Science meets art as Eugene artist creates her own pigments from colors she finds in nature

(Photos by Randi Bjornstad)

By Randi Bjornstad

Many artists paint from nature, but Nancy Pobanz’s work stands out because she also  — literally — paints with nature.

Pobanz's piece, "Stormy Writing," includes pigments from the dry bed of Summer Lake (top), oak galls and black walnut (left to right in center) and ash from a forest fire (bottom)
Pobanz’s piece, “Stormy Writing,” includes pigments from the dry bed of Summer Lake (top), oak galls and black walnut (left to right in center) and ash from a forest fire (bottom)

For years, Pobanz has been driving around Oregon, collecting rocks and soil and pieces of plant material, and when she gets back to her backyard east Eugene studio, she turns her finds into the pigments that she uses for her ink-and-pastel drawings, gouache (opaque watercolor) and even acrylic paintings.

It wasn’t originally what she had in mind.

“After I moved back to Oregon from The Philippines in 1996 or so, I saw a National Geographic article on the Oregon outback, and I decided to take a long slow drive through eastern Oregon,” Pobanz said. “Along the way I gathered up stuff with the idea of taking it back home and trying to copy the colors.”

She quickly found out there was no need to do that when she had the originals at hand. She began to collect various sizes of mortars and pestles, rock slabs that doubled as graters and dozens upon dozens of small glass vials, most of them previously used to hold Yin Chiao, the Chinese herbal cold remedy.

The artist pulverizes a colorful rock to create a powdery pigment for her artwork
The artist pulverizes a colorful rock to create a powdery pigment for her artwork

“I have a policy in my studio, and that is not to buy anything new that I can possibly get some other way,” Pobanz said. “I do a lot of shopping at secondhand stores.”

She comes by that naturally, too.

“I grew up in a house in Ontario, in eastern Oregon, where we made practically everything for ourselves,” she said. “My mom had a degree in home economics, and she was also artistic. She learned ceramics and made all of our dishes, Christmas cards, dishes, almost everything.”

Her mother was a master recycler before there was any such thing, Pobanz said. “She would send us to the store with a bag instead of getting one there, because reusing things was important to her. She was frugal.”

As part of her continuing education, Pobanz’s mother took art workshops, “and I went with her,” she said. “I was in junior high, the fourth of five children, and that’s when I really became interested in art.”

With that background, creating her own pigments was by no means a stretch, and it not only has broadened her artistic horizons but her scientific and anthropological ones as well.

(Photo by Randi Bjornstad) Eugene artist Nancy Pobanz works in her pleasant backyard studio
Eugene artist Nancy Pobanz works in her pleasant backyard studio

Because of the number and variations of the pigments she has created — “Sky blue is about the only color I haven’t found,” Pobanz said  — her expertise also has proven valuable to archaeologists and anthropologists who study the Paleoindians who are thought to have lived in eastern Oregon at the end of the last ice age.

“There are many petroglyphs in that area, and the archaeologists with the Prineville BLM are interested in testing my pigments to see if they are a match,” she said. “I’ve been spending several weeks each summer camping with the project, listening to the crew doing their work and talking about what they’ve found, how to extricate it safely and what things could be. It is such a luxury to be out there, collecting pigments and working on my art.”

Pobanz’s work is on display through Feb. 28 in a show at the White Lotus Gallery called simply, “New Work by Gallery Artists.” The exhibit also includes work by Jon Jay Cruson, Helen Liu, Satoko Motouji, Connie Mueller, Jamie Newton, Gary Tepfer, Li Tie and Mike Van.

A sampling of pigments created by Nancy Pobanz
A sampling of pigments created by Nancy Pobanz

“My work is really about place,” Pobanz said. “Sometimes people bring me rocks, but I generally won’t use them for pigments if I haven’t been to that same place myself.”

Her main rule for adding to her pigment collection is simple: “I only stop on back roads where there is a pullout,” she laughs. “It doesn’t really matter to me what the rocks I pick up are called, just what colors they are. It is such a joy for me just to be out there.”

(Nancy Pobanz returned to Oregon after living for several years in the Philippines. The original version of this story mistakenly said she had lived in Philadelphia.)

 

 

Nancy Pobanz at White Lotus Gallery

When: Through Feb. 28

Where: 767 Willamette St. in downtown Eugene

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Information: 541-345-3276 or online at lotus.com

Randi Bjornstad

Has more than 30 years' journalism experience after a previous stint as a land-use planner. Got first rejection slip at age 11, but the editor wrote an encouraging note. Lives in Eugene, Ore., with husband-and-photographer Paul Carter, adorable dog Tallulah and quirky cats Pearl, Audrey, Garbo, Harry and Ozma.

randi has 97 posts and counting.See all posts by randi

Leave a Reply