Digging Deeper

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

It was always there, the fascination with life and the world around me. It stayed with me all through my childhood. There was even a time when I decided that the answer to the question of what I wanted to be when I grew up was clear… I wanted to be a biologist! I remember a drawing contest: Draw your dream occupation. I was eleven years old and my efforts resulted in a piece that featured a big magnifying glass showing enlarged insects, blood plasma, and amoebae. It won me a first prize. Afterwards, the jury commented that if I didn’t become a biologist, I could always try to do something with art. So, well, here we are….

As I grew up and attended art school at the turn of the 21st century, my love for nature faded to the background. Sustainability, climate change, cradle-to-cradle, bio-based, and other now common terms were unheard of then. The only time the word “nature” was mentioned to me as an art student was in negative criticism… My drawings and paintings were seen as being too close to nature. (This was at a time when conceptual art ruled the art scene…) I stopped painting altogether and opted instead for a degree in stage design, and another degree in education.

After finishing those studies, I slowly found my own path and decided it was time to pick up the paintbrush once again. But I was disappointed with my materials; they didn’t reflect who I was and what I loved. To address this problem, I specialized in old painting techniques. That’s where I finally found the missing piece: my love for natural materials.

A collection of inorganic pigments found in soil, earth layers, rocks and stones. I use a mortar to grind the first time, then sift and grind again…repeating the process until I’m satisfied with the result.

As the years passed, I searched for beauty in simplicity, concentrating on the little things… in my professional career as an artist, but also in my personal life. More and more, nature found its way back into my life, into my work, and it widened my perspective. “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” Albert Einstein said many years ago, and how right he was. Suddenly all was clear. I had come full circle and it was time to fully reclaim my fascination with nature!

I started to dig deeper. The relationship between human, nature, and sustainability became recurring themes in my work. I found beauty in the rough, pure burlap, the homemade gesso, the pigments. I cherished these materials, the craftsmanship, and the cradle-to-cradle way of thinking and working because for me, image and content should strengthen each other, not contradict. Art that explores a theme like sustainability but is made with non-sustainable materials is, in my opinion, a contradiction in terms and a paragon of hypocrisy. It’s bad art no matter how beautiful it is. Harsh? Maybe, but for me that is the underlying principle of sustainable art – it should not become waste! I believe the art world should be progressive and innovative, but in recent years of doing research and treading my path, I have found mostly shut doors, frowning faces, and laughing gallerists unwilling to take this issue seriously. I came to the conclusion that when it comes to sustainability, the art world painfully lags behind.

A display of colors showing the process of the stone becoming paint: Stone, ground roughly, ground into fine pigment, paint sample.

There is still so much art being created with non-sustainable materials, even toxic materials, and artists aren’t taught to think about their production process. It is the art/end product that counts, the art world doesn’t allow itself to see work as possible waste. While we have seen positive change, integration of circular systems, and cradle-to-cradle production in many other fields like design, architecture, manufacturing, and engineering, somehow there is no room for discussion in the arts. Yet we live in a time where there is more art being created than ever before, by professionals, amateurs, hobbyists… It’s an illusion to believe that all of it will be preserved for future generations. Some of it will be worth hanging on to, but let’s face it… most of it will become waste. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Much could be accomplished if the art world was willing to broaden its focus and consider the impact of the artmaking process and the afterlife of artworks in addition to worrying about the end product.

As my work continues to evolve, I am increasingly committed to concentrating not just on the production of an image, but also on the creative process, the source of the materials I use, and on searching for natural and sustainable alternatives. It may sound strange, but I am very proud of now being at a stage where my work process is completely sustainable, the end result cradle-to-cradle. This means that my paintings are completely biodegradable, yet they can be conserved for centuries as well.

A collection of pigments ready for a heating/burning experiment. First I made a little clay mould and added the unrefined pigments. They will be heated in different batches and different temperatures to see whether they change in color and if so, at what temperature. They will be burned until they reach the point of transformation… For example, pigments containing iron oxide will turn into iron at a certain temperature…

Sustainability, climate change, our relationship to the earth we live on and the species we share it with – these are the defining issues of my generation and of the generations to come. The art world should take a stand. It has an important role to play in this changing world.

Art about subjects such as climate change, mass extinction, and wasteful consumption doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. I have found that real, meaningful change stems from positivity. My art is about reconnecting with nature, reviving that sense of wonder and care for all that surrounds us. My art is me, digging deeper, finding a new path, pioneering, inspiring others, doing my bit, hopefully sowing some seeds of change.

Raw burlap, partially covered with homemade gesso. The gesso is made according a very old recipe: with water, bone glue and Bolognese chalk, but I add some clay soil to make for a richer/fatter gesso so it cracks less easily on the burlap.

(Top image: Detail from Down to Earth, 100cm x 100cm, made with natural pigments only and painted on burlap prepared with my own gesso. The painting is 100% biodegradable, so it will never become waste! It can however be kept in a good condition for centuries…)


Dorieke Schreurs currently lives in Maastricht, in the very south of the Netherlands. She studied Fine Arts, Stage Design, Art Education, and specialized in old painting techniques, and combines art with research, science, and education. Optimist and realist, she focuses on sustainability, cradle-to-cradle, nature-inspired solutions, and innovation in work and personal life. She lives a trash-light lifestyle with her husband and sons in a renovated old farmhouse, on a patch of land with fruit trees, vegetable garden, and chickens.

About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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