human heart eyes emoji. Truth be told, I just really love rainbows. I have a solar-powered rainbow maker on my kitchen window, and it brings me infinite joy. Me and this guy? We understand each other.
The lenses through which we can see and think about color are endless. There’s the lens of evolutionary biology—how color presents and functions in the plant and animal kingdoms. There are cultural lenses—the way groups of people express themselves collectively, via their clothes, buildings, design aesthetics, etc. There’s linguistics—in Japanese, the same character refers to both blue and green(!). There’s psychology—yellow makes us happy, and red makes us hungry.
But because I have just one month rather than many lifetimes to spend with you, Loamie friends, I will endeavor to boil down my focus for the following weeks to this: the relationship between color, earth, and self.
I’m not sure exactly what that will look like, but I know how I want it to feel. I want it to feel like waking up to the world. I want it to feel like I just put on my special glasses and am seeing color, really seeing it, for the first time. I’m going to make some paint and some paintings. I’m going to dip into the pile of books that has been accumulating on my nightstand. I’m going to spend time wondering and wandering, getting out into the natural world and letting it be my teacher. I can’t wait to see what will blossom.
Sending you all rainbows and healing light waves ;)