Earth Tones

Six years ago, on a trip to Oaxaca, Los Angeles-based artist Sandy Rodriguez walked into a tiny bookstore and picked up a jar of powdered cochineal, the intensely red dye derived from insects. Her painting life has not been the same since.

"It was that carmine red, the most stunning red you've ever seen," says Rodriguez, whose work focuses on the intersections of history, social memory, contemporary politics, and cultural production. "I came back to my studio and made oil paint with it for a series of paintings about the 43 disappeared college students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico. That was the moment when I understood that this particular historic material could support the content of the work in a powerful way."

Following that artistic epiphany, Rodriguez began taking weeklong field-study trips off-grid in the California deserts to learn about native plants and continued to explore centuries-old methods and materials of painting in the Americas, with a focus on the minerals, plants, insects, and organic materials that go into making paint.

This month, Rodriguez joins Caltech as artist-in-residence in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences' Caltech-Huntington Program in Visual Culture. Established in 2018 with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it is administered jointly by Caltech and The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Rodriguez's current painting series, Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón, is inspired by manuscripts of the Mexican colonial era and takes the form of large-scale map paintings on amate, a traditional Mexican paper handmade from the bark of fig, jonote, and mulberry trees. Painted with hand-processed pigments, the works capture the timeless physical features of the landscapes, including the animals and plants, as well as contemporary political moments such as the police killings in Los Angeles, immigration detention facilities, and the building of child-separation centers that have impacted Latino communities on both sides of the border.

When Rodriguez was planning the teaching component of her Caltech residency, her vision included field trips and plenty of face-to-face interaction. "The idea was to go on plant walks locally in the mountains and learn to identify native plants for colorants in the wild." Now, she says, because the COVID-19 pandemic continues to require learning to be remote for the winter term, "we're learning at a quick pace how to take what was an intensely in-person, on-site experience and do it all on Zoom."

Each week, online, Rodriguez introduces her students to a new pigment or colorant. "We conduct our experiments and learn about meaning, use over time and across cultures," she says. "After discussing our readings, we process the color together into paint. Picture a live cooking show, but we're processing colors. Students are keeping research journals, charting color wheels, and producing narrative maps."

Before the term began, Rodriguez mailed each of her students a "historic color box" filled with insects, mushrooms, and bark; gum arabic to bind the powder into paint; mussel shells for paint containers; and a variety of natural raw pigments native to Southern California. Although the limits of remote learning mean the students cannot share the experience of processing colors in actual proximity, "we can experience things on our own," says Rodriguez, and then compare notes. For instance, she says, "when you crush the cochineal, it's really interesting to see how different people respond to the fragrance. One of my students said it smelled faintly like M&Ms."

Three weeks into the winter term, the students are already doing heat extractions on their own, conducting experiments at home, and sharing results with the class.

The processing of color connects you to the material and can be soothing, says Rodriguez. But seeing the range of hand-processed colors is also fascinating. "It's a transformative experience. I'm excited to share that with my students and to learn more about not just organic plant-based color extraction, but about the processing of earth pigments and mineral pigments, and learning more about those traditions in Southern California."

She hopes that over the course of the 10 weeks, her students will have opportunities to collect their own colorants on morning walks—an acorn, for example—and come back and ask questions in class about how to process them.

After studying and creating individual colors, the students will each craft a presentation to share with the group. "At the end of the day, we have to visualize how to tell our narratives and our stories with intentional colors that are conceptually tied to diverse ideas and places," says Rodriguez, "and share compelling moments of our present day through our lived experience." Although most of her students are based in Los Angeles, some are dispersed across the U.S., Rodriguez notes. "I ask them to think about how they arrived at the place they call home and how they might visually represent it."

Rodriguez says she finds the opportunity to reconnect with lost knowledge and build community through shared experiences rewarding. "It is inspiring," she says, "to get to work with this dynamic group of students and see how they respond to learning about materials that were instrumental to the artistic practice of the Americas. My hope for them is to inspire curiosity about the regional specific origins and past significance of materials in their lives."

Written by Judy Hill

Caltech Communications